June 2, 2023
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Workplace stress: use it or lose it


Bruce Gillies

Bruce Gillies

Workplace stress is a very individual phenomenon. It can kill through hypertension and mismanaged emotions. On the other hand, it can be a very valuable tool for leaders at every level to use to motivate their folks. Let’s take a look at the phenomenon of stress.

Unmanaged stress is likely the single most important and controllable cause of workplace expenses in an organization. Unmanaged stress leads to disgruntled employees, tardiness, turnover and even workplace violence.  It causes hypertension, ulcers, distractions, dysfunctional conflict and poor communications.

So, what if you had absolutely no stress in your life?  Sounds like a good deal right?  Not so fast.  Without stress, you would be dead already.

Stress is important to us for many reasons. We eat because our body feels the stress of not enough food. We have conflict in the workplace because of the stress of feeling our ideas are not being heard. New ideas lead to innovation. The key is to develop a stress-management strategy, both at the individual and organizational level.

Briefly, stress is an organism’s response to a change in its environment. Not only do people get stressed but every living thing gets stressed. Fortunately, humans can actually do something active about 90 percent of the stressors in our life.

There are several phases to a stressful event. Much like the grief response, we each go through these stages at different speeds and intensities. Our initial response is the alarm stage when we first become aware of the stressor in our lives. We quickly evaluate whether the stressor is something we need to be concerned about or not. As we figure out it’s something to be concerned about, we start to marshal our resources to begin to resist the stress until it either goes away or we succumb to the demands on our emotions and body. In some cases, unmanaged stress can result in psychological, physiological and behavioral breakdowns. The key is to know when we are at the point of exhausting our available resources and regain some back.

How though? Resistance to the stress of life is fairly predictable in its process. Once we start to experience the overwhelming aspects of stress, we can do several things:

1. Ask for help.  Counseling, additional assistance in the workplace, training and even insight from the boss can provide much-needed resources to work through the stress.

2. Re-evaluate the importance to you of the stressor. Is it really something that you should be worried about or will it resolve itself?

3. Be proactive in addressing the source of the stress. Is it something that you can control or is it something you must avoid?

4. Do nothing. Not recommended all the time, but in some cases the stressor will resolve itself if left alone.

Many organizations have developed stress management tools to help employees work through life and work-place stressors. Employee Assistance Programs are excellent sources for employees.

How can you as an individual manage your stress? Here are some ideas:

1. Maintain your health. A healthy body is very highly linked to a stable emotional state that can resist and work through stress.

2. Know what stresses you. Be aware of the situations you get into and understand how you will respond. If you find yourself stressed frequently at the same situation, maybe it’s time to get out of that situation.

3. Evaluate the stressor and consider what the outcomes might be. For 99 percent of these, no one will die or be injured. Consider what would be the worst-case scenario in the stressful situation.  If you’ll live through it, is it worth the intensity of the stress you are putting into it?

4. Know your limits. Ask for help before you get to the exhaustion state in stress.
Stress can be a motivator but it can also be a killer. Use stress for positive reasons. Get used to knowing how stress can motivate you and evaluate what you can do with the energy stress creates.

• Bruce Gillies, who has a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology, has more than 25 years of experience helping individuals work through stressful situations in the workplace. He is the director of the California Lutheran University Online MBA program.