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Workplace Stress is an Everyday Occurrence, but Does it Have to Be?

by The Human Equation, Inc. on 7/14/2010
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For many of us in the workforce, stress has become as much a part of our daily routine as going to work in the morning. It rears its ugly head as we're getting the kids ready for school, takes a seat in the carpool for the long drive to work, and undoubtedly shares a cubicle with us as we work through the daily grind.

According to the American Institute of Stress, work-related pressures and fears are the leading causes of stress in American adults. In fact, nearly one in four workers cite their job as the number one stressor in their life, with job stress being linked to health complaints more strongly than either financial or family problems.

The statistics don't lie. The American workforce is stressed out, and this is not a new phenomenon. In the early 1990's, work-related stress was labeled "The 20th Century Disease," and just a few years later, the World Health Organization reported that it had become a "World Wide Epidemic."

Before you stress about workplace stress, however, let's look at some facts. First of all, some stress is normal, and small amounts of stress are even good for you. For example, the increased stress you feel when taking a test makes you more alert and motivated, resulting in better performance. Good stress, often termed positive stress, can motivate you to perform at higher levels, overcome challenging situations, and live up to your potential. If you were completely relaxed all of the time, you would become bored and fail to perform your best.

The problem arises when your stress level rises too much. If most aspects of your life cause you stress, and that stress is constant and prolonged, you may be in danger of health and mental problems.

According to the World Health Organization, 72 percent of Americans experience stress-related physical or mental problems frequently, and as many as 90 percent of doctor's visits are attributed to stress.

And it is a problem affecting not only employees, but employers as well. Ira S. Wolfe, author of Business Values and Motivators: What Fills Your Employee Buckets, says workers who report workplace stress incur 46 percent higher health care costs than non-stressed employees. That's nearly $600 more per employee, a financial burden borne by the employer.

Actually, stressful working conditions can affect a company's bottom line in many ways. Studies show that stress on the job is associated with increased absenteeism. From 1996 to 2000, the number of employees calling in sick due to stress tripled, with an estimated 1 million workers absent from work on a daily basis because of stress.

Stress also accounts for 40 percent of job turnover, resulting in added expenses for employers, since replacing an employee can cost anywhere between $3,000 to $13,000.

Though the numbers are staggering, there are ways to remedy or at least alleviate stress, and both employers and employees can help.

Offer stress-management training. The best programs educate workers on the causes of stress, preventative measures that can be taken, and ways to cope with stress when it occurs. In addition, stress management training often helps workers manage their time effectively and provides them with relaxation techniques to combat stress.

Provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). The goal of EAPs is to improve employees' mental health and well-being by offering counseling for employees with work or personal problems. These programs are often very cost-effective.

Improve working conditions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that instituting a program that pinpoints the environmental stressors in a job helps to identify the root causes of stress and thus reduce them.

Consider the worker. Some companies offer workplace massages to ease stress, while others provide their employees with ergonomic desk chairs. According to the NIOSH, organizational cultures that value the individual worker often have healthy, relaxed workers and high levels of productivity.

"A combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work," states a NIOSH report. In addition, something as simple as acknowledging an employee's good work or emphasizing the opportunity for growth within the company can lead to increased productivity and decreased levels of stress.

Stress must also be tackled at the individual level, by the employee, which makes sense, since stress and what causes it differs from person to person.

"Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon that's different for each of us," says Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress. "There's no stress reduction strategy that's a panacea."

Not everyone is the same, and what one person finds stressful may not be stressful for someone else. Some people thrive in high-pressure environments where they have to jump from deadline to deadline, while others prefer routine jobs that require the performance of tasks over and over again. The individual who thrives in one setting is likely to be stressed in the other.

The key, then, is learning to read the warning signs, pinpointing what causes your stress, and figuring out which strategies work best for you. Once you are able to determine the causes of your stress, you then need to determine how to control them.

Work-related stress is often linked to a lack of control. "Stress is created by not being able to have an influence, by abrupt change, by being asked to do things and not having clear instructions or expectations spelled out for you," says Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Living Your Best Life.

If the stressor is something you have the power to change, then you should go about changing it. If not, then you need to either accept the situation or let it go.

Ultimately, you must find a sense of balance in your everyday life. Here are some tips on how to do so.

Set realistic goals and standards. You are your worst critic, and so it is imperative that you set realistic goals for yourself. Understand that you are just one person, that you cannot do everything, and that you are doing the best that you can.

Realize that organization goes a long way. Being organized is often the fine line between working harder and working smarter. Find the most efficient way to get the job done, and you'll eliminate the amount of time it takes to do it.

Set priorities. "To Do" lists can go on for pages at a time, and the truth is that this won't change. What can change is how you prioritize your responsibilities. Not everything needs to be done right away, and by doing the most important things first, only the small things are left undone when you run out of time.

Make your schedule more flexible. Stress comes when you set deadlines that are so rigid they are almost impossible to meet. If you expect the unexpected and schedule a little "wiggle room" into your day, you are less likely to stress out when something pops up.

Ask for help. There's nothing wrong with asking for help. Ask your co-workers to lend a helping hand, or, if the demands are too much, speak to a supervisor about ways to manage your workload.

It might also help to find an activity outside of work that makes you happy. For some people, that might be exercising, while for others, it might be something as simple as cooking a meal or spending more time with the kids. Communicating your frustrations and laughing will also help to alleviate stress.

Stress has become a mainstay in the American workforce, and it's likely to remain so. In the meantime, however, by practicing some of these techniques, you can reduce your stress and enjoy a more balanced, productive life.

If you would like to learn more about dealine with your workforce, check out our Human Resources library.

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Categories: 2010, Human Resources

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