26/05/2014 - 10:59

Stressed to the max?

26/05/2014 - 10:59

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Some stress in the workplace is inevitable but chronic stress can ruin lives and wreck the performance of employees

Tracie Dawson HBF Corporate Wellness Business Manager

Some stress in the workplace is inevitable but chronic stress can ruin lives and wreck the performance of employees

AS AUSTRALIANS absorb the implications of the latest federal budget many will be feeling more than

normally anxious. So perhaps now is a good time to look at the impact of stress in the workplace and the role employers have in countering it.

In October 2013, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) published its third Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey. It found Australians have significantly lower levels of wellbeing and significantly higher levels of stress than in the previous two years. Almost three-quarters of Australians said stress was affecting their overall wellbeing, with one in five reporting that stress had a strong or very strong impact on their physical or mental health.

Not just in the mind

In small doses stress is positive. It helps us learn, perform under pressure, focus attention on priorities and get motivated. But the stress response is designed to be used in short bursts and then switched off and there’s a world of difference between acute short term stress and the chronic stress many Australians now experience.

Acute stress increases the resting heart rate, blood pressure and the body’s metabolic activities – even if you’re just sitting in front of a computer. If acute stress lasts longer than 20 minutes, the focus shifts from the central nervous system to the hormonal system. The body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which if it remains in the blood stream actually starts to destroy the body’s white blood cells. It’s no surprise that chronic stress is strongly linked to the development of chronic diseases.

No one’s suggesting the increased levels of reported stress is because Australia’s workplaces are run by uncaring tyrants. The current top causes of stress are finances, family and health issues, with the symptoms

of depression and anxiety actually highest amongst the unemployed and students. However, the APS 2013 Survey also found that working Australians reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction, job interest and overall workplace wellbeing than in the previous years.

A workplace toxin

But whether an employee’s stress is the result of issues at work or home, while they are with you it’s your problem too. A stressed employee is much more likely to be irritable, frustrated, rude, angry, cynical and disengaged. They will have a harder time concentrating and being creative and will be working well below their potential – somewhat ironic if the stress is the result of workplace demands. The direct cost to Australian employers of stress related workplace absenteeism and presenteeism is $10.11 billion. On average, more than three days are lost to stress per worker per year.

It’s no secret that many ways of managing stress give us some short term relief while actually making things worse. Drinking excessively, misusing drugs and medication, smoking and gambling are just a few that many turn to. There are far more positive ways of managing stress of course, and this is where an enlightened employer can help. Encouraging employees to set healthy boundaries between work and their home life and promoting physical exercise at work are a great start. Offering practical guidance on how to sleep better, manage thinking patterns and eat for a healthy immune system are all superbly practical ways to help employees manage stress. And workplace massage is no longer a luxury. It relieves a major symptom of stress, muscle tension, which if left unchecked can distort body posture and even affect organ functioning.

Mental first aid

Inevitably some employees will need more and an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providing coaching,

counselling and support can help both employees and their immediate family. It should enable employees to explore and manage issues that are impacting their lives, whether those issues are work-related or not.

Interestingly EAPs are probably the least utilised service that people turn to when they need help. Just 2% of those surveyed for the APS study had used  their employers’ EAP compared to 10% who had approached a psychologist and 21% who had sought help from their GP. Are so few employers offering a service that can really help employees cope or are we just doing a bad job of convincing them to use it?

One way to overcome employees’ reluctance to use a formal workplace program is to ensure employees are equipped to help each other. Many employees will turn to a trusted colleague as their first source of support. HBF people leaders are encouraged to undergo a two day Mental Health First Aid course that helps them recognize mental health issues and gives them specific skills to respond to them – in others and in themselves.

A final thought. Even the most resilient employees will experience work related stress at some point so it’s worth remembering that professional development, team support, manager support, job morale and a positive workplace culture are some of the most effective buffers against stress related burnout.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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