Stress Awareness Week: What’s in Your Toolbox?
November 1–5, 2021 is Stress Awareness Week. International Stress Awareness Week was created in 2018 to raise awareness about stress prevention and mental health. This week aims to reduce stigma around mental health discussions, enabling individuals around the world to reflect on personal sources of stress, identify strategies to manage stress, and prevent chronic stress-related illnesses. Everyone’s stress management toolbox looks a bit different. What is important is that we have a variety of tools to choose from to improve our ability to manage stress at work and home.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal, physiological reaction in the body and mind that is activated in response to perceived or real pressure or threat (sympathetic nervous system a.k.a. the “fight, flight, or freeze” response). Stress isn’t always bad, and in fact, we need a managed, optimum amount of stress in our lives, as it motivates us to get up in the morning, to set and obtain goals, to interact with others, and to finish those items on our to-do lists. Stress becomes harmful when it is prolonged and not managed properly. Stress that occurs over a long period of time, repetitively, and unmanaged, can lead to burnout. The more stress we are under, the more likely we are to experience negative health consequences such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, and more.
Sources of Stress at Work
Work is a common source of stress – in fact, more than 25% of Canadian workers report being highly stressed on a daily basis, with 62% of Canadian workers reporting that work is their main source of stress (Statistics Canada, 2017). Reflecting on the reasons why we feel stressed can allow us to better manage stressful situations and prevent the good kind of stress from becoming harmful and leading to burnout. Here are some of the reasons you might feel stressed at work:
Events: an upcoming deadline, a difficult discussion with a coworker or manager, a performance review, long work hours without a break, and a long to-do list are some examples of stressful events at work. The impact of these stressful events can vary based on three factors:
- Predictability – how much we are able to anticipate the outcome of an event.
- Control – how much we can control the outcome and impact of an event.
- Importance – how much we personally value an event or the consequences of this event on our life.
The way we think about things: our perception and interpretations of events can have a large impact on how much stress we endure. Our minds have the tendency to not see things clearly, often distorting reality to make things seem worse than they really are. Some questions to ask to help you reframe your thinking include:
- Am I seeing this situation in black or white? Are there alternatives to explain what is happening?
- Am I placing unrealistic expectations on myself?
- Am I seeing all of the facts and options?
- Could others have different perspectives? Like what?
- Am I entertaining this thought out of habit?
- Am I setting my own deadlines based on my unrealistic expectations?
- What is the worst that could happen? The best?
How we talk to ourselves: Further to the cognitive distortions that occur in “the mind,” we also add to stress by speaking negatively to ourselves, putting ourselves down, judging, and striving to meet unrealistic “perfectionism” expectations. Try to practice self-compassion by asking yourself: How would I treat or speak to my best friend in this situation?
How Can Employees Manage Stress?
- Avoid Unnecessary Stress – Know your limits and stick to them: be able to say “no” to extra tasks and to being around people, situations, and environments that stress you out.
- Practice Time Management – Poor time management is a cause of stress: know your schedule and make distinct plans and time slots to ensure you have time to complete everything on your to-do list.
- Accept Things That You Can’t Change – Be aware of stressful situations that are out of your control: some stress is caused by forces that there is nothing we can do about – try talking about it with a trusted friend, learn to accept the situation, and let go of the stress for which you have no solution.
- Make Time for Fun and Relaxation – While practicing your time management skills, make sure to slot in time for activities you enjoy and that make you feel good – this is important for self-care! Going for a walk, practicing mindfulness, spending time with people you care about, taking a long bath, or spending time in nature are all good stress-relievers.
- Create a Healthy Lifestyle – Your physical health has an impact on resistance to stress! Simple exercise, eating healthy, reducing sugar and caffeine, avoiding substances, and getting enough sleep can help build resiliency to stressful stimuli (HelpGuide.org, Quick Stress Relief).
- Practice Mindfulness – Take time in the day to pause and just “be” – focus on breathing, tune into your five senses, and become the “observer” of the tendencies of your mind (i.e., the “distortions” and judgements – that are completely normal, by the way). Taking a break from “striving” and “achieving” can help to manage attention, process emotions, think clearly, and manage stress.
How Can Employers Support Employee Stress Management?
Employees who work in poor psychosocial conditions are nine times more likely to report stress than those working in healthy conditions, according to a new study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW). One in ten Canadian workers report poor psychosocial conditions, which could include lack of job security, unmanageable workloads, little supervisor support, emotional work demands, and so on (IWH, 2021). Workers may need to reach into their stress management toolbox for strategies to deal with these concerns, but employers can also support their employees by creating healthy working conditions that employees can thrive in.
Give employees more autonomy over tasks at work, allow them to set their own goals, and use specific strategies to manage their workload. Allowing flexible work options and remote working opportunities can also impact the amount of control employees feel over their work.
Foster open and transparent communication at work, set realistic and clear expectations with proper notice of deadlines, and provide regular coaching sessions to help employees with time management and prioritizing tasks.
Increase Importance: Help employees to see their value at work
Work closely with employees to help them realize the value they add to the organization, implement regular employee recognition, encourage team members to share their “wins” (accomplishments) and recognize their coworkers for the great work they do, and help employees establish and reach professional development goals.
Encourage Rest and Wellness
Set expectations for working hours and allow employees to disconnect completely from work after hours. Do not require employees to answer emails or texts after work hours.
Provide wellness opportunities including walking challenges, mindfulness meet-ups, social opportunities such as virtual trivia nights, leisure groups, icebreakers, or game nights.
Provide Additional Support
Provide 1:1 mental health support and coaching from an Occupational Therapist or provide group training on stress management, resiliency, mindfulness, and/or self-care. These services can be provided by Gowan Consulting’s group of Occupational Therapists across Canada. Set up a consultation to develop your customized employee mental health program: https://calendly.com/ngowan/consultation
How Can Gowan Consulting Help?
- Make a referral to an Occupational Therapist to assist your employees in developing a stress management toolkit.
- Have your employees take our Psychological Safety at Work Training so they can gain skills in managing team relationships in a respectful and civil manner. The program covers stopping stigma around mental health, conflict resolution, understanding bias, and more.
- Train managers on how to support employees by enrolling them in Manager Mental Health Training.
- Consider trainings and awareness sessions for employees on change management, crisis fatigue, and resiliency.
- Provide Success Coaching for employees and managers to individually change mindsets and actions to support return to the workplace or return to the new normal. Contact us or book a consultation to learn more.
International Stress Awareness Week, ISMA, https://isma.org.uk/isma-international-stress-awareness-week
“For a segment of the workforce, psychosocial working conditions are poor across the board,” Institute for Work and Health, October 29, 2021 https://www.iwh.on.ca/newsletters/at-work/106/for-segment-of-workforce-psychosocial-working-conditions-are-poor-across-board?utm_medium=email&utm_source=iwhnews&utm_campaign=iwhnews-2021-11
“Infographic: Work-Related Stress,” Statistics Canada, February 20, 2017, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/contest/finalists-finalistes_2-eng.htm