Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 15 August 2018

'It was one of the most stressful periods of my life' - Workplace stress is more common than you think

Research has found that a shocking 18pc of workplace absences are due to stress, anxiety and depression. And a working culture which never lets us switch off is only adding to the problem. Our reporter on what we can do to tackle it

Photo: Depositphotos
Photo: Depositphotos
'Avoid placing unwarranted work-related stress on yourself'
Stress can come in the form of job loss or age-related insecurity; office politics often also have a role to play

Áilín Quinlan

When he landed a sought-after promotion, Henry*, a business executive in his thirties, was thrilled - but his elation quickly turned to anxiety and debilitating stress. Because, along with the promotion, he got a new boss.

"Looking back now," recalls Henry, "he saw me as a bit of a threat to his own position."

"He'd arrange meetings and not invite me, even though it was my role to attend."

Very quickly, Henry started to feel alienated. Although all of his corporate targets and milestones were being achieved on schedule, he was receiving no positive feedback from senior figures in the firm.

"There was a weird silence from high-level people in the company who should have been, at the very least, positive about the results we were getting. These excellent results were primarily down to me and my team but the positive response wasn't happening."

The ensuing stress and anxiety Henry experienced eventually resulted in physical symptoms.

"I ended up getting so stressed that I had a constant stiff neck and back pains. I realised later I was holding stress physically in my body."

Eventually, a co-worker quietly told Henry about the constant negative feedback that was being relayed to senior executives by his new boss.

"He'd speak to very senior people in the organisation in a very negative way about me," says Henry. "Senior executives in the company who didn't know me at all had started to treat me as if I was a potential problem.

"They were going by the feedback that they were getting by my boss while I was getting on doing my job.

"I was told that some people tried to counter-argue because they could see the result my team and I were getting but the boss put it down to luck."

Finally Henry fought back, bringing the figures he and his team had achieved to a high-level executive in the organisation.

"He acknowledged that, in the light of the results I was getting, the feedback that was being given about me was very unfair. He started to observe more closely and things started to change."

Eventually it was acknowledged that misrepresentation was happening and action was taken to deal with the situation.

"This all happened over about eight months and it was one of the most stressful periods of my life," Henry recalls.

Workplace stress is common - research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2016 found that work-related stress, anxiety and depression accounted for about 18pc of workplace absences. The research found the average length of absence in Ireland in the year 2013 was 17 days for stress, anxiety and depression. The average duration for other types of work-related illness was 12.8 days.

Another study, published in 2015, found that more than 80pc of workers were experiencing increased stress levels, which it was warned, was having a knock-on impact on everything from productivity and staff morale to staffing levels.

An increasing number of patients are reporting high levels of workplace stress, says GP and lifestyle medicine expert Dr Mark Rowe, who says people are feeling the ill effects of being "over-emailed" and suffering from 'present-ism'.

"People are getting hundreds of emails a day," says Dr Rowe, adding that patients report feeling that they can never be 'off'.

"They go home from work and are back on their laptops for two or three hours.

"They're bringing their laptops on holiday with them so they won't have to face thousands of emails when they get back.

"I'm seeing a lot of people being ground down by present-ism; by never being off.

"We need down time, we need to recharge and to be able to recover. But people are not recovering adequately from stress because they are always on a chronic, constant low burn," he warns, adding that the fact that there is now a Workplace Wellbeing Day on April 13 highlights the importance of this as a key issue.

The workplace can make you sick, he explains, "when perceived demands on and expectations of you exceed the resources you have and your ability to deal with those demands."

Symptoms of burnout, says Rowe, include emotional exhaustion.

"This means you feel emotionally flat, apathetic and washed out, have lost your spark and joie de vivre and don't care about yourself or others."

A sense of a lack of personal accomplishment is another big indicator. He says: "You feel that no matter how hard you work you're not getting enough done," while a lack of connectivity with others and a tendency to being hypersensitive to criticism is another sign. Other symptoms include exhaustion, depression, anxiety, poor sleep, irritability, lack of enjoyment, feeling low and a sense of hopelessness about the future, warns Dr Rowe.

For Jackie *, however, the main problem was being unable to say no.

After seven years running a highly successful sales and marketing division for a large international company, the outgoing executive was exhausted.

Despite the company's success, staffing levels in her department were appallingly inadequate and she was, she recalls now, regularly doing the work of three people.

"The stress came from my inability to say no. I am extremely efficient. The work was piled on me and because of my own over-diligence I kept doing it and because it was being done to a high standard my boss didn't feel the need to hire anyone else until I became ill. I was working myself to death."

After several years of this, she began to experience severe panic attacks. Next she stopped being able to sleep - "I was getting about two hours sleep a night." This was followed by exhaustion and a diagnosis of severe burnout.

Jackie eventually left and set up her own thriving company.

"I'd wanted to go out on my own for a long time," she recalls now - and she's glad she did.

A boss's behaviour can have a major impact on employee wellness, believes former corporate executive Mary Lou Nolan, who now runs Cor Consulting, which provides mentoring and other services to corporate executives, boards and leadership teams.

"Stress in the workplace is very common - statistics show 80pc of people will suffer from workplace stress at some stage, especially in the corporate sector," she declares.

There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from fear of job loss because of a company reorganisation to downward pressure from falling revenues, or age-related insecurity, she says.

"All of this can manifest in anxiety and sleep disruption; you have people waking up at 3am with worries on the mind. It trickles into their life as well as their work," she says, adding that if the situation continues, the anxiety can lead to sleep deprivation and other, subsequent issues.

"It can leads to problems such as a less balanced perspective which in turn feeds back into anxiety, affecting a person's behaviour.

"This has a negative impact on their feelings and anxiety," she says, adding however that employers can help by making the necessary wellness tools available, such as information on how to manage sleep, exercise and diet.

However, she observes, in her experience, the biggest pressure in the workplace is "bad behaviour by a boss."

"There are a lot of external coaches working to bring awareness to change these behaviours and work with an individual to improve their behaviour."

One of the major workplace stressors is lack of control, believes Dr Keith Gaynor, a senior clinical psychologist with St John of God's Hospital.

"We see a lot of people who would be stressed over work - it's one of the big stressors," he says.

"Things can become very stressful for example, if you have an unreasonable deadline being suddenly imposed on you.

"This brings on a lack of control - for example, that you now have to liaise with 10 other people on a particular project instead of just doing it yourself."

Another big factor in terms of workplace stress is office politics, he warns.

"People say 'I love the work bit of my job but the part that is really stressful is office politics'."

Inter-departmental bickering can also cause stress, and can be very difficult to manage, he points out, while the inevitable clash of contrasting personalities in the workplace can also cause immense friction.

"There can be people who are very dominant and those who are less so. There are people who like order and those who like chaos.

"It's about management of the personalities," he explains, adding that this is very often ignored by managers.

"There's a need to have a long-term view of employees rather than focusing on what is needed in terms of production to make sufficient profit."

Furthermore, he observes, if a company has a policy of 'using up' employees in the struggle to achieve certain targets, it can result in resentment, burnout or high staff turnover.

Companies need to take a long-term view of their employees, he says, adding however, that workers also need to recognise that stress is part of life, and take responsibility for learning how to manage it:

"While we focus on our work we must also focus on the stress that comes with it," he says, adding that it's important to deal with stress effectively, whether through meditation, exercise, seeing friends, taking regular holidays or having interest outside work.

"We cannot expect to have a job without stress. We need to have a plan for stress management and be disciplined about it.

"We often neglect or ignore this or we tell ourselves we shouldn't need to do this, but every human being needs a plan to deal with their stress."

We should always beware of placing unwarranted work-related stress on ourselves, warns Dr Rowe:

"People often have a narrow definition of success in terms of paycheque or place on the pecking order but there are many ways to definite success. You need to define your situation in the totality of your life, your energy, your health, your career and so on.

"You should listen to yourself, be good to yourself and treat yourself as you would like others to treat you," he advises.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy. Next week, in part 2 of our series, we look at the Irish companies who are promoting wellness at work

Learn how to cope

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'Avoid placing unwarranted work-related stress on yourself'
 

* Acknowledge that workplace-related stress is part of your life. Have tried-and-trusted techniques that work for you, whether that involves exercise, meditation or an engaging  hobby, recommends Dr Keith Gaynor.

* Get adequate sleep - many people don't seem to realise the importance of sleep, says Dr Mark Rowe, and many of us are subsequently often severely sleep-deprived, which adds to our stress levels. We need seven-and-a-half to eight hours sleep a night, and keep devices out of the bedroom because the blue wavelength light instructs the brain's pineal gland to shut down melatonin production - melatonin is crucial to help us to get to sleep and to enjoy good quality restful sleep.

* Take regular exercise - at least 30 minutes a day of moderately intense exercise which leaves you slightly out of breath

* Intersperse your day's work with short breaks - every 90 minutes, try for either a five-minute break or simply switch task.

* Move around - don't sit at your desk for eight hours. "We know from lifestyle medicine that moving around is as important as exercise," says Dr Rowe, who recommends standing up, stretching, or walking to the water cooler every half hour to 50 minutes. He also says you could suggest 'walk-and-talk' meetings to colleagues instead of traditional sit-downs.

* Ensure that you have periods of "downtime" in your day - walk at lunchtime, practise conscious 'switching off' from the stresses of your work in the evening, or even just use your commute home to power down.

* Consciously slow down your breathing to four or five breaths a minute, for example before or after a big meeting - this dampens down the stress response and calms you. It also reminds you that you are in control.

* Avoid placing unwarranted work-related stress on yourself - remember your success as a person encompasses the totality of your life as a human being, and not just how you are doing at work. Dr Rowe says: "Treat yourself as well as you would like other people to treat you."

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, there are a number of helplines you can call, including the Samaritans on 116 123 , or Aware on 1800 80 48 48

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