Even if we're not living it on a daily basis, work stress is something almost all of us experience from time to time. And as the year nears its end, work stress can for some become unmanageable. Unrewarding work, a heavy workload, long hours, workplace conflict and restructuring are all common sources of work stress and if an unresolved stressful work situation continues long term, it can have a major negative impact on health and wellbeing.
A University College London study analysed data from 600,000 people, and found those who clocked up 55 hours a week had a one-third greater risk of having a stroke than people who worked a normal 40 hour week.
"Sudden death from overwork is often caused by stroke and is believed to result from a repetitive triggering of the stress response," the researchers reported. And the Mental Health Foundation UK reports that exposure to prolonged stress increases the risk of depression and disabling anxiety conditions, as well as alcohol misuse.
Careers expert and psychologist Caroline Sandford says the most common source of stress among her clients comes from roles that are not motivating, rewarding or providing enough challenge.
She says the instigation of performance management tends to cause anxiety, and other high stress triggers are increased workloads without additional resources to achieve them, conflict with managers and colleagues, and potential changes through restructuring. The danger is that "work stress tends to build until it becomes 'the norm', which over time takes a heavy toll," she notes.
Though some stress can be good in that it helps individuals focus, Sandford says that living with continual stress often damages people emotionally, physically, cognitively and behaviourally. "I often see clients when they are in crisis, when stress levels have reached the stage where work performance is beginning to suffer and their health and wellbeing is affected," she says, and has noticed that people tend to just accept the increased stress, which leaves them in a position where they feel they are no longer able to change the situation.
Sandford's clients report that excess stress often has a negative impact on their behaviour in the workplace as they try to cope.
"Under extreme stress, coping strategies are most likely at an all-time low which can easily result in what may be considered inappropriate reactions to feedback or instructions from senior staff."
Work stress often carries over into employees' personal lives and affects their ability to sleep, brings issues with eating and dietary options, and causes irritability when dealing with others outside of work, says Sandford.
"For some, stress may cause them to isolate themselves socially. If stress is the result of an increased workload, some individuals may work longer hours and in weekends to cover the demands, which takes them further away from their personal support network."
When an employee has been stressed for some time it can be hard to see what changes are possible, so one of Sandford's first recommendations is to try and objectively see what can be changed in the short term. "Sometimes there are fixes that can easily be put in place, such as delegating a project, swapping tasks with another colleague, changing hours, taking a short break, or gaining a part time job that gives regular income. It is very important to communicate with your manager -- they may be more open to ideas than you think."
If financial commitments are hindering an exit strategy from a stressful work situation, this needs to be part of any plan, says Sandford. "The first question would be, what happens if the stress continues and the individual can no longer work?
"Having a staged plan is often helpful -- working out what has to change immediately, and what can change in the future. It is important to reinforce to the individual that they have control over this, and ensure that they have the right resources, knowledge and support to make changes where required."
Exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep. Make sure that these are not compromised. It will give you a great core to work from.
Talk to family, friends, work colleagues or specialists about what you are going through. Sometimes talking is enough to help you work it out
Spend time doing the things that energise you -- a walk, a movie, reading a book, hanging out with friends.
Seek help from a professional -- a medical practitioner, employee assistance programme or career specialist.