If we respond to a request from a superior at work (stressor) as an exciting challenge that can lead to more job responsibility then we are experiencing eustress (challenge stress) – a positive mental or physical reaction that energies and concentrates our effort to perform well.
But if we experience the request as a threat to our job prospects, then we are experiencing distress – a negative mental or physical reaction to stress that always involves a mix of anger or fear. Distress is the dysfunctional result of stress and its appearance usually means that the employee is unsuccessful in adapting to or removing the stressor from his work environment. When we experience challenge stress it is a reflection of our successful adaptation to and control of stress in the work setting.
The key to coping indefinitely with the marauding nature of the resistance stage is to ‘train for the long races’ in life and work. We must pace ourselves and optimist our work performance without depleting our capacities to take satisfaction from other important elements of our lives. It is a complex balancing act to be sure.
Individuals who perform emergency rescue and medical work, direct and coordinate the flights of aircraft and perform police and military tasks all experience near-constant alarm reactions in their work. It is therefore not surprising that these workers often experience the symptoms of the exhaustion stage more quickly than their counterparts in less taxing occupations. To keep people functioning in such stressful positions, leaders of such work teams and military units value the importance of rehearsal and emergency simulation. Constant practice and readiness remove the temporary performance obstacles (panic, freezing, paralysis in decision making) presented by the alarm reaction stage. Preparing people to be rational and effective under extreme emergency conditions requires teaching them how to suppress the alarm reaction through countless trials and practice runs.
The relationship between job stress and performance shown below. The logic of the graph is that low to moderate stress levels stimulate and challenge employees to increase their job efforts and thereby raise their performance as they become more capable of handling job-induced stress. However, chronically high stress levels create unattainable demands which frustrate employees whose performance deteriorates rapidly. Likewise, if stress levels on the job are moderate, but long lasting, performance will also deteriorate due to the problem of cumulative stress. This last point explains why hospitals rotate medical personnel from emergency department duty and military units rotate personnel out of hostile fire zones.
These questions help you assess your people on the job. Think about their job during the last six months and rate how often each question’s symptom is true. Scale:
1, only rarely;
- They appear to have difficulties concentrating on the job.
- You hear them communicate about the benefits of quitting or other jobs.
- They appear to be more withdrawn
- They are regularly late and "sleep in". This is possibly due to a fear and dread of going to work.
- They have been missing a lot of work lately due to avoidance or absenteeism.
- Their job is expanding into their leisure hours and they have lost control of "Work life balance".
- They have become more irritable with some co-workers.
- They don’t feel refreshed after the weekend.
- They are often bored at work even though their is lots of work to do.
- They have been using excessive alcohol and drugs to unwind from the pressures of work.
Scoring: 10–20: They are doing OK. 21–30: Think about the value of preventive action and some life changes. 31–40: They are showing signs of burnout and you must support them to take immediate action to achieve improved work-life balance. Over 40: You have burned out. Watch out for other signs of diseases of adaptation in the General Adaptation Syndrome.
Employees are now much more aware of their personal responsibilities for coping with job stress and for maintaining healthy lifestyles. So much evidence of the importance of healthy life styles exists that we don’t have to be convinced that we should take responsibility for our well-being. We naturally want to improve the quality of our lives and controlling our reactions to the stress we experience on the job is a crucial component of work-life satisfaction.
Personal strategies for managing (and controlling) job stress are:
1. Exercise. Moderate, regular exercise is strongly correlated with personal well-being (peace of mind), weight control, rising levels of ‘good’ cholesterol and falling levels of bad cholesterol, success in kicking the smoking habit, lowered alcohol consumption and other health risk factors. If you can make a pleasant form of moderate exercise part of your daily routine you will find yourself to be more at ease, less quick to anger, more accepting of others and a bit more resilient in your life and work.
2. Relaxation. Practitioners of meditation and relaxation exercises claim that it reduces their heart rates, blood pressure and other physiological indicators of stress.
You can also strengthen your relaxation response at work by ‘keeping your distance’ from work problems. For instance, when think you are in the middle of an intractable work crisis ask yourself: ‘Will I be upset a month from now?’ When you ask this question you are substituting calming rational thinking for emotion-driven, catastrophic impulses. The more you practice this simple ‘distancing’ technique the cooler you will become under pressure.
3. Diet. We are what we eat. Diet plays a significant, indirect role in stress management. Good eating habits (moderation comes to mind) contribute to our overall health, making us less vulnerable to diseases of resistance.
4. Differentiate guilt from shame. We all experience guilt or shame as a result of traumatic events in life. One aspect of wisdom is the ability to differentiate between guilt for your actions and shame for who you are – and between what you are responsible for and what you cannot control. Guilt is a useful emotion when we resolve to make amends; e.g., it leads to a productive outcome such as reconciliation. People who experience guilt will alleviate it by becoming more empathetic and working harder to resolve conflicts. Individuals who feel shame isolate themselves (I’m a bad person), become depressed (I’m worthless) and alienate others (It’s their fault). Shame is the more intractable problem on the job because its sufferers may be very indecisive (I’m bad or worthless). When the sufferer is your boss, you will suffer too! An indecisive boss can be a real threat to your satisfaction on the job because there is no ready solution.
5. Build up your stress resistance. The key principle is learning to handle more stress while you resolve to experience less of it. If you are a high-achieving Type A manager, take more walks and don’t eat lunch at your desk! In addition, accept the fact that you are not a weakling when you delegate some tasks to subordinates. The goal is to learn how to control your anxiety by adjusting your breathing, correcting your posture (drop your shoulders), and bringing your body back to a calm state.
As a manager of people it is your responsibility to be aware of your individual team members stress. These are some of the things you can do to help reduce stress and tension.
Reward performance and productivity, not ‘face-time’ spent working. A employee who travelled 30 per cent of her time including weekends resented her boss who required her to be in the office by 8 a.m. on Mondays. While she kept up her performance, she told herself, ‘OK I’ll do the best I can, but you’re not getting any more from me’. Relieved when this boss left, she was much more productive and motivated by his replacement who had a very different management style. Her new boss said:, ‘I trust you to get your job done. I’m interested in results’. The employee responded by thinking, ‘I was completely loyal to her and much more enthusiastic about my work’.
Live by your values and encourage others to live by theirs. A top female manager and her female subordinate took very different approaches to handling work and motherhood. After maternity leave, the subordinate was tormented by her job-induced separation from her child while her boss joked, ‘[I’m] more of an ice queen’. She cares for her two children without any guilt or sense of distraction at work. Despite the boss’s different views, she helped her subordinate ease her concerns by designing a job-sharing programme that has delighted her subordinate, raised her loyalty and prevented the occurrence of a host of performance problems.
Build respect based on trust and respect. A financial analyst did not expect time off when her toddler needed a tonsillectomy. To her surprise, her boss looked at her and said, ‘Your daughter comes first’. The gesture fostered intense loyalty in the employee. As she was preparing for a long-awaited vacation her boss’s assistant called for help in preparing a pressing management report. Without hesitation she drove to work and helped get the report done.
- Alarm reaction is the ‘fight or flight’ response that mobilizes the body and mind to defend against physical threat.
- Behavioral stress symptoms are consistent patterns of employees’ low performance, inattentiveness and lack of carefulness in work. These patterns in employees may suggest that they are nearing the exhaustion phase in General Adaptation Syndrome.
- Stressors mount up and their effects are cumulative. At some point an employees’ resources and capacities to cope with stress begin to deteriorate and diseases of resistance or adaptation ensue.
- Challenge stress (eustress) results in increased employee effort and performance.
- Environmental stress factors originate from economic, political or technological uncertainty and induce alarm reaction or press employees with limited stress-coping resources into exhaustion in General Adaptation Syndrome.
- Intermittent explosive disorder connotes angry outbursts that are inconsistent with the demands of the situation.
- Exhaustion is the final stage of General Adaptation Syndrome, and is the wear and tear on the body and mind created by chronic stress overload.
- Type A behavior is a set of actions and emotions characterize by competitiveness, impatience and sometimes hostility that is rooted in self-doubt.
- Job burnout is prolonged psychological withdrawal from work by employees who suffer from chronic work overload.
- Organizational stress factors increase in number and intensity in firms that are contemplating downsizing or outsourcing to revitalize a flagging business model (deteriorating competitive advantage).
- Physiological stress symptoms are changes in a person’s metabolism and bodily processes that can occur as headaches, high blood pressure and heart disease.
- Psychological stress symptoms are chronic negative emotional reactions to stress such as anxiety, irritability and depression. When these reactions are chronic in the employee, he or she is nearing the exhaustion phase of General Adaptation Syndrome.
Reference: Edinburgh Business school