For some people their occupation is a great source of satisfaction and fulfillment. For others, their occupation is simply a job–something to do to pay bills and get by. Then there is the third category of people, those who love what they do and couldn’t see doing anything else. Regardless of the category, there is one thing that each type of person will share, no matter how they feel about their job–stress.
The statistics regarding stress in the workplace tend to tell it all. The number of people receiving counseling for work-related stress issues has doubled in the last twenty years. Over half of people surveyed in the United States (sixty-two percent) feel that the workplace plays a significant role in their personal stress levels.
When stress is so pervasive in society, recognizing stressful situations can actually be more difficult. After all, human are adaptive creatures. When placed in a stressful environment day after day, after a while we simply come accept the increased stress levels as the norm. When this happens, we tend to ignore the effects of stress on our own bodies and behavior.
One of the first signs of stress is a decreased quality of work. Stress affects concentration and when our ability to focus on the task at hand is impaired, the outcome of our work will suffer. I used to work in the moving industry which had a very busy summer season. I could tell when members of my staff were stressing out during the summer because the number of mistakes would skyrocket. The increased workload usually wasn’t the cause of the stress as most of the staff had been with me for years and were very experienced. The mistakes were usually the product of stress in another area. Once I could identify the issue and deal with it, the percentage of mistakes would drop back to low season levels.
Stress also clouds our judgement. Some people are very creative and resourceful, but when faced with chronic stress the same people tend to develop tunnel vision. They are unable to see new possible solutions to problems and can’t think outside the box. Stress extinguishes one of their best qualities–creativity.
Procrastination is another sign of stress in the workplace. When stress levels begin to rise, some people respond by finding ways to spend a lot time on unimportant activities. Rather than confront and resolve the issue that is stressing them out, these people find that Facebook is suddenly much more interesting than it really is. Or they become mired in what I like to call an analysis paralysis. They spend so much time stressing on a problem that they can’t move forward. Unable to make a decision, they just keep spinning their wheels about an issue’s smallest details.
Irritability and erratic behavior are also signs of chronic stress in the workplace. When we work in an environment that keeps our fight-or-flight reactions on high alert, changes in mood and behavior are to be expected. I’ve seen very happy, optimistic people enter a stressful office, and after six months their entire outlook on life seemed to have changed. No longer seeing a bright future, they seemed to be waiting for the next problem or crisis. They focused on the problems, not the possibilities, and their personalities reflected that shift in perception.
It is important to remember that stress in the workplace tends to create stress in the home. Some people feel they can separate work and personal life, keeping each component in its assigned place. Personally, I feel that is rarely possible. What happens in our personal life affects our professional life, and the opposite holds true. Trying to keep the two separate simply caused more angst, and eventually more personal stress.
We all know that life is stressful. After all, stress is defined as the reaction of a body to a given situation. Since we all have to react to situations, by definition we all suffer from stress. The difference is how we choose to react. And when stress is so pervasive in a society that we accept it as the norm, we need to be attuned to the signs of that stress.
Unfortunately, stress in the workplace is fact of life. We will never be able to remove it completely. However, the level of stress is something that we can modify. One of the ways to do that is to acknowledge the effects of stress on workplace behavior. Once we can do that, we can be on our way to creating a healthier, happier, and more satisfying work environment.