Stress at Work: A primer for understanding and coping with workplace tension


We all experience some stress at work; while some of it may be motivating, too much of it may be debilitating. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) revealed that between 29% and 40% of employees are extremely stressed, and a study by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that 80% of employees experience some level of stress on a regular basis.

Stress is mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from experiencing adverse, demanding, or threatening circumstances. We typically classify two categories of stress, acute and chronic. Acute stress occurs when there is an unexpected and sudden event that throws you off balance and arouses emotion for a brief period. This includes hearing bad news, receiving unanticipated criticism or a personal attack, or having an unexpected conflict or argument. We have all experienced it, and have most often overcome it and gone on with our work and our lives. Acute stress can be dealt with by breathing deeply, exercising, listening to music, venting to a friend or colleague, and cognitively reframing the event so you interpret it as less threatening.

Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure, suffered over a long period of time. Usually, individuals dealing with chronic stress feel as though they have no control over the situation. There are several situations at work that contribute to chronic stress, such as work demands beyond what seems possible, unclear expectations, dire consequences for errors or mistakes, bullying, toxic management, ongoing conflict, changes in work requirements, responsibility without authority, role ambiguity, and job insecurity.

While it is management’s responsibility to prevent such situations, the employee must deal with it. Some of the same procedures for dealing with acute stress are also effective in dealing with chronic stress, but because this unfurls over a long period of time there are additional measures an employee can take:

  • TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Do not deal with stress by engaging in inappropriate or harmful behaviors such as overeating, drinking, taking drugs, or by not participating in exercise and social activities.

  • BE AWARE OF YOUR FEELINGS. Recognize your emotions and do not attempt to suppress them. You may want a written record of the specific situations; documenting the events that cause your stress may be important depending on how your organization handles it. Separately, writing down your feelings about the events may help you cope with the stress, or identify patterns that may be useful in preventing it. In both cases, take care to make sure the writing won’t be seen by anyone else unless you want to share it.

  • FIND PERSONAL SUPPORT. The support may come from trusted colleagues, friends and professionals. Vent your feelings to trusted individuals who are good listeners. You may also seek professional support from counselors, therapists, and employee assistance professionals within the organization. If your organization doesn’t have support programs, you may need to seek professional help outside of your workplace.

  • HAVE A MEANINGFUL DISCUSSION WITH YOUR MANAGER/SUPERVISOR. Prepare for such a discussion with data and evidence and with a request for specific changes that will improve your specific situation. Be aware of the concerns of your manager, and avoid blame and anger in your discussion. Prepare and rehearse your presentation with a trusted colleague.

  • FIND WAYS OF REDUCING CONFLICT. If the stress is caused by conflict with another individual find proven methods for reducing conflict. There are many training programs directed at reducing conflict. Read about or participate in training on conflict reduction. It’s important to try and understand the other person’s point of view, while also resisting becoming defensive (or putting the other individual on the defensive). Seek a solution that works for both parties; prepare to compromise or even to conclude that you cannot come to an agreement, but always be respectful. If necessary, seek out a supervisor.

  • PROTECT YOUR PERFORMANCE. As you deal with your stress you must keep your performance at an acceptable level. To accomplish this, keep control of your daily responsibilities, make sure you remain organized at work and at home. You want to make sure your work does no suffer, but given the stress you are under, it is best to simplify your work activities and avoid multi-tasking so that you can do your best work on the most important tasks at hand.

  • CONSIDER CHANGING YOUR POSITION. If this situation gets dire, or you are confident you’ve exhausted all means to improve it, you may need to look elsewhere for work. If possible, you can start internally by requesting a transfer or altering your job description, but you may ultimately want to leave for a different organization. If you request a transfer describe why you believe you will function better at a different job or activity. Describe the conditions that are of current concern, and explain why it would benefit both you and the organization for you to switch positions or departments. Similarly, if you are interviewing outside of your organization, focus on what you are looking for in a new position, and not the negative aspects you are dealing with in the present position. Overall, it is better to describe the workplace conditions rather than your feelings of stress.

Be aware that there will likely be spill-over between job stress and your personal stress. It’s critical that you handle your stress before it becomes damaging to your health. Most organizations want their employees to thrive, and may have some programs available to help. Consider talking to your manager or HR representative. Most importantly, you should never suffer in silence.

If you are having a crisis at work and don’t know where to turn, contact Dr. Reichman. He can put you in touch with organizations that can help. This article is part one of a two-part series on stress in the workplace. Next week, Dr. Reichman will write about how organizations can lessen workplace stress.

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