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Thu 16 Jun 2016 11:18 AM

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Beware the dangers of occupational stress

Stress costs organisations billions of dollars a year. But being aware of stress, and introducing a few new activities to your workday, could change all that

Beware the dangers of occupational stress

Stress costs organisations billions of dollars a year. But being aware of stress, and introducing a few new activities to your workday, could change all that

Again the concept of ‘stress’ at work has appeared in the popular media, with authors linking stress with sleep problems and an increase in Karoshi (‘death from overwork’).

The negative impact of ‘stress’ isn't new but it continues to be something we need to manage as individuals and as leaders of organisations

'Occupational Stress', the experienced incompatibility between the demands placed upon us through our work (such as quantity, cognitive requirements and interpersonal relationships) and our perceived ability to cope with these stressors, costs organisations and the economy billions of dollars each year.

These costs arise from sickness absence, lost productivity, reduced performance, compensation claims and staff attrition.  

The individual costs are potentially greater and can include chronic fatigue, ‘burnout’, career derailment, depression and anxiety - and that’s before we consider physical ailments such as heart disease, joint pain, stomach complaints and other more serious illnesses linked to harmful stress hormones, such as cancer.

It is common for ‘stress’ to impact sleep negatively, if we are over-activated at the end of a work day and fail to recover during leisure time, an effect of this is reduced quality and efficiency of sleep.

Sleep is a restorative function and it is necessary for the optimal and fundamental performance of mental and physical tasks. Prevailing thought indicates we need a core amount of sleep for optimal functioning (five to eight hours for most individuals). Bottom line it makes sense for leaders to pay attention to stress. 

All that said, we need a certain amount of ‘healthy stress’ to function, but it depends on our psycho-physiological makeup as to the consequences and how we should offset adverse effects.

There are three tactics we can employ to reduce work stress: Remove the stressor, change our appraisal and use coping strategies.

Jonathan Rook is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. He is an expert at leadership assessment, development and c-level coaching

Removing the stressor could include ensuring work related activities are not undertaken outside of the ‘working day’ - easier said than done in this technological age. 

In extreme cases removing the stressor may include changing jobs. There is also the option of designing jobs so that they are less stressful, for example by giving employees (perceived) greater control over their work, or reducing their span of responsibility.

Organisations may also design ergonomic work spaces or modify shift patterns to ensure regular breaks and vacations. 

Changing our appraisal of stressful situations can include re-framing core beliefs and ideas we have about individual events.

 A coach may help us to change the way we think about ‘stressors’, so they no longer become stressful and activate the stress response. We may also use psychometrics to coach people to be more assertive, less emotional in their appraisals of stressors, to help them better align their preferences to the job they choose and to develop resilience.

There is also help in terms of time management and developing greater emotional intelligence.

Coping strategies include ensuring that we recover properly during times of leisure or non-work time. Recovery is the process of replenishing the depleted resources or rebalancing suboptimal systems.

It is evident, from mine and others research that we should stimulate active engagement in leisure activities, particularly those which are different to our work tasks.

Physical activity is a great recovery activity because it acts as a stress reliever and dissipates harmful stress hormones. Something as simple as promoting physical activities during lunch breaks or ensuring employees reach closure before leaving the office is helpful.

Techniques for healthy sleep include cognitive closure, lowering body-core temperature and modifying work schedules which promote balance.

There is also growing evidence that ancient techniques such as meditation, Yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi-Gong are helpful promoting ‘mindfulness’, deep breathing and mental focus.

Ultimately there are things we can do in our battle to reduce the individual and organisational costs of stress; things that don’t cost the earth but would radically change our experience of living on it.

Innovative HR
(IHS) is one of the largest teams of Occupational Psychologists and learning and development specialists operating in the Gulf.  We work with
organisations to select, assess and develop leadership, talent and teams, and
support organisational development through the design and implementation of
world-class Strategic HR Frameworks.