Deconstructing Workplace Stress in a New Economy

Work was cited as a significant source of stress for 70% of respondents in the 2011 American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey. At the laser fast pace of work in a 24/7 hi-tech competitive global marketplace, the new world of work requires what I refer to as a new APR.

The New APR

Employers must give more credence to their employee’s skill capabilities around Attention, Productivity and Resilience.

  1. Where are workers putting their attention and how are they focusing it in a lean business atmosphere which demands more from workers?
  2. What are the most strategic methods to boost productivity in a global marketplace that demands innovation in order to stay competitive?
  3. How are employees cultivating the resilience needed to meet the demands and skill base of a hi-tech workplace?

The new normal, by default has raised the stress level at work by a few notches and it should be a concern for big business. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury. In fact it’s the most common cause of long-term sickness absence (CIPD) and costs American Businesses $300 billion annually in productivity (WHO).

10 Reasons Workplace Stress is on the rise in the new economy:

  1. The work-life merge or blur between the working and living experience
  2. The impact of economic uncertainty and wages.
  3. Lack of managerial support within an antiquated workplace culture.
  4. Lack of flexible working conditions
  5. The need for updated skills and education due to technology
  6. Increased workload and work hours due to downsizing and budget cuts.
  7. Concerns about job security, career development and skill levels.
  8. Personal and situational factors such as personality, coping skills, company values are not aligned with worker values, ability to resolve conflict and communicate.
  9. Unrealistic deadlines within poorly defined work roles.
  10. Ergonomic or environmental concerns or discomfort

What is Job or Workplace Stress?

Job or workplace stress can be defined as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.” That’s the clinical definition according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

When discussing job stress, it’s important to distinguish it from the challenging job stress that energizes us psychologically and physically. A good challenge is healthy. That “good stress” or as it’s called “eustress,” creates positive feelings, motivates us to learn new skills, master our work in a productive and efficient way and can foster creativity and innovation. When we meet those challenges, it’s rewarding; we feel relaxed, satisfied and fulfilled. A bit of tension can help one face challenges and discover new ways to tackle obstacles. But research also shows us that surpassing a certain threshold, might diminish performance.

Such is often the case in the new world of work. Job demands can become excessive, pressure builds, and the healthy challenge is sometimes replaced by frustration and exhaustion. That’s the entry for unhealthy stress which can become a daily threat to health and well-being. Stress increases the risk of illness, chronic health problems, injury, anxiety, and can eventually lead to burnout and even depression.

Symptoms of Stress

How do you know when you are stressed? Your brain is the first line of defense. It perceives stress and sends messages to the body to sharpen the senses in what is known as the “fight or flight” response. The heart rate races, breathing gets faster and shallow, muscles tense up, pupils dilate, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into the blood stream.

The body returns to equilibrium after occasional bouts with stress. But when stress persists, the body is in a constant state of activation and the prolonged state can lead to fatigue or illness. Health care costs are generally about 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress.

10 Red flags that Your Workplace Stress is flaring up:

  1. Little things upset you, like traffic or waiting on lines, and anger escalates quickly
  2. Mind racing which leads to negative self-talk and more anxiety
  3. Building anxiousness, anxiety, and agitation throughout your workday.
  4. Disorganization and difficulty concentrating and focusing on single tasks.
  5. Short tempered, moody and irritability with colleagues.
  6. Job dissatisfaction, low morale and lethargy in productivity.
  7. Disturbances in regular sleeping patterns.
  8. Sudden illness including upset stomach, headaches, neck aches and acute back pain.
  9. Disrupted relationships with family and friends
  10. Chronic illnesses including hypertension, heart conditions and neuro-muscular conditions.

The aforementioned symptoms taken one-by-one, might be indicative of an occasional bad day. But these symptoms combined, over time, can lead to burnout. While this list is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather more of an informal check-in, if you experience a good number of these symptoms it’s an indicator that you might be suffering from workplace stress.

Coming up in a future post, I’ll look at the different approaches to workplace stress, from stress management programs to organizational change. What is your experience at work? Do you think stress has just become part of the new normal at work?