A Manager’s Guide to Stress in the Workplace

January 17, 2013

What is stress?

Stress is defined by a feeling of being under too much emotional or mental pressure.

A recent Australian study suggested that half of us are likely to experience stress at some point in our lives. The economic crisis has certainly not helped, buy burdening many of us with financial worries as we struggle to find work, story or put in extra hours to keep our jobs. In fact, according to the Trade Union Congress (TUC), we are working an average 7 hours every week in overtime.

1 in 3 people take time off from work with stress each year. According to the NHS, the condition represents 1 in 5 GP appointments, and the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) recorded a 7% increase in stress-related admissions compared with the previous year, in the twelve months leading up to May 2012.

It seems that the most affected groups are 18 – 24 year olds, with 2 in every 3 people in this age group taking time off with stress each year, and workers aged 50 and over. In a study of heart attack patients, University College Cork found that males in this age group were four times more likely to have stressful jobs.

Evidently, workplace stress is a serious concern. As a manager, it is essential to understand the causes of workplace stress, to recognise the symptoms and to put in place effective coping strategies to maintain a healthy working environment.

Why do we feel stressed?

photo credit: Royal Sapien via photopin cc

Stress is our natural, often helpful reaction to the stressors in our environment. Thousands of years ago, we developed two main responses to immediate danger: fight or flight. In other words, we would either fight off our attackers or run to safety. To give ourselves a temporary boost, our bodies learned to release hormones into the bloodstream, sending oxygen to our muscles where it was needed, and making our hearts beat faster to cope.

While our primitive descendants were regularly faced with predators and violence, the stressors in our modern lives often require less physical action – for example, worrying about completing a report on time, or computers crashing – but our bodily response is the same. Without a physical outlet for our stress hormones, they circulate the body and we experience the symptoms of anxiety and stress.

What are the symptoms of stress?

The symptoms of stress are wide-ranging and can affect people in different ways. Symptoms can be both physical and behavioural.

Some of the most common physical symptoms include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Clammy hands
  • Racing heart
  • Tension
  • Tiredness
  • Migraine
  • Digestive problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Indigestion
  • Minor frequent hyperventilation
  • Sexual problems
  • Skin complaints
  • Dizziness
  • Crying
  • Insomnia.

Common behavioural symptoms include:

  • Feeling irritable or short-tempered
  • Vagueness and a lack of concentration
  • Neglecting our appearance
  • Fidgeting
  • Finding it difficult to make decisions.

Dealing with stress in the workplace

Fortunately, there are many things you can do as a manager to take care of your workforce.

Ensure that your employees take regular breaks from work, including a minimum of 30 minutes for lunch. During busy periods, people will often work through their lunch hours, but this is extremely damaging to their health and wellbeing. A short break is sometimes enough to make them feel refreshed and productive. Particularly encourage them to take their breaks outdoors, as it is well-documented that time spent in nature can have a positive effect on mood.

Do not overcrowd employees’ schedules with an unreasonable workload. Feeling out of control is a common stress trigger so, wherever possible, give employees the opportunity to manage their own time and to make their own decisions.

Look out for signs of stress among your employees. Make sure there is somebody they can go to for professional, confidential advice and support, and consider arranging a course at work where they can learn self-help techniques.

By simply being aware of the causes and symptoms of stress, and putting into place simple stress-management techniques, you will be able to effectively take care of your employees’ health and wellbeing.

Vikki is a freelance writer who works alongside Thaliwal Bridge mental health lawyers. When she’s feeling particularly stressed out, she enjoys relaxing with a Pilates class and a cup of calming green tea.

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