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Relieving Stress: About Workplace Stress and How to Deal With It

Work related stress is a common characteristic of working in the modern world. What is stress and what can be done to prevent it and reduce its negative effects?

Workplace stress is considered to be the global pandemic of the 21st century.
In the USA, 83% of workers reported feeling stressed at work in 2013 (data from the American Institute of Stress).
In Europe, 50% of workers reported a significant feeling of stress, and stress is behind half of the days of absence from work (according to data from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, OSHA-2013).

In an article published in 2019 and surveying the relation between constant (chronic) stress in the past two weeks and the loss of at least one work day among 18,000 workers in Denmark, a significant increase of 25% - 43% (the lower value among men and the higher value among women) was found in the loss of at least one workday and the feeling of stress.
Here too, in Israel, 46% of workers reported experiencing mental stress according to a survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics from 2016.

What is mental stress?

Stress is an assessment by an individual that a specific demand uses all of his or her mental resources or exceeds them. If a person thinks that a demand is threatening his or her well-being or is harmful (for example, at work - “I can’t meet the deadline set for submitting the report; I will have to work day and night to finish it in time and cancel my social engagements for the coming week.”), he or she may experience negative emotions accompanied by a physiological response. The accumulation of negative emotions is detrimental to mental and physical health, both directly and indirectly, by continually depleting a person's resources for coping.

The assumption is that the severity of physical and mental symptoms increases as stressful events and stress situations increase in intensity, frequency and accumulated effect. However, interpersonal differences exist in the relative effect of various stress situations and in vulnerability to stress.

How does stress affect our physical and mental health?

The effects of stress on physical and mental health have been studied extensively. It was found that stress affects heart diseases, respiratory illnesses, diseases of the immune system and diabetes, among other things, by increasing the body's inflammatory response. Stress also influences health and mental well-being, for example by contributing to the development and increase of depression and anxiety.

The effect of workplace stress on organizational measurements

Workplace stress is also detrimental to organizations measurements: productivity and performance go down and absence from work, attrition, accidents and injury increase. The overall cost of work-related stress for organizations and society has been estimated as milliards of Euros every year in the UK and between 200 and 300 milliard dollars in the USA, due to loss of workdays and medical problems resulting from stress.

What causes workspace stress?

Workspace stress can result from many things:

  • Work overload (too many tasks and not enough time to complete them).
  • Conflicts between demands by various position holders at work (for example: setting concurrent conflicting requirements by a direct manager and a colleague)
  • Poor work conditions.
  • Lack of job security.
  • Unclear tasks (“I don't know what I’m expected to do”).
  • Too little or too much responsibility at work.

Workspace stress intervention

The good news is that something can be done about it! Both at the individual level (you as an employee) and at the organizational level (actions taken by the employer). Workspace stress interventions are divided into three types:

Primary interventions - changing stress causes: these allow people to avoid the causes of stress and prevent its negative implications. For example, adopting methods for effective time management and time allocation at work and correct methods for managing conflicts between different position holders. These are specific methods that are implemented at the level of the employee.
The organization may also take several steps to reduce the stress experienced by workers, for example:

  • By improving recruitment and placement processes so that employees are better matched with their roles.
  • By providing employees with training and guidance at work to clarify expectations and work requirements.
  • By changing the way task are assigned to employees in order to reduce the load at workstations or on specific employees.
  • By introducing challenges, diversity and discipline to routine roles.
  • By improving the management skills of managers so that their relations with subordinates are better and by improving communication between different levels in the organization.

Tips to managers

  • Provide positive feedback to employees for their good work!
  • Express appreciation of their efforts.
  • Express support for employees who are going through a rough period.
  • Treat everyone fairly and without bias.
  • Set clear and realistic goals.
  • Set a personal example for employees.
  • Create a safe work environment.
  • Offer flexible work arrangements.
  • Encourage mindfulness and physical activity to prevent prolonged sedentariness by employees.
  • Make sure that employees have healthy sleep habits.

Secondary interventions - changing stress perceptions: changing the perception of an event or situation so that it is perceived as more positive by the individual. For example: “Things are not as bad as they first seem”; “I've successfully been through similar situations in the past” You can use methods of relaxation, guided imagery, yoga, meditation or mindfulness and others to promote relaxation and a more positive attitude towards stress.
A video about mindfulness - the Ministry of Health (Hebrew)

The organization can distribute questionnaires to examine the stresses experienced by employees and decide on ways to relieve them. It is also recommended to implement plans to promote the health of employees that also address the issue of stress. Such plans were found by research to reduce absences and increase employee satisfaction and willingness to remain with the organization.
Efsharibari at work guide (Hebrew)

Tertiary interventions: this means addressing the results of stress after the fact, for example: Through medical or psychological treatment, plans for returning to work and occupational rehabilitation after a breakdown.
It should be noted that primary interventions are the most effective, the effectiveness of secondary interventions is lower, and the effectiveness of tertiary interventions is the lowest.

So how to begin? Tips for first steps: it is recommended to start with a diagnosis of stress and its causes within the organization using questionnaires for managers and employees. Then you can discuss effective ways to address any issues raised by the questionnaires with representatives from all levels of the organization. At the individual level, you can use the plentiful information that is available on the internet regarding relaxation technics, meditation and mindfulness.

For further reading

Psychosocial risks and stress at work - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
Workplace stress
Stress at Work - CDC