Last year in the UK 11.7 million working days were lost to businesses due to stress and the impact was huge in terms of lost revenue, inefficiency, low productivity and low employee retention.
The physical impacts of stress can be tracked easilt enough through those who are signed off by GP’s with stress, but often time off work due to stress is not so obvious. People may not make it to work for a variety of other apparent ‘reasons’, like headaches and migraines, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, high blood pressure and (because long term stress impacts our immune system), colds and flu.
However, the impact of stress on buisinesses doesn’t only manifest in absenteeism and lost hours. People don’t have to be off sick for stress to impact their performance.
We know that stress leads to poor concentration and low motivation and confidence and because the chemicals released into our system to enable us to deal with stress make it difficult for us to think clearly, our memory is impacted negatively, we can find problem solving difficult and make poor decisions.
In addition, the impact of stress goes way beyond lost hours and sick pay when you consider the increase in accidents and complaints when people are not performing at their best.
And then of course, there’s the impact of stress on home and family lives. Stress can lead to a miserable time at home as well as at work. It causes us to be less patient and short tempered and to snap at our nearest and dearest. It creates withdrawal and disconnection from those who care about us and from social activities. Sometimes, we find that we no longer have the inclination or energy to do the things we love doing. And unfortunately if we’re not doing things that make us feel better, that in turn affects how we perform at work.
So all in all stress isn’t great and when that stress is related specifically to the workplace, it’s a genuine risk to the business.
So what causes work related stress?
Research has shown that most work related stress is due to perceived high workloads and unrealistic deadlines and a subsequent state of overwhelm. Conversely it can also be caused by percevied insufficient workloads, leading to people feeling undervalued. Either way these are things that feel out of our control. If we are set tight deadlines and given too much work we can’t change that. If our company is in trouble and going through a restructure there is nothing we can do to stop that. Under these circumstances it can feel like stress is being put upon us and we don’t have any choice and perceived lack of choice is a major stress inducer in itself.
What can we do about it?
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” Shakespeare
To put Shakespeare’s quote in more modern terms: it isn’t what happens to us that dictates our levels of stress, it’s how we think about what happens to us that does. This is where a little bit of good stress can be useful! Yes, there is such a thing!
The “threat stress” we feel when we’re overwhelmed is not good, but there is also “challenge stress”. Challenge stress is the stress we feel when faced with a challenge. Forinstance, when we need to stand up and give a presentation, run 10k’s, or take an exam. That’s challenge stress and it’s good stress.
You see, a challenge is something we can tackle and overcome and when faced with a challenge, our brain can’t help but look for a solution to enable us to overcome it.
When we are faced with a threat, our brain goes in to fight or flight mode. Our system is flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol, in order to prepare us for the coming situation. This is great if we are faced with a sabre tooth tiger, but it;s not great if we are in a team meeting! Cortisol doesn’t just increase our heart rate and get us ready to flee. Cortisol also fogs our brain, making it more difficult for us to take information in. So it slows down our creative thinking processes, so that we can put all of our attention into running and so impedes on our ability to identify the best route to take.
So how can we change ‘threat stress’ in to ‘challenge stress’?
A subtle, yet significant change in how we are thinking about it gets us on the right track.
Let’s say we’re given a tight deadline on a piece of work and our instant reaction is “I’m never going to be able to do this”. Our brain looks at that information and classifies it as a threat – this is something we can’t do. And because we are sure we can’t do it our brain doesn’t even try to find a solution – why on earth would we waste energy on trying to find a solution to something that we know we can’t do when we really need to give all our energy over to the fight or flight response for this threat.
Take the same piece of work, on the same deadline but this time we have a different reaction. This time we look at the situation and say “wow, this is tough, how am I going to be able to do this?” A subtle difference but an important one for our brain. Our brain now sees this situation as a problem to solve, one that requires a bit of “challenge stress” not threat stress. It can afford to give it some energy and time as we aren’t trying to run away from it. Without the cortisol slowing down our thought processes we are able to think more clearly, and start taking action, something that gives us a sense of achievement as we are moving in the right direction rather than feeling stuck and panicked.
So the good news is we can take back some control from stress caused by work. Can we change the deadlines? Maybe not. Can we change our workload? Possibly not. Can we change how we choose to think about it? Yes. Can we choose how we react to it? Absolutely!
Work can be stressful, but that doesn’t mean we have to be stressed.