Stress and the Workplace 

We all may have heard people around us exclaim that they are experiencing stress. We ourselves may have said so on numerous occasions as well. But what is stress really and how does it show up in the context of work? 

‘Stress’ is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain caused by adverse circumstances. This term is used to reflect the body’s physiological, psychological and emotional response to a challenging or adverse situation wherein a person may feel overwhelmed, stretched or find it difficult to cope with the situation. It may arise when a person perceives the resources and support available to them are outweighed by the demands placed on them. This understanding of the situation can shift one’s body into a heightened state of awareness or attention, maintained by the autonomic nervous system – responsible for the fight/flight /freeze response to perceived threats, through the secretion of certain hormones, notably adrenaline and cortisol.  

When a stress inducing situation persists over time, it may contribute to overt changes in behaviour like: 

– Increased irritability 

– Increase in anger outbursts 

– Drop in focus 

– Changes in appetite  

– Sleep disturbances 

– Loss of motivation  

This impact is not only behavioural and psychological but also extends to physical health like experiencing headaches, body pains, diarrhoea. Chronic stress can result in  

– High blood pressure 

– Heart disease 

– Obesity  

– Diabetes 

Stress is a natural part of life, and some amount of stress (eustress) may even be good for us and push a person to action, like seen in the image below. 

See the source image

It is important to understand the point at which we perform our best and deliver our optimal performance. The stress levels beyond this point, tips the balance such that the demands on the individual start outweighing the resources. Consequently, it brings in the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Stress in the context of modern workplace systems however, has become more common than we would like .

People may experience work-related stress when work demands and pressures don’t match their skills, knowledge or ability, when they do not have enough time to learn or adapt, and when situations, relationships or expectations may challenge their ability to cope. This experience is often exacerbated when employees feel they have little support from supervisors or colleagues and little to no control over work processes.  Inappropriate and inefficient management strategies, the glorification of hustle culture and focus on ‘productivity’ and ‘success’ in vacuum can also lead to a build up of pressure on people to perform and excel without pause to reflect. Moreover, the tendency of management to view an employee only as a being in the context of work deliverables and invisiblization of the person outside the work context further increases pressure and stress. 

Ironically despite this being the norm, research shows that extreme job pressure and stress may negatively impact motivation and productivity (Donald et al, 2005, Bui, T et al, 2021) 

And this impact can be seen across various aspects of an employees’ existence within the organisation: 

  • Employees who are extremely stressed may avoid or be unable to manage working in a team. Other changes in behaviour, capacity and temperament, attention, concentration and tolerance of the individual(s) impacted by stress will eventually impact group cohesion and erode relationships within the team thereby also impacting team morale, efficiency and productivity 
  • Impulsive behavior and poor work performance are extremely commonly noted in situations wherein stress levels are high. 
  • These situations also see a rise in the reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms that may provide short term immediate relief, but may prove harmful in the long run for example a rise in the use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, increased high risk behaviours including with regard to sexual behaviour, as a coping mechanism.  
  • The long-term effects of occupational stress include immunological deficiencies and cardiovascular disorders. Chronic workplace stress can also lead to poor mental health. 
  • In addition to these risks and harm to employees, these issues can dramatically increase an organisation in terms of  costs stemming from high staff turnover, lower productivity and even from leave of absence and healthcare expenditure, not to mention reputational damage. 
  • High stress can also lead to an increase in absenteeism and causes more workplace accidents and injuries. This further lowers a workplace’s general efficiency and morale. 

It’s important to keep in mind that we all experience stress differently, just as each of us perceives stress differently. One individual could have headaches, another might find that having an upset stomach is a typical reaction, and a third person might have any of a variety of additional symptoms.  

There are several techniques to efficiently manage stress. The most effective stress management strategies often incorporate a variety of stress-relieving techniques that treat stress physiologically and mentally while also promoting resilience and coping mechanisms. As leaders, people managers and decision makers at the workplace, it is important to remember that in addition to our own wellbeing, it is important to create support structures for the people that work with us, in a manner that is relevant to them and responds to their unique needs at the workplace. 

An empathetic space for conversation without blame and judgement and a system of referrals for psychosocial support may go a long way in responding to workplace stress experienced by the employees. 

As individuals, it is important to remember to regulate our experience of stress by either actively reducing the demands or increasing our resources. Sometimes, we may need to access therapeutic support to make sense of what is going on and identify the specific stressors that we need to respond to moment to moment.  

Remember your feelings are valid, and you are not alone. It is okay to reach out for mental health support to work on navigating through one’s experience of stress and building healthy coping strategies. 

Additional Reading: 

  1. Bui, T., Zackula, R., Dugan, K., & Ablah, E. (2021). Workplace Stress and Productivity: A Cross-Sectional Study. Kansas Journal of Medicine, 14(1). 
  1. Donald, I., Taylor P, Johnson, S., Cooper C., et al: Work Environments, Stress, and Productivity: An Examination Using ASSET, International Journal of Stress Management , 2005, Vol. 12, No. 4, 409 – 423 

Written By Tanisha Chawla, Rosanna Rodrigues and Samriti Makkar Midha

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