It’s undeniable that we live in stressful times. Almost everything about modern society lends itself to stress, from concern over the state of environment, to the rising costs of living and the safety of our children. Work is also a significant cause of stress; one which permeates and infects almost every other aspect of our lives. Think about it; if you’re stressed about something at work, you’re probably snappier with your kids, more impatient with your partner, and quicker to let rip with some choice words when someone cuts you off in traffic.
Work stress takes its toll on your private life, but it also, obviously, takes its toll on your work performance. The impact is even wider reaching, however, as business enterprises suffer from lost productivity and profits, and even the international economy feels the impact. The problem has become so serious that, according to Sarah Griswold, many employee assistance programmes have sprung up. These treatment programmes can be government-funded, and in some cases health insurance will cover some of the costs. They generally include behaviour modification therapy, counselling and, sometimes, medication.
Two recent articles, one (US-based) by Sarah Griswold and one (UK-based) by Jennifer Paterson, provide some interesting statistics on stress at work and look at why it’s so important for employers to take responsibility and address the problem.
Griswold cites the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee, which says that 26% of the population needs mental health services per year, but more than two thirds don’t get any treatment. As far as the workplace is concerned, only 15% of employers actually train managers to identify mental illness (and substance abuse) in staff. Failing to indentify and treat mental illness at work can cost companies up to $2000 per employee. Managers who can spot stress symptoms (and who are willing to take action) before they develop into serious performance problems can save their companies a great deal of money, not to mention save employees a great deal of pain.
Paterson cites a survey by a charity called Mind, which found that while 36% of employees believe that employees’ mental health should be a priority for organisations, only 20% feel that their particular employer actively helps staff combat or manage stress. Paterson cites several other surveys on stress in the workplace, including the Axa PPP Healthcare Workplace Wellbeing survey, which found that 73% of employers don’t have mental health initiatives, and 63% don’t train managers to identify symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression in their staff. This is troubling in light of the other figures mentioned, namely that 75% of people in London believe that stress seriously affects their productivity, and that at least 16% have stayed home due to stress.
From these figures, it’s clear that there is a big difference between what employers ought to be doing to help their employees manage stress, and what is actually being done. It’s a situation that is almost unforgivable considering the support structures that are becoming increasingly common, like the initiatives mentioned by Griswold. There are also several specialist coaching companies that offer training for managers to identify early signs of stress in their staff, and to help manage stress more effectively in general.
Self-help stress survival tips
You don’t have to wait for your employer to get with the programme, however, to be able to manage work stress. There are several ways in which you can take back your own life and reduce the dread with which you face each work day.
Here are three top tips:
1. Find your triggers
An article by Mayo Clinic staff recommends that for about two weeks you keep a log of all the situations, events and people that made you feel agitated, stressed or anxious, including how you felt and how you reacted. This allows you to spot patterns, and it also allows you to see your reactions objectively, i.e., whether they were justified and appropriate. Armed with this information, you can see triggers coming and take appropriate action to either avoid the situation or to deal with it in a healthy manner. The key is to start looking for constructive resolutions to the problems, instead of flying off the handle or throwing up your hands in despair.
2. Make yourself a priority
You don’t have to turn into a world-class egocentric to make yourself a priority. All you have to do is start taking care of yourself by eating well, getting some exercise, getting enough sleep and setting aside some time every day for you. Realise that while today’s lifestyle is always-on always-available, you don’t have to be. You can head for the hills for a relaxing weekend away. At the very least you can set aside your Sunday afternoons for some gardening, or pottery, or painting, or reading, or any other hobby that you find soothing and rejuvenating.
3. Become more organised
Start each day by creating a list of tasks in order of priority. Do the most important tasks first, and don’t leave the ones you dread until last. Ensure that your schedule is not so completely full that running overtime in one task will throw out the entire day – give yourself breathing room. Delegate where necessary, and trust others to do a good job. Set realistic goals and break them down into manageable tasks, so that you can achieve several mini-milestones along the way. Keep your workspace tidy and uncluttered. Give yourself time to get into the workspace. If this means getting up 15 minutes earlier, then so be it.
Remember that you aren’t the only one who suffers when you’re stressed. Your friends, family and co-workers all have to deal with your impatience, short temper, poor health and poor performance. If your employers don’t have the means to help you manage your stress, the least you can do is try to manage it yourself.
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Jemima Winslow gave up the rat race for the relative peace of freelancing. Still being new to the experience, she can’t say whether she’s less stressed, but not commuting certainly takes some pain out of the day.