Work Stress: Finding Your Balance in Times of Grind
The holiday season is a good time to reflect on work stress. As many of us take a few extra days off between Christmas and New Year or go on annual leave, our bodies enjoy the rewards of rest, nourishment, replenishment, and hopefully some happy times with friends and family. If, as your body begins to relax and unwind, you notice feeling especially unenthusiastic about returning to work, you may be suffering from work stress. While this is a well-known phenomenon, less well-known is the fact that stress can kill you. Are you aware of the signs?
What is Work Stress?
The official definition of work stress is the negative physical, mental and emotional effects on an employee when their job requirements exceed their capability and/or resources. In other words, if you have everything you need in order to get the job done, your stress levels are going to be relatively low. Around half of all European workers, however, cite stress as a regular feature of the workplace. If you feel unsupported in your role or are dealing with an excessive workload that is creating unneeded stress, it may be time to talk to someone you can trust and who can help you get the support you need.
Stress: the Good and the Bad
Some forms of stress do not necessarily feel bad. The adrenaline rush of high productivity can have an addictive excitement to it. The same goes for the results that we see at work sometimes when we push ourselves beyond our normal limits. And a little bit of stress can help us to get a project finished when a deadline is closing in.
We live in a culture that rewards hard work, as evidenced by hashtags like #thehustle or #thegrind, and the perception that we are working hard feels almost as important as working hard. This means that pushing past our natural limits may feel like a reasonable or normal expectation.
The reality is that in the distraction, the satisfaction, and the race to keep up, we can sometimes miss our body’s cries for help. When this happens for too long, it leads eventually to burnout.
Some of the most common physical symptoms of stress are:
- Upset stomach or other digestive problems
- High blood pressure
- Chest pain
The emotional symptoms of stress may also be significant, such as feeling overwhelmed, irritability, anxiety or fear, and lack of self-esteem. You may find yourself constantly worrying and struggling to concentrate or make decisions.
The Health Risks of Stress
For such a commonplace feature of working life, the range of health risks associated with stress may come as a surprise.
- Heart Health
Stress can cause physical damage to the muscle of the heart, due to the effects of stress hormones on your blood pressure which in turn affects blood vessels and heart rate. This can accelerate the onset of heart disease and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. Any regular chest pain and/or dizziness warrants a visit to the doctor.
As part of the fight-or-flight mechanism that turns on in the body when we are stressed, the brain sends a message to the body to load up on food, as a means of storing calories for times of lack. Food is also a common coping mechanism, as it provides emotional comfort and a sense of reward. This is especially so with high-calorie, high-sugar and high-fat foods. Unsurprisingly, over time, emotional or stress-response eating can lead to health issues such as diabetes.
- Musculoskeletal Issues
Increased muscle tension due to stress can lead to chronic pain.
- Weakened Immunity
Chronic stress can hit your immune system, making you more prone to organ diseases, cancer, and depression, and leads to more frequent cases of cold and flu.
- Emotional difficulties
Even mild levels of stress can take their toll on our ability to handle our emotions, keep calm, and stay in a positive frame of mind.
- Sexual problems
Stress can lead to lower libido and erectile dysfunction.
- Gum Disease
Teeth-grinding and tension can permanently affect your jaw and tooth enamel, and studies have shown links between stress and gum disease.
- Premature Aging
Stress shortens the ends of your chromosomes, making it harder for new cells to grow. This means that your skin cannot regenerate as quickly, leading to wrinkles, loose muscles, and degenerating eyesight.
- Increased alcohol or drug use
Stress can increase the appeal of drugs and alcohol, or even coffee, to help cope or to help relieve some of the tension. Unfortunately, the body then has to work harder to deal with the effects of these substances, ultimately increasing the overall stress load.
Some Coping Mechanisms
Not all stress is avoidable, but there are some simple measures you can take that will help you to cope, and prevent stress levels from the building. The key to most stress-busting is in simplicity. Ironically, when our systems are in overdrive, slowing down and simplifying can feel almost impossible. But the more you remember to implement a few of these tips, the more you will notice a difference in your stress levels.
- Take a break
Make sure to take regular breaks, and at very least make use of your lunch hour. Get outside, take a short walk, sit on a bench, take some deep breaths. Gazing at a spot far away can help to reset your parasympathetic nervous system, so even a few moments gazing out of the window can help. When was your last holiday? If you can’t quite remember, it might be time to plan a trip. Even a short weekend break can refresh your spirits and give you a new perspective.
Think about the activities that give you pleasure and help you to relax, such as dancing, having a massage, going to the cinema, reading, sewing, playing a sport or doing an exercise class that you love. Make sure that you dedicate time to engaging in some of these things a few times a week.
- Get a check-up
If you have been experiencing chronic stress, it’s a good idea to get a check-up and see where you’re at in terms of cardiovascular health, as well as get your blood sugar levels tested. The signs of heart disease and diabetes will often show in tests before you notice physical symptoms, so don’t hesitate to get checked. If you are noticing any of the symptoms listed above or would like to speak to someone about your stress load, how to improve your stress levels and work-life balance and ensure that you are in good health, make an appointment to see a doctor who can help.
- Improve your diet
See if you can notice the moments when you are reaching for something sweet and see whether your craving correlates to a stressful event. If you aren’t sure, check in with yourself by pausing and taking a couple of deep breaths. If you find it hard to curb the cravings, improve your snack habits by replacing high-sugar or high-fat snacks with fruit, nuts, and veggies.
- Make time for friends and family
Reach out to your loved ones and make plans to get together over a meal. Sharing your feelings, joys and woes with close friends, family and colleagues in your support network, as well as being there for them when they need you, is an excellent medicine for stress.
- Make time for yourself
Book some time into your diary during the working week or weekend to be alone. Give yourself time to devote to relaxation, pampering, exercising, and to making plans. Setting goals and challenges for yourself outside of your work life can build emotional resilience and confidence.
- Take care of your body
One of the most impactful side effects of stress is the effect it can have on our unhealthy habits. Increasing alcohol and caffeine intake, smoking more, and eating more, all serve to increase the physical stress on your body and in the long run make it harder for you to unwind. Drink plenty of water, take regular exercise, and reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake