Everyone has stress. It’s one of the most natural human reactions. When faced with a conflict, a controversy, or any kind of ambiguity, usually the response that is triggered is what we call ‘fight or flight’. The period we spend deciding what we’re actually going to do, meaning if we are going to put up a fight or just run, is what creates stress, and the more time it’s taking for us to make that choice, the more stressed we feel.
Specifically for work stress, things are not really that different. Many jobs are by default adding more pressure than others. For example, an ER doctor must make quick calls and each decision they make might literally be about life or death. Therefore, stress in the workplace is not necessarily something bad.
What is indeed bad, is gaslighting: being in a work environment with no sense of accountability, where all your emotions are being undermined and overlooked. Phrases like: ‘you’re overreacting’, ‘I think you’re too soft with yourself’, ‘maybe you just need to try harder’, ‘maybe you are not good enough’, are probably a good representation of a work environment that doesn’t prioritize mental health and instead causes extra (usually unnecessary) stress.
Signs of Work Stress
Before diving more into the organizational power dynamics that provoke stress, it’s important to identify the signs of work stress, since many people face a challenge when it comes to identifying their emotions and labeling their symptoms.
First of all, not everyone that is stressed knows it. There are people that will very openly express themselves, and these are usually the ones that suffer the least, since they validate their emotional state instead of denying it and they are perfectly capable of expressing themselves as well. To put it simply: when you let the stress out, it doesn’t stay in, and that is a good thing.
On the other hand, there are people that have no idea that they are stressed but at the same time they might be experiencing troubles sleeping, lack of energy, fatigue, hair loss, acne, sexual challenges, without however making the connection that all these indicators are the result of their underlying, extensive stress.
Work stress has the particularity that it can be severely prolonged before we start understanding that there is something wrong. We are so used to ideas like ‘no pain no gain’ and ‘whatever means necessary’, that in a sense we basically expect work stress as part of our professional experience, as if having work-life balance or enjoying work, is something wrong and we shouldn’t deserve the promotion/ the bonus/ the raise, just because we didn’t suffer for it.
Then, this same stress left untreated might lead to burnout syndrome, with a total collapse of our physical, emotional, and intellectual state. When burnout syndrome is left untreated, it can even evolve to depression.
Causes of Work Stress
People need consistency and transparency in their workplace. They need to know where they stand and what to expect. Above all, they need stability, respect and clarity. Therefore, any environment that doesn’t empower these elements, is very possible to create stress.
There are a lot of sources that create work stress, but usually the most significant ones for most individuals, are the following:
1. Lack of Structure
Work environments with no clear seniority or hierarchy, no organizational chart, imprecision in the role description and the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
People’s livelihood is usually very codependent with their work. As a result, not knowing where you stand, where you’re going or what you need to do in order to succeed and move forward, can be a great source of work stress.
2. Toxic Cultures
Gossip, unethical competition between colleagues and demeaning behaviors are only some examples of a culture that even if not actively, at least passively, is producing stress for its people.
3. Weak or Problematic Leadership
A boss who is not a leader but barely a manager, a narcissist who tries to impose themselves on others or even a laissez-faire type of supervisor who never has the back of their subordinate are all situations that misguide people, leaving them wondering what their behavior should be and how they should act, when it’s not really their responsibility to begin with.
4. Lack of Vision
A company with no strategy or no clear vision can create severe stress. The reason is that people need to know upfront what they sign up for.
Constant changes with no justification, canceling tasks, or even entire projects last minute and replacing them with others, valuing different traits per day, are all signs that there is no real plan. What is more stressful than being attached to a company that has no plan?
5. Financial Instability
When a company, a market or an industry suffers financially, this of course will affect the well-being of the people. At the same time, many corporations might be flourishing and still be financially instable towards their stuff, not because of money problems, but because of financial mismanagement and poor organizing.
In any case, once again, most people don’t just work to evolve their personalities but to make their living. Therefore, ‘spontaneous’ payments and irregularities can cause stress, even when in the end someone receives the full amount agreed.
6. Breach in the Psychological Contract
While the financial contract with an organization covers all compensation and obligation side of things, the psychological contract is a completely different concept.
When we join a new workplace, we do it not only for what goes on paper, but also for everything they let us believe that it’s true for them based on their employer branding, how they sell themselves as employers, and what they told us during the recruitment process. When one or some of these things turn out to be fake or incorrect, then we have a breach in the psychological contract, which results in cynicism, quiet quitting, and work stress.
Having said all the above, stress primarily is not a bad thing, when channeled towards the right direction.
How to Deal With Work Stress in a Healthy Way
Work stress shouldn’t paralyze us. If anything, it’s our call to action. Every time we feel severe work stress, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
- Why do I really feel like this?
- Where is my interest based?
- What do I have to change to never find myself in the same position?
Change is of course the keyword.
If what causes you the stress is the ambiguity in your workplace, then you can set more clear boundaries. If what stresses you is that everyone talks behind everyone else’s back, then you should not participate until they start leaving you out of it. If your issue is with toxic leadership, then maybe it’s about time you start searching for something else.
When we change, the environment tends to adapt, and therefore we always have more power than we think to affect and provoke positive change.
At the same time, we need to pick up our fights and save energy. Is this job really worth it?
If the answer is yes, then you adapt and you find a way to make it work, by not taking it personally and by focusing on what you really have to gain from this experience and nothing else; the lessons you can learn, the network you can build, the paycheck you need to do the things you have to do until you can do the things you want to do.
If the answer is no, then keep in mind that we all have limited amounts of compromising energy and therefore if you misuse it on the wrong incident, (like a job you will remember no one from in 10 years from now), then when the right thing comes along and you need this energy in order to be agile and patient and build it up, you might be dried out.
Obviously, these behaviors are complicated and probably completely different than our usual modus operandi. You don’t wake up one day and know what is important, how not to take it personally, how to distance yourself from work and focus on your own agenda and your own experience throughout your professional journey.
For this transformation to happen, there are two possible solutions:
I. Quick Tips to Help With Work Stress
On the practical side of the topic, here are some quick tips that can help with work stress:
1. Wash Your Hands with Cold Water
When we find ourselves in an emotional state that we can’t exit, a shock might be exactly what we need in order to move forward. Washing our hands with cold (even freezing water) and also our face, if possible, can help us decompress fast so we can start thinking clearly again.
2. Use Brainwaves for Stress Relief
There are a lot of free sounds online that can help you relieve your work stress, as long as you’re listening to them while working. Most of them come with soothing background noises like rain or wind, so that you can feel cozy and relaxed.
3. Try Sports
For some people, yoga and pilates are the best choices when it comes to stress relief.
However, if your stress is combined with stronger emotions like anger, then something more dynamic like martial arts or dancing might be more ideal. What is generally very helpful for most people is running, since in a way it forces the brain to clear and restart.
Don’t be afraid to talk about your work stress. Your friends, partner or even your colleagues should be your support system and you don’t have to be going through your challenges alone.
Sometimes, even expressing ourselves and saying what we’re thinking is enough to make us feel better.
5. Create a Personal Ritual
If you are a person that gets a lot of stress from their work, then you need to form a routine that recalibrates you; this one thing that when you do it, you can feel safe and you can ease yourself.
Some good ideas for stress relief rituals are bubblebaths, elaborate tea making and long car drives.
II. Mindset Shift
There are a lot of extra tips to be shared around managing work stress, but at this point, it makes sense to focus a bit on the deeper, more psychological side of the topic and something that, if understood and followed, can be a life changer: be more than just your title.
In 1987, a researcher called Patricia Linville, proposed the idea that knowledge of one’s self is represented by multiple aspects of oneself.
On one hand, there is high self – complexity where the aspects of self are many and differentiated (they are not overlapping with each other), while on the other hand, there is low self – complexity where the aspects of self are few and undifferentiated (they are overlapping.)
According to Linville, individuals with low self – complexity experience more intense feelings (positive or negative) when something happens to them compared to people with high self – complexity.
In short, the more multidimensional a person is, the less burden they put on specific aspects of their personality, while the more single-minded a person is, the more intensity they experience from the few parts of their life.
For example, imagine a man who is single and works as a lawyer in a very big company. If this man has no other elements to gain self-worth from, if he loses his job, he will most possibly end up feeling lost, with no purpose and no identity. At the same time, if this man is a lawyer, a spouse, a father who spends his weekends doing paragliding and has also a great interest for art, even if he loses his job, these other aspects in his personality, or even better, alternative identities, will still be strong enough to give him the self-confidence he needs to move on and find another job.
When we obsess over one part of our lives, of course we will be feeling a lot of stress around it, since it’s all we have.
Our work is important. Most of us self-identify through our work, we can even love it, it can be the source of our independence, self-esteem, and emotional support. Still, it’s not enough.
We need more. We need more because we are more, and we shouldn’t be afraid or guilty for embracing all our internal elements, no matter how contradicting or unproductive they might be because only through balancing all our inner identities can we be not just as stress free as possible, but also happy.
Featured photo credit: Thought Catalog via unsplash.com
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