By F. Scott Addis, CPCU, CRA, CBWA, TRA
ANXIETY AND STRESS IN THE WORKPLACE: CHALLENGES AND STRATEGIES
Learn coping skills and cultivate gratitude
It was a typical Sunday morning for Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks. He awoke at 4:00 a.m., vomiting uncontrollably. As he had experienced this illness numerous times in the past, he expected that he would improve by the time he arrived at Lincoln Financial Field a few hours later. However, things were different on the crisp, clear autumn day when the Eagles were to take on the Seattle Seahawks in a game with playoff implications.
“It did not go away like it normally does,” Brooks told The Philadelphia Inquirer after the game. “I woke up and did my routine of morning vomiting. I figured that it would calm down once I got to the stadium. It did, but I felt exhausted. The nausea then came back during the first offensive series, and I had to leave the field. I tried everything that I could to get back in the game for my teammates, but I just was not able to do it. I’ve had this under control for a couple of years and had a setback today. Make no mistake about it, I am not ashamed or embarrassed by this or what I go through every day. The only thing that I’m upset about is that when my team needed me, I wasn’t able to be out there for them.”
Although some stressors may be out of your control, others can be dealt with constructively.
The 6’5”, 335-pound Miami University (Ohio) graduate lives every day with anxiety. He has missed five games in his NFL career because of his condition. Drafted in the third round by Houston, Brooks says his illness did not surface until he reached the pro level and intensified when he signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Eagles. His perfectionist tendencies seem to have intensified as he puts in extra effort to justify his lucrative contract. After the game, Eagles coach Doug Pederson said to reporters, “It is something that Brandon deals with each and every day of his life. We are going to continue to support him. We love him.”
Are you like Brooks? Are the pressures of your job getting to you? Are you working harder and putting in longer hours to get your job done?
Stress vs. anxiety
The term “stress” as a biological phenomenon was introduced in the 1930s by Hans Selye, the pioneering Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist and researcher. His theory—General Adaptation Syndrome—is a three-stage process that describes the physiological changes the body goes through when under stress: the alarm stage, which provides a burst of energy (fight or flight response); the resistance stage, in which the body attempts to resist so it can go back to its normal state; and the exhaustion stage, where the body is no longer equipped to fight the stress. The exhaustion stage is where anxiety and depression come to the surface.
Stress is a physiological response to a perceived threat. It generally has an identifiable cause and is a temporary problem caused by external pressures that fade away once the stressor is removed. The main causes of workplace stress are dealing with difficult people, deadlines, troubled interpersonal relationships, and handling issues or problems. Chronic stress symptoms include headaches, high blood pressure, chest pains, heart palpitations, skin rashes, and loss of sleep.
Anxiety differs from stress because it hangs around after the problem is resolved. It is that awful “on-edge” feeling that never seems to go away. Anxiety has a disorienting, overwhelming quality and is characterized by a sense of being out of control, apprehensive, and paralyzed at the same time. Typical symptoms are sweating, trembling, upset stomach, difficulty speaking, intense panic or fear, and constant unwanted thoughts. Having an anxiety disorder is not a sign of weakness. Instead, experts believe that anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors.
Stress in the workplace
Anxiety has become the number-one mental health issue in America. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIHM), anxiety disorders affect 18.1% of American adults and cost a staggering $42 billion per year, almost one-third of the $148 billion total mental health bill of the United States. Workplace stress has reached epidemic proportions, according to research conducted by HR.com’s HR Research Institute in which 778 human resources professionals were interviewed. Consider these findings:
- The HR professionals who were surveyed ranked anxiety disorders, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as the top five mental health issues most likely to be encountered in their organizations.
- Only 11% of respondents stated that their organizations were good at helping employees address mental health issues.
- Eighty-two percent of HR professionals agreed that stress was prevalent in their organization, but just 38% thought their organization was equipped to help employees address stress.
- Only 18% of HR professionals agreed that their managers were well trained to recognize employee stress.
- The HR professionals agreed that stress reduces employee engagement, negatively affects employee performance, and adversely affects their company’s brand (39%). The brand issue arises when an employee leaves an organization because of a poor work experience and tells others about it.
- Sixty-one percent of HR professionals believed that stress levels were high because of a lack of commitment on the part of leadership. In defense of corporate leaders, some respondents said that many may not be aware of the magnitude of the issue.
- Higher-performing organizations are more likely to establish a culture that thinks it’s okay for employees to openly discuss stress compared with their lower-performing counterparts.
Employees today are working harder and putting in longer hours for a variety of reasons, including technological connectivity, multitasking, evolving roles, and changing skill sets needed to be successful in times of workplace transformation. Over the past 30 years, self-reported levels of stress have continued to increase and cause a wide array of illnesses, as evidenced by these responses to surveys:
- Fifty-seven percent of surveyed employees said that work gets in the way of their health (AHA CEO Roundtable Survey).
- Nearly 75% of workers average less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep (The National Sleep Foundation).
- Close to 50% of employees have gained weight at their current job, increasing the risk for poor health and missed workdays (cdc.gov).
Managing stress and anxiety
To effectively manage stress and anxiety in the workplace, it is important to recognize the symptoms and learn coping techniques. If stress and anxiety are interfering with your job performance, something needs to change. Although some stressors may be out of your control, others can be dealt with constructively. Here are six tips for designing a personal wellness plan to manage stress and anxiety at work:
Explore your triggers. Keep a diary for one week to discover which situations increase your stress levels the most. Record exactly what happened, what thoughts and emotions you had, and how you behaved in each situation. As you explore your triggers, think about how best to deal with them.
Time management. Are you stressed and anxious because you are attempting to do too much? Trying to juggle numerous tasks creates stress because it usually takes you longer to complete them. Compile a list of tasks that you need to complete, prioritize them, and then break the big tasks into smaller ones. Wherever possible, complete the unpleasant tasks first so the rest of your day is less stressful.
Share with a trusted coworker. Share your feelings of stress and anxiety with a trusted colleague. Chances are that they also have experienced workplace stress and can relate. Knowing that a coworker understands and accepts your condition can be comforting, and it may reduce anticipatory anxiety.
Set boundaries. In today’s fast-paced environment, it is easy to fall into the trap of being available 24/7. Also, high achievers like you do not like to say no. That being said, it is imperative that you set boundaries so that, to the extent possible, work is separate from your personal life. Do not take on additional projects that can be competently handled by other members of your team. And realize that taking “me time” is essential to reducing stress and anxiety.
Challenge negative thoughts. When you experience negative thoughts, challenge them with evidence that suggests that those thoughts are inconsistent with your capabilities and competencies. Shift your focus from what your life lacks to the abundance that is already present. Consider making a mental gratitude list or keeping a gratitude journal in which you record things for which you are grateful. Your attitude of gratitude will reduce stress and anxiety. You also may wish to use your support system of family, friends, and colleagues to remind you of your wonderful qualities.
Maintain good health. Research confirms that a healthy diet supported by a good night’s sleep and regular exercise reduces stress and anxiety. The link between mental and physical health is evidenced by the release of endorphins that naturally enhance mood, thus reducing stress. Healthier habits can be a winning strategy in your quest to combat anxiety.
A healthy level of stress keeps you focused and motivated so your performance stays high. But too much stress can cause you to feel overwhelmed and anxious. You owe it to yourself and those who care about you to recognize and tackle stress and anxiety!
Scott Addis is chief executive officer of Beyond Insurance, a consulting firm that offers leadership training, cultural transformation, and talent and tactical development for enlightened professionals who are looking to take their organization to the next level. To learn more, contact Scott at email@example.com.