How Much Stress is Too Much Stress?
How much stress is too much? As the end of the year approaches, most people are reporting their stress levels as at an all time high. However, how much is too much and what constitutes chronic stress? To help us understand stress a little better, Occupational Therapists at at Bel Esprit Clinic, Helena Louw and Nina Balzer prepared this guide for us on understanding stress.
When Does Stress Become Unhealthy? By Helena Louw and Nina Balzer
“When employees experience ongoing mental distress, and start feeling helpless, powerless, hopeless and as though nothing can be done to change their working situation or satisfaction, they stand a great risk to develop depression or other mental health problems.”
“I need a holiday, a long one…”
All of us reach a point in our work life where we feel exactly like this. As though we just want to get as far as possible away from work because everything is too much to handle and we feel like the only thing that will fix that situation is a long, a very long holiday. While it is normal to feel like that when stress levels at our work place are high, it should not be the norm. Sadly, it is a reality for many people who are chronically stressed.
So, when does workplace stress become unhealthy?
Characteristics of healthy workplaces
To answer this question, we consider what a healthy job looks like. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes a healthy job as one where the expectations of employees are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources, to the amount of control they have over their work, and to the support they receive from people who matter to them.
Considering the WHO’s Definition of Health: “Health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental & social well-being” (WHO, 1986), means that a healthy work place should offer health promoting services, continuous risk assessment, training on health issues and staff wellness programs. A healthy working environment takes shape when both employer and employees prioritize health and health promotion.
Identifying an unhealthy workplace
Work related stress arises when employees are presented with work demands and pressures that are mismatched to their knowledge and abilities. Stressors can be physical/ structural (e.g. noise, lack of privacy, poor lighting, poor ventilation, poor temperature control or inadequate sanitary facilities) or psychological (e.g. organisational confusion, ineffective management styles, or perceived lack of support from supervisors and colleagues and little or no control over work structures and processes).
Some jobs are harmful by nature; therefore, people working in these fields need to be taken care of even more. Examples of these professions include military personnel, criminal justice personnel, ambulance drivers or firefighters. Most of the time people working in these fields receive proper training on how to deal with dangerous, stressful or life-threatening situations but even with proper training personnel can develop a post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbances, depression or anxiety.
Chronic stress can contribute to a myriad of health issues such as physical pain and chronic inflammation, gastrointestinal problems, joint problems, loss of visual acuity, poor attention and concentration, memory problems, mood changes or aggression, social withdrawal and isolation and eventually a constant feeling of being exhausted/tired/burned out.
When employees experience ongoing mental distress, and start feeling helpless, powerless, hopeless and as though nothing can be done to change their working situation or satisfaction, they stand a great risk to develop depression or other mental health problems.
Although experiencing stress in the workplace is inevitable, all of us need to be aware of it and know how to address it when it becomes too much and we feel overwhelmed by it.
How can you cultivate a health-promoting, stress-busting lifestyle?
Combatting stress effectively usually requires a double-edged sword approach; on the one hand you need to reduce your stress levels while on the other hand you need to equip yourself to handle stress as healthily as possible. While either one of these approaches will help even if done in isolation, long-term health and well-being hinges on their joint application.
Strategies for reducing stress
“The first step towards a healthier, more fulfilled you is making the decision to start making decisions. Although there are only a few situations in which one may not have a choice, most people have far more opportunities to make choices in their daily life than they might realise or be willing to admit.”
Choose which stressors you want to expose yourself to
The first step towards a healthier, more fulfilled you is making the decision to start making decisions. Although there are only a few situations in which one may not have a choice, most people have far more opportunities to make choices in their daily life than they might realise or be willing to admit. By becoming aware of and using your opportunities to choose, wisely, you overcome your own resistance to change.
You could start by identifying all sources of stress in your life and for each one, ask yourself whether the advantages of keeping that stressor in your life is worth the cost to your health and well-being. Some examples of stressors could include certain situations, people or environments with negative emotional connotations.
Change how you see, think and feel about stressors
Inevitably you will end up with some stressors which you can’t, or won’t, ditch. For some of these, it may be helpful to change your perception of them.
Example: A working mom who is also doing part-time postgraduate studies
|Change from this||To this|
|Feeling powerless about how she spends her time||Acknowledging that she chose to engage in the studies, changing her train of thought from “I must but I can’t” to “I want to and I can”|
|Feeling stressed about due dates for assignments||Acknowledging that due dates allow more than enough time to complete assignments to a passing standard, and if she wants to achieve higher marks, that is a choice and she is responsible for her own elevated stress levels.|
This change takes time, intentional practice and perseverance. Sometimes, changing the way you think may be so hard that you need professional help to guide you through the process.
Strategies for managing stress well
“These coping strategies may relieve your stress for the moment, a couple of hours or even days, but in the long run they fail to address the root cause of your stress while attacking your health at the same time.”
Sometimes we fall into the trap of ‘comforting’ ourselves when we feel stressed in ways that are detrimental to our long-term health, such as:
- Excessive alcohol consumption OR relying on alcohol for maintaining your participation in basic daily routines, such as waking up in the morning or falling asleep at night.
- Dosing yourself with over-the-counter medicine such as sleeping pills, calming remedies or in some cases energy boosters for people who have been running on empty for so long they can’t remember what it feels like to wake up feeling rested and energetic.
- Using drugs to escape reality or to enhance your performance when it feels as though your natural abilities are no longer sufficient.
- Overeating or starving, or malnourishing yourself by eating junk food.
- “Retail therapy” i.e. shopping to make you feel better.
- Disengaging from some or all the life areas which create balance in our lives by withdrawing on a physical, mental, emotional, social or spiritual level.
- Taking your stress out on others through aggression.
These coping strategies may relieve your stress for the moment, a couple of hours or even days, but in the long run they fail to address the root cause of your stress while attacking your health at the same time.
Rather do this
Some alternative ways of handling stress include:
- Re-evaluate what your values, goals and dreams are, and whether your day-to-day routines reflect this
- Set new priorities for yourself
- Learn to manage your time well
- Take care of yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually)
- Practice mindfulness
Occupational therapists can help you set goals that reflect your dreams and values, plan and implement a balanced lifestyle, create outlets for stress, change communication styles to reduce misunderstandings and challenge negative thinking. If you are experiencing stress and struggle to make these changes, consider seeking the guidance of a mental health service provider.
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