We hear a lot about stress, but what is it? Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary defines stress as "the result produced when a structure, system or organism is acted upon by forces that disrupt equilibrium or produce strain". In simpler terms, stress is the result of any emotional, physical, social, economic, or other factors that require a response or change. It is generally believed that some stress is okay (sometimes referred to as "challenge"or "positive stress") but when stress occurs in amounts that you cannot handle, both mental and physical changes may occur.
"Workplace stress" then is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands. In general, the combination of high demands in a job and a low amount of control over the situation can lead to stress.
Stress in the workplace can have many origins or come from one single event. It can impact on both employees and employers alike. As stated by the Canadian Mental Health Association:
Fear of job redundancy, layoffs due to an uncertain economy, increased demands for overtime due to staff cutbacks act as negative stressors. Employees who start to feel the "pressure to perform" can get caught in a downward spiral of increasing effort to meet rising expectations with no increase in job satisfaction. The relentless requirement to work at optimum performance takes its toll in job dissatisfaction, employee turnover, reduced efficiency, illness and even death. Absenteeism, illness, alcoholism, "petty internal politics", bad or snap decisions, indifference and apathy, lack of motivation or creativity are all by-products of an over stressed workplace.
From: Canadian Mental Health Association, "Sources of Workplace Stress" Richmond, British Columbia.
Some stress is normal. In fact, it is often what provides us with the energy and motivation to meet our daily challenges both at home and at the workplace. Stress in these situations is the kind that helps you "rise" to a challenge and meet your goals such as deadlines, sales or production targets, or finding new clients. Some people would not consider this challenge a type of stress because, having met the challenge, we are satisfied and happy. However, as with most things, too much stress can have negative impacts. When the feeling of satisfaction turns into exhaustion, frustration or dissatisfaction, or when the challenges at work become too demanding, we begin to see negative signs of stress.
In the workplace, stress can be the result of any number of situations. Some examples include:
|Categories of Job Stressors||Examples of Sources of Stress|
|Factors unique to the job|
|Role in the organization|
|Relationships at work (Interpersonal)|
Adapted from: Murphy, L. R., Occupational Stress Management: Current Status and Future Direction. in Trends in Organizational Behavior, 1995, Vol. 2, p. 1-14, and UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) "Managing the causes of work-related stress: A step-by-step approach using the Management Standards", 2007.
Yes, stress can have an impact on your overall health. Our bodies are designed, pre-programmed if you wish, with a set of automatic responses to deal with stress. This system is very effective for the short term "fight or flight" responses we need when faced with an immediate danger. The problem is that our bodies deal with all types of stress in the same way. Experiencing stress for long periods of time (such as lower level but constant stressors at work) will activate this system, but it doesn't get the chance to "turn off". The body's "pre-programmed" response to stress has been called the "Generalized Stress Response" and includes:
From: Basic Certification Training Program: Participant's Manual, Copyright© 2006 by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.
Stress can contribute to accidents/injuries by causing people to:
When people engage in these behaviours or are in these emotional states, they are more likely to:
Stress can also lead to accidents or injuries directly by not giving the person the control necessary to stop the threat to their physical well-being.
Luckily, there are usually a number of warning signs that help indicate when you are having trouble coping with stress before any severe signs become apparent. These signs are listed below.
There are many different signs and symptoms that can indicate when someone is having difficulty coping with the amount of stress they are experiencing:
Physical: headaches, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, chest pain, shortness of breath, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, increased perspiration, fatigue, insomnia, frequent illness.
Psychosocial: anxiety, irritability, sadness, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, hypersensitivity, apathy, depression, slowed thinking or racing thoughts; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or of being trapped, lower motivation.
Cognitive: decreased attention, narrowing of perception, forgetfulness, less effective thinking, less problem solving, reduced ability to learn; easily distracted.
Behavioural: overeating or loss of appetite, impatience, quickness to argue, procrastination, increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased smoking, withdrawal or isolation from others, neglect of responsibility, poor job performance, poor personal hygiene, change in religious practices, change in close family relationships.
Below is a quiz from the Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario you can take to help identify your stress levels:
|DO YOU FREQUENTLY:||YES||NO|
|Neglect your diet?|
|Try to do everything yourself?|
|Blow up easily?|
|Seek unrealistic goals?|
|Fail to see the humour in situations others find funny?|
|Make a 'big deal' of everything?|
|Look to other people to make things happen?|
|Have difficulty making decisions|
|Complain you are disorganized?|
|Avoid people whose ideas are different from your own?|
|Keep everything inside?|
|Have few supportive relationships?|
|Use sleeping pills and tranquilizers without a doctor's approval?|
|Get too little rest?|
|Get angry when you are kept waiting?|
|Ignore stress symptoms?|
|Put things off until later?|
|Think there is only one right way to do something?|
|Fail to build relaxation time into your day?|
|Race through the day?|
|Spend a lot of time complaining about the past?|
|Fail to get a break from noise and crowds?|
Adapted from: What's Your Stress Index? Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (no date).
Interpretation of your score (based on the number of “Yes” selections):
0-5: There are few hassles in your life. Make sure though, that you are not trying to deliberately avoid problems.
6-10: You've got your life in fairly good control. Work on the choices and habits that could still be causing you some unnecessary stress in your life.
11-15: You are approaching the danger zone. You may be suffering stress-related symptoms and your relationships could be strained. Think carefully about choices you've made and take relaxation breaks every day.
16-25: Emergency! It is critical that you stop and re-think how you are living; change your attitudes and pay careful attention to diet, exercise and relaxation.
No, not normally. The signs and symptoms from stress tend to progress through several phases or stages. The phases can be described as below:
|Phase 1 - Warning |
Early warning signs are often more emotional than physical and may take a year or more before they are noticeable.
|Phase 2 - Mild Symptoms|
Warning signs have progressed and intensified. Over a period of 6 to 18 months, physical signs may also be evident.
|Phase 3 - Entrenched Cumulative Stress|
This phase occurs when the above phases continue to be ignored. Stress starts to create a deeper impact on career, family life and personal well-being.
|The help of medical and psychological professionals is highly recommended.|
|Phase 4 - Severe/ Debilitating Cumulative Stress Reaction|
This phase is often considered "self-destructive" and tends to occur after 5 to10 years of continued stress.
|Significant intervention from professionals.|
From: Anschuetz, B.L. "The High Cost of Caring: Coping with Workplace Stress" in Sharing: Epilepsy Ontario. Posted 29 November 1999.
Since the causes of workplace stress vary greatly, so do the strategies to reduce or prevent it.
Where stress in the workplace is caused, for example, by a physical agent, it is best to control it at its source. If the workplace is too loud, control measures to deal with the noise should be implemented where ever possible. If you are experiencing pain from repetitive strain, workstations can be re-designed to reduce repetitive and strenuous movements. More detailed information and suggestions are located in the many other documents in OSH Answers (such as noise, ergonomics, or violence in the workplace, etc.) or by asking the Inquiries Service.
Job design is also an important factor. Good job design accommodates an employee's mental and physical abilities. In general, the following job design guidelines will help minimize or control workplace stress:
Employers should assess the workplace for the risk of stress. Look for pressures at work which could cause high and long lasting levels of stress, and who may be harmed by these pressures. Determine what can be done to prevent the pressures from becoming negative stressors.
Employers can address stress in many ways.
In many cases, the origin of the stress is something that cannot be changed immediately. Therefore, finding ways to help maintain good mental health is essential. There are many ways to be proactive in dealing with stress. In the workplace, you might try some of the following as suggested by the Canadian Mental Health Association:
Learn to relax, take several deep breaths throughout the day, or have regular stretch breaks. Stretching is simple enough to do anywhere and only takes a few seconds.
Take charge of your situation by taking 10 minutes at the beginning of each day to priorize and organize your day. Be honest with your colleagues, but be constructive and make practical suggestions. Be realistic about what you can change.
From: Canadian Mental Health Association, "Sources of Workplace Stress" Richmond, British Columbia.
Yes, there are many. Your family doctor can often recommend a professional for you. Other examples include the Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or associations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) or the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) to name just a few.
(*We have mentioned these organizations as a means of providing a potentially useful referral. You should contact the organization(s) directly for more information about their services. Please note that mention of these organizations does not represent a recommendation or endorsement by CCOHS of these organizations over others of which you may be aware.)
For more information on mental health, see the OSH Answers:
Good mental health helps us to achieve balance and cope with stressful times.
|Ten general tips for mental health|
|1.||build confidence||identify your abilities and weaknesses together, accept them build on them and do the best with what you have|
|2.||eat right, keep fit||a balanced diet, exercise and rest can help you to reduce stress and enjoy life.|
|3.||make time for family and friends||these relationships need to be nurtured; if taken for granted they will not be there to share life's joys and sorrows.|
|4.||give and accept support||friends and family relationships thrive when they are "put to the test"|
|5.||create a meaningful budget||financial problems cause stress. Over-spending on our "wants" instead of our "needs" is often the culprit.|
|6.||volunteer||being involved in community gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction that paid work cannot.|
|7.||manage stress||we all have stressors in our lives but learning how to deal with them when they threaten to overwhelm us will maintain our mental health.|
|8.||find strength in numbers||sharing a problem with others have had similar experiences may help you find a solution and will make you feel less isolated.|
|9.||identify and deal with moods||we all need to find safe and constructive ways to express our feelings of anger, sadness, joy and fear.|
|10.||learn to be at peace with yourself||get to know who you are, what makes you really happy, and learn to balance what you can and cannot change about yourself.|
From: Canadian Mental Health Association - National Office
Other mental fitness tips include:
Adapted from: Canadian Mental Health Association Mental Fitness Tips.
Document last updated on June 7, 2012