Stress at work is to some extent something we all expect and live with. Eustress (a helpful influence that drives us to perform well) is a positive influence. Distress, on the other hand, may cause everything from worry and sleepless nights to misery, anxiety, depression or illness.
The sympathetic nervous system governs our body’s physical response to an emotional stimulus. It is governed by the unconscious mind, which is our primitive self.
Our unconscious is responsible for all automatic behaviour including appetite, sleep and awareness of threat. Interestingly, the unconscious mind perceives emotional threat (what people sometimes disparagingly call ‘all in the mind’) in the same way as physical threat. The idea that emotional stress is in some sense less ‘real’ than physical threat doesn’t convey the lived experience of individuals suffering from psychological turbulence. Anyone who has suffered a panic attack will testify to the present and terrifying nature of extreme anxiety.
The ‘flight or fight’ response to distress involves large amounts of two hormones. The first is cortisol, which regulates functions such as mood, blood pressure and the wake/sleep cycle. The second is adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster and increases alertness. When we lived in caves and were at risk of regular physical threat, such responses had the ability to save us from death and disaster. In a sense, anxiety, depression and other responses to stress are remnants from our primitive past – something that has remained after our conscious selves have evolved. This means that conflict at work, for example, may provoke the same chemical response as the prospect of a physical encounter with an angry bear!
How many of us suffer from Workplace Stress?
Stress accounts for 46% of long-term absence from work1. It’s bad for the individual, and bad for the individual. It is particularly prevalent in high ‘human capital’ industries such as health, public administration, education and social welfare. Women in the 35-44 age group and men in the 45-54 age group are most likely to suffer from workplace stress, with frequency increasing with the size of the organisation. Work-specific issues account for 42% of workplace stress and interpersonal relationships for 26%.2
Despite the economic impact of staff absence, a survey by Mind showed that 56% of managers said that mental health issues were not a priority for their company.3
How can the workplace make us sick?
Some of the issues that can provoke stress are:
Poor definition of responsibilities
A heavy workload, or one which does not match the individual’s skill set or training
Being given responsibility without authority or input
Unrealistic or inflexible timeframes
Lack of respect, encouragement or recognition
Poor resources to carry out the job
Bullying or harassment
Conflict with the goals of others
Disruptive change or instability
Poor work/life balance
Chaotic work environments where autonomy and positive feedback are low can lead to distress and resulting health problems. Most people need their employment and thus are, in a sense, at the mercy of those who run the company and sometimes co-workers too, so walking away is not an option.
In recent times Covid has caused a variety of additional difficulties around stability of work, isolation when working from home, 24/7 proximity to other household members, financial problems and work/family priority conflict.
How do I know if I have workplace stress?
The emotional signs of stress can provoke physiological reactions. These include flight or fight responses such as elevated heart rate and high blood pressure, but also fatigue, headaches, migraines, pain in the torso, infection susceptibility, digestive problems, loss of libido and sleeplessness. Emotional symptoms include low mood, anxiety, absent-mindedness, tearfulness, relationship problems, lack of concentration, low self-esteem. These difficulties can lead people to self-medicate with alcohol or other substance abuse or to more severe behavioural issues. Workplace stress can lead to a myriad of problems affecting an individual’s everyday life and expanding like ripples into the lives of their families too. While medication can help relieve anxiety and depression in the short term, psychological approaches are more helpful in leading individuals to develop a better long-term coping strategy.
What can I do about workplace stress?
The first step would be to consult a line manager or HR department. If this is not possible or does not yield results, the next option is to seek help from a counsellor or therapist. Solution Focused talking therapy or Hypnotherapy can help the individual find a path through workplace stress.
While the protocol for Solution Focused therapies is standard, each person is encouraged to find their own inner resources for coping. The assumptions made by this kind of therapist are that every person already has the resources to cope, but these are hidden and need to be found, and that the client wants to be well and is thus always collaborating and co-operating in the process.
Although far from ‘imaginary’, stress does exist in our imagination – in our mind. The greatest tool in countering the impact of stress is the ability to choose one thought over another. This means that we have a choice in whether to see challenging events as overwhelming and unmanageable or challenging, but achievable.
Although this may sound like a simple ‘mind over matter’ notion, hypnotherapy acknowledges the importance of the unconscious mind. Solution Focused Hypnotherapy encourages the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind to collaborate over solutions by following solution-hunting discussion, by proven relaxation, visualisation and suggestion techniques. These imitate the restorative process of sleep, which helps put our rational mind back in control instead of responding with our fearful primitive mind. Far from being a mysterious process, researchers have found that “SFBT is an effective treatment for a wide variety of behavioral and psychological outcomes and, in addition, it may be briefer and therefore less costly than alternative approaches.”5
To find your nearest Solution Focused Therapist, go to www.hypnotherapists.org.uk
1 Cipd.co.uk. 2020. CIPD Health And Well-Being At Work Survey 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/infographic-2020_tcm18-40892.pdf> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
2 Hse.gov.uk. 2020. Work-Related Stress, Anxiety Or Depression Statistics In Great Britain, 2019. [online] Available at: <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
3 Mind.org.uk. 2020. Work Is Biggest Cause Of Stress In People’s Lives. [online] Available at: <https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/work-is-biggest-cause-of-stress-in-peoples-lives/> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
4 SAGE Journals. 2020. Effectiveness Of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A Systematic Qualitative Review Of Controlled Outcome Studies – Wallace J. Gingerich, Lance T. Peterson, 2013. [online] Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1049731512470859> [Accessed 2 November 2020].