Business Perspectives

Stress is unhealthy, but can be managed

November has provided two sources of interesting news on work-related stress.

First, the annual Stress in America Survey (stressinamerica.org) was released by the American Psychological Association, showing that a quarter of Americans feel extreme stress, with major culprits being money, the economy, work and doubts about job stability.

Second, a major study on women's health was released showing that, like men, women get increased heart risk from particularly stressful jobs.

These results raise the question: What makes a job especially stressful? The researchers in the women's health study used a twofold answer to that question: high responsibility and low control. In other words, the most-stressed workers are those with a big impact on the organization or on the lives of others, but with little power over how to accomplish those responsibilities.

When stress reaches unhealthy levels, people tend to feel overwhelmed, worried or run down, and they often turn to unhealthy behaviors to cope. In addition to the heart risk findings in the women's health study, the Stress in America survey found connections between high stress and symptoms such as obesity and sleeplessness.

Responders to the survey generally know that choices such as healthy eating and exercise would combat the effects of stress, but they feel unable to accomplish such change due to low motivation or a lack of time in the day.

So how do individuals and organizations change these trends?

Another bit of research is relevant here — the research on hope. Real hope makes a difference by giving a person a will toward something better and a way to get there. Be hopeful that you and your company can do better than the status quo. Imagine some improvement and name some reasonable ways to get there. For instance, leaders might imagine ways for team members to increase their sense of control or to better accomplish their responsibilities.

Step one might be to gather feedback from employees on the current state of the workplace along with ideas for improvement. According to APA, employee involvement programs can increase job satisfaction, employee morale and commitment to the organization. Offering workers reasonable choices about work time, benefits or priorities could increase their sense of control.

At an individual level, employees with little or no control in the organization might try different ways to communicate their needs, concerns, or ideas to a supervisor. Whether these efforts lead to change, each individual still holds the keys to self-care.

To combat problems with time and motivation, approach change in reasonable chunks. Following are some practical starting points:

* Use scheduled work breaks and try not to bring work home.

* Take a brief walk at lunchtime.

* Use three deep cleansing breaths for stress relief throughout the day.

* Bring healthy snacks to work to reduce unhealthy comfort eating.

* Get to bed a little earlier each night to "re-set" a healthy pattern of sleep.

None of these ideas alone will solve the problem of high stress in the workplace, but as a starting point or taken together, they pave the way toward less stress and more satisfaction at work and home, and organizations are sure to notice the benefits of that trend.

One last word of encouragement: There is no need to wait for a New Year's resolution to make a healthy change. These days of cultural, religious and family traditions offer a good time for employers to show interest in the needs of their employees and for individuals to practice healthy choices. After all, if you can choose well during the holidays, you can make it through any time of year.

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