By Neale McDevitt
An employee sits at his desk working on a report due later that day, trying to ignore his ringing phone and the frequent beep notifying him that he’s received yet another email. With each passing minute, his anxiety grows.
Down the street, workers at a software company have just been told that, due to the economic downturn, one-quarter of the staff will be laid off in the coming weeks. The remaining employees will have to assume an added workload.
Across town at a cell phone service provider, a salesperson feels a growing sense of panic. She isn’t going to make her sales quota for the third consecutive month.
These are just a few examples of sources of stress in the work environment, but the list could be much longer. “Workplace stress can be found virtually everywhere,” says François Labrecque, Organizational Development and Talent Management Advisor. “It spans organizations and fields. No industry is immune.”
Labrecque knows what he’s talking about. A registered counselor, he gives regular seminars on stress management for McGill staff members. On Monday, May 5, he will be conducting one such workshop as part of National Mental Health Week.
The free, half-day seminar will help participants understand the differences between stress, anxiety and burn-out; learn about the physiological reactions we experience when under stress; identify individual and organizational variables that impact stress levels; and learn techniques and strategies to help combat stress.
“In the first part of the course, we will talk about the main differences between stress, anxiety and burnout,” says Labrecque. “I want people to be able to use the appropriate wording when they talk about what they are experiencing, because all three mean different things.
“But I also want people to understand that stress is a normal thing and, in many cases, it is desirable,” continues Labrecque. “Stress is all part of that fight or flight system that has been protecting us since prehistoric times. In certain situations, we need it. It is what makes us jump out of the way of a car that is speeding toward us on the street, and it is what mobilizes us right before a job interview. It would be at a big disadvantage to get rid of that system entirely.”
But elevated stress levels over a prolonged period of time can have a serious impact on a person’s life and on their job. Physiologically, extreme stress can trigger anything from headaches and increased blood pressure to insomnia and a lowered immune system. Mentally, people under a lot of stress can become irritable, depressed or apathetic, as well as suffer mood swings and feelings of hopelessness.
The impact stress has on the workplace can be significant. A 2010 StatsCan survey revealed that more than one in four Canadian workers described their daily lives as highly stressful. Prolonged stress can be costly to employers since it can result in increased absenteeism, more disability claims and a decline in productivity. Over-taxed employees are also prone to being involved in more work-related accidents.
Labrecque says that while there is no magic bullet to rid a person of unhealthy stress, there are a number of ‘tools’ that they can employ to make their situation more manageable. “It’s a question of control,” he says. “It’s a question of learning how to take better charge of the things you can control and to let go of the things that you can’t control.
“For example, if a person’s workload is constantly increasing they often go into complaint mode. This emotion-based response may help in the short-term because sometimes venting to others gives us a certain immediate satisfaction, but it doesn’t help in the long run because all they are doing is complaining.”
Instead, Labrecque suggests people move toward a problem-solving approach in which they actively try to take control of the stressful situation. For the employee with the challenging workload, this could mean anything from reorganizing their workspace or Outlook calendar to be more efficient, to discussing the situation with their supervisor to see if they could rearrange their tasks in a way that would be less demanding. “Sometimes have more control over things than we think,” says Labrecque. “Psychologically speaking, if you are using more problem-solving approach it has a positive impact because you see yourself as doing something. Staying in the complaining mode is really detrimental to your mental health.”
Communication is also a key, as a lot of workplace stress has its roots when employees are unclear of their role. This is especially true when people are working in teams. Managers must make sure there is no ambiguity regarding people’s responsibilities.
And, although it may be a bit of a cliché, nothing helps reduce stress like a good, old-fashioned workout. “We have to find ways to use the excess energy that is produced by a stress reaction. That’s why we suggested people are active and do exercise,” says Labrecque. “Of course, if it’s not your thing to go to the gym, you can go for walks or do some gardening. The trick is to do something you enjoy.”
Labrecque says it is important that people realize there are no quick fixes to magically eliminate stress from their lives, despite all the claims to the contrary of self-help books and articles. “People have to understand that this workshop will not ‘cure’ them. If I had a magic wand that I could wave to get rid of stress, I’d be very popular… and rich,” says Labrecque. “The goals of this workshop are to raise people’s awareness of what stress is and to give them the basic tools to cope during times when their stress levels are elevated so that they don’t feel overwhelmed.
“This workshop is just a first step. We want to raise people’s awareness about exactly what stress is, and we want to give them the tools so that they can start dealing with it in a positive way,” he says. “But I also emphasize that McGill employees also have access to counselling and referral services where they can get further support. The help is there if you need it.”
For more information on all the activities offered by Human Resources during National Mental Health Week (May 5-9) and to register for events, go here.
For a full list of online tools and training offered by the people at Organizational Development, go here.