Stress in the Workplace

Stress can be defined in many ways. Ultimately, it is a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. At some point, most of us – if not all – have experienced stress – whether it be long term, short term or at the moment.

I will always remember one time when I was tasked with managing a major project. The project was to administer a process of selection of over one thousand representatives. The electronic system designed for this project was brand new and was led by an individual senior to me at the time. From the very beginning, it became clear to me and my team that every aspect of the project was not planned and processes had not been put in place. The electronic system design was not fully tested as development was still happening when the project went live. I was not aware of this when I agreed to take on the project. However, there was no turning back.

My team and I developed the best project plan we could to get the job done, implemented processes to manage certain aspects of the project manually and then capture onto the electronic system at a later stage when system errors were fixed and further development completed. Despite the many challenges, the deadline for this project was a non-negotiable. The work on the project for weeks on end was 24/7. We were exhausted, became burnt out, and I tried the best I could to rotate schedules for my team. Then, one Saturday towards the end of the project, I was busy with the final lists and scores in order to rank all candidates. I was working from home and I had no idea that my body and mind was nearing a breakdown. Discovering one more system problem sent me over the edge completely. I lost it!

My meltdown sent me on a complete irrational rant about everything and nothing. My husband was on the receiving end as if he was to blame for it all. I could not stop myself though and went on and on. My husband then took our three children, packed them up into the car, baby bottles and all, and left. I cried for what seemed like hours. I will never forget the emotional release of that cry. I was eventually able to call my husband to apologise.  But I knew that I had to finish. It was the final push to get this project behind me, which is what I did. My husband and the kids spent the day with his parents. When they returned in the evening, I had nearly completed everything, and just had a few more hours to go. I did not know just how stressed I was during this project. I failed to recognise the impact my stress was having on my physical and mental state. I was not aware that I was having a breakdown when it happened. The recognition of the stress caused by it all was only realised a few days later – when I felt rested and relaxed when I was able to think more clearly. And when I was able to realise that what I experienced was not okay and that I needed to talk to someone. I learned a lot from this experience.

Workplace stress is experienced by many for various reasons such as workload, deadline pressure, work environment or team/company culture, favouritism, bullying/harassment, ineffective management, long working hours to name just a few.  As a result, companies experience problems related to low morale, absenteeism and high turnover. However, the biggest problem that doesn’t seem to be of sufficient concern to some companies is the impact on employees’ physical and mental health. Don’t be the ignorant employer who doesn’t notice signs of depression, anxiety, erratic behaviour, reduced ability to focus and concentrate, or when employees seem overwhelmed and unable to cope.

Equally, don’t you be ignorant as an individual responsible for yourself. Be more aware of what you feeling and your behaviour. If things feel out of control often or all the time, something is wrong. And you must acknowledge it. External and self-induced pressures cause stress. Try keeping track of what makes you feel stressed at work, and how you respond to it. This includes sudden feelings of irritation, aches or pains. I have met many people over the years who believe that caffeine, nicotine or alcohol is their answer. All of these are stimulants which actually can increase your stress levels. Those three chocolates a day are also not the answer – this one is for my husband.

Take control and create boundaries to deal with stress. Break times are important. It helps one unwind for a short bit and can help keep work in perspective. It also can reduce blood pressure because you are “switching-off” for a bit. Make the time to ensure there is a culture of getting to know each other in the workplace. Having just one friend in the workplace increases morale. Being able to share experiences and even jokes goes a long way to building relationships. There should be a time for everything in a workspace. Most of the time, focus and concentration are required to get the job done. Plan, prioritise, and speak up when you experience or notice someone taking the strain. Pressure and even a bit of stress can be useful at times. It can give us a burst of energy and can motivate us to deliver outcomes. Know when stress is good for you, and when it is bad. Support from management and peers are essential.

Coping with stress and the impact thereof in the workplace is the responsibility of both the company and the individual. Take a stand against accepting a stressful environment as part of company culture. Productivity, efficiency and job satisfaction could be so much greater.

Until next time…

Yours in Adapting & Being

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