Overcoming Workplace Stress

Are you ever stressed at work?

Regardless of whether you see your work as a calling, a career or a job, you probably do experience stress from time-to-time.  It could be due to unreasonable demands or expectations: the client’s, your boss’s or your own.  It might be a lack resources or support.   Or for many, stress comes not having control or predictability over our work, or our days. This is especially true for workers at the lower ends of the organizational chart.

Studies within the British civil service system found a significant link between a person’s level within the organization, and poor health and higher mortality rates. (The Whitehall Studies) The lower someone was in the office hierarchy, the less control they had over their over their jobs, and the more stress they had.  As a result, they also were more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, lung disease, depression, back pain, suicide and other illnesses.    Stress

Stress in-and-of itself is not a bad thing. Under the right circumstances, it enables growth and gives us an essential feeling of being alive.  It also plays an important role in our survival. When our ancestors faced a physical threat, their bodies would prepare them to either fight or flee.  Hormones such as adrenalin and glucocorticoids poured into the system, raising the heart rate, sending blood into the arms and legs and increasing energy levels. Bodily functions that were not essential in that moment, such as digestion and ovulation, were shut down until the threat had passed.  This is incredibility adaptive and useful when we are fleeing a predator.

However in our modern lives, we no longer need to worry about predators or tribes of marauding barbarians. Yet we are stressed all the time.  Now it is psychological factors: money and bills, office politics, the challenges of child rearing and the daily commute.  Our bodies respond to these mental events in the exact same ways as they did when facing a physical threat.  The difference is these psychological stresses last all day. Our bodies’ natural restorative and reparative functions remain in the “off” position and we are at increased risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal disorders.  There is more plaque in our arteries. Our immune systems shut down. Menstrual cycles are disrupted.

There are things we can do:

  • Play: Find ways to reduce your stress. Exercise. Meditate. (Note: Everyone reading this should exercise or meditate regularly. Everyone. The documented benefits are tremendous.)  Rediscover the things you loved to do before you got so serious and started going to the office every day.  Work hard, but don’t forget to play.  It could save your life and will insert much more joy into your days.
  • Undust Your Dreams: You may be the low man or woman at work, go unrecognized for what you do, and have little control in your job. Yet you stay up late each night writing thriller novels. Or maybe you are lead the company clothing drive each year to support the local women’s shelter. (Dreams Undusted, here).  If that is where you get your sense of leadership, meaning and value, then it might not matter if your day job is nothing but a means to pay the bills. It is o.k. that work is just a “job”, if we get our self-worth elsewhere. That also can free us from of the office politics, the nit-picking and slights. Importantly, the Whitehall Studies found that people who find their sense of meaning, self and self-worth elsewhere, do not have the negative health risks associated with work stress.
  • Redefine and Celebrate Your Stress: How we think about stress matters. Remember, stress is not always bad. In the right amounts, it can make our lives much richer. In addition, data suggests if we recognize stress as a sign that our body preparing us to successfully navigate some challenge, then we avoid many of the negative health effects.  If I did not feel anxious before the big presentation at work, then I might not be taking it seriously enough. Stress sharpens us. It helps us prepare.  Give the stress a helpful context.
  • Social Connections: Above all else, our social affiliations, our connections with one another, are the most important factor to reducing stress, and recovering from its potentially harmful effects. In addition to creating a sense of meaning at work, increasing camaraderie, giving us allies and people to lean on, our social relationships help protect us at the cellular level.  At the end of each strand of our DNA, we have something called telomeres that protect our chromosomes. These become shortened under chronic stress, causing our cells to age faster and lose their function.  Social affiliation, kindness, compassion, and connecting to one another, increases the enzyme telomerase. This enzyme repairs the damage to the telomeres, protecting our cellular function.  Social rank is not as important as social context. Caring for, and connecting with one another, is good for us right down to our DNA.

Work hard and do what you must. But play. Hold on to those dreams and passions that fill you. Recognize how stress is preparing you for a richer life, and above all, nurture and cherish your relationships. Your life can be rich and full and happy.

Next week, what if you have found your calling and work, and have become obsessed?

Selected References:

Ferrie, J. E. (2002). Change in health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 56(12), 922-926. doi:10.1136/jech.56.12.922

McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. New York: Avery, a member of Penguin Random House.

Ornish, D., Lin, J., Chan, J. M., Epel, E., Kemp, C., Weidner, G., . . . Blackburn, E. H. (2013). Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. The Lancet Oncology, 14(11), 1112-1120. doi:10.1016/s1470-2045(13)70366-8

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: Times Books.

Other articles by John Sean Doyle referenced above include, Dreams Undusted; Work as a Calling (Part 1);  Work as a Calling (Part 2);  and The Rain Stick.

Image Credit

Stress by Bernard Goldbach/Flickr generously made available via a Creative Commons Attribution License.

© 2017 John A. Doyle, Jr.



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