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Workplace stress
Tips for dealing with the pressures of the job
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Karen Kyliuk
May/June 2018

Do you have a tough time making it through your workday?

Perhaps you are at your desk right now and trying to decide which task to tackle first: your backlogged e-mails, mounting paperwork, or projects with competing deadlines? Perhaps your workplace feels like a difficult place to be.

If so, you are not alone. A 2010 StatsCan report says 27 per cent of Canadian workers say they are highly stressed, and about 62 per cent of them say their workplace is the main source of their stress. It is important to recognize that for some people, work can be a very stressful place. This may require thoughtful reflection on whether the work you are doing is right for you, or whether the workplace you are in is a healthy one.

Workplace stress is often cumulative and is associated with feeling that things are out of control, or perhaps the opposite: feeling that your work is mundane and tiresome. Workplace stress can lead to real and observable physical and emotional tensions that many researchers believe may put us at greater risk of illness, such as heart disease, muscle tension, depression or anxiety problems.

There are many causes for workplace stress, and individuals respond to these stresses in many ways. There are, however, some common factors that may contribute to workplace stress. One main factor is the feeling of being overworked that often comes with unmanageable workloads and deadlines, missing breaks, working through lunch, taking work home or staying late without much impact on work output.

Other reasons may be the fear of impending work layoffs, conflict with colleagues or your boss, or feeling like you are in the wrong career.

It is important to recognize that stress is a normal part of everyday life, and can be good when it helps us to focus and have the energy we need to perform our daily tasks in an alert and productive way. But when stress feels out of control or is interfering with our ability to complete regular daily tasks, then it may be time to pay attention.

Often people trudge along and don't realize the impact stress is having on them until they are totally exhausted or even sick. Some early warning signs that you may want to watch for are: feeling overwhelmed, recurrent feelings of job dissatisfaction, difficulty completing tasks, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, irritability or mood changes, stomach upset, headaches, low morale at work, difficulties in other relationships at home or with friends, and even increased use of substances such as alcohol or drugs.

Sometimes workplace stress is not related to workload, but to things like bullying, harassment, and conflict with colleagues. These kinds of issues are often beyond our control and resolving them might require help from a manager or human resources. Finding out about your workplace policies and procedures may be a good place to start.

Managing workplace stress may require both an individual response and organizational change.

Here are simple strategies you can try today:

  • Take an inventory of what you like, dislike about your job. Is it possible to increase more of what you like?
  • Connect with co-workers in a meaningful way (take breaks and lunch with colleagues which, reduces your aloneness and will increase your psychological support).
  • Talk to your manager about workload issues and what to prioritize, postpone or even delegate.
  • Find time in your workday to enjoy a "me" moment (take a brisk walk, savour your favourite treat, or call a friend during a break).
  • Transition from work to home. At the end of each day, check off your accomplished tasks, write down your priority list for tomorrow and reflect on a few good moments in your day. The positive reflection ends the day on an optimistic note. This simple strategy allows the transition from work to home to happen in a planned way so that as you drive home you can let go of work and focus on the people, activities, and other valued moments in your life.

Many workplaces also have employee assistance programs that have counsellors who can support people in learning stress management skills, offer guidance in career planning, and who may advocate in situations that include bullying, harassment or interpersonal conflict.

Work is a part of who we are, but we need to nurture other aspects of our lives as well. Many people find meaning and purpose in life outside of work by learning something new (music or art), volunteering (what are you passionate about?), doing leisure activities and hobbies, or just chilling out (listen to music and enjoy a peaceful Saturday morning in your backyard or in the park).

Clearly, workplace stress is a complicated issue, but taking these first steps can help you deal with some of the underlying causes of workplace stress and put you on the road to a happier, healthier life.

Karen Kyliuk is a mental-health resource and educator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Build a healthy workplace

The importance of creating and maintaining a healthy workplace has been recognized by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which has developed the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, a document designed to underscore the importance of keeping workers safe, engaged and productive. The document describes a psychologically safe workplace as "one that does not permit harm to employees' mental health in careless, negligent, reckless or intentional ways."

A free download of the standard is available here.

Are you experiencing stress?

How is your work-life balance? Answer the following questions:

  • I feel like I have little or no control over my workload.
  • I rarely enjoy hobbies or interests outside of work.
  • I often feel unappreciated at work.
  • I feel guilty because I can't make time for friends and family.
  • I frequently feel anxious or upset because of my work.
  • I rarely have enough time to spend with people I care about.
  • When I'm at home, I find it hard to relax.
  • I rarely take breaks or lunch.
  • I have been having problems in relationships at work or at home.
  • I often have headaches or muscle aches during or after work.
  • I find it hard to concentrate or complete work tasks.
  • On most days, I feel overwhelmed.

The more items you answered "yes" to, the more likely workplace stress is affecting your life. Talking to someone (perhaps your doctor or a counsellor) about the workplace stress you are experiencing is an important step toward balance. Each of these statements are red flags to alert us to pay attention to our well-being and include self-care throughout the day. Work-life balance is not something you achieve; instead it is something you can work toward, maintain, and enhance every day.