High workloads are the most common cause of workplace stress; driven by unrealistic expectations from managers.

People who understand and control stress are calmer at work and better positioned to control their careers, while employers who do the same can create less stressful workplaces, says local author Wayne Froggatt.

Froggatt's new book Taking Control: Manage Stress to Get the Most out of Life follows earlier titles Fearless and Choose to be Happy and provides strategies for managing inner stress, stressful situations and people, including those encountered in the workplace.

"I am amazed at how many HR managers have no idea how people tick. It's also true that toxic managers [cause] stress," says Froggatt.

Not surprisingly, Froggatt says too-high workloads are the most common cause of workplace stress; driven by unrealistic expectations about the amount of work people can cope with. The pace of change associated with organisational restructuring, mergers and buy-outs, the disruption caused by board and senior management changes, and the introduction of new IT systems are further potential causes of workplace stress for people who probably already have stress in their personal lives, says Froggatt.

"A lot of people just get settled into a job and start to get the hang of it, when along comes a new manager with a great idea about how to restructure. I personally went through three major restructures within six years working in the health service [industry]," says Froggatt.

Froggatt says ever-shorter deadlines and the expectation that people can be contacted at any time are both common in modern workplaces, as is customer and manager expectation that IT systems enable people to respond to requests faster.

"Email puts enormous pressure on people because if you don't respond within a day or two, you now get a shirty response," says Froggatt.

He says employees who are dealt with unjustly at work or assigned too much work often don't know how to speak out assertively and so they become stressed instead. This can make them angry or submissive; reactions that can both adversely affect career progress because colleagues and employers don't recognise stress as the problem. However, anti-stress skills or strategies are useless without modification of negative thinking patterns, says Froggatt.

"Someone who is stressed by a manager might 'catastrophise' what will happen if they speak up; they worry that they won't be liked and think 'I couldn't stand that'," says Froggatt.

To resolve stress, he says people need to first understand how they react to it, then learn 'rethinking' strategies, and then practice those skills in the workplace.

At first glance, Froggatt's 'rethinking' strategies seem destined mainly to solve the stress some New Zealand publishers face when they need to sell a book in volume - after all, self-help books on stress management are hardly new and many who read them testify that any positive thinking 'power' tends to leak away over time. Critics of rethinking and cognitive stress therapy also maintain that no amount of self-talk will alter a stressful work environment or difficult manager - the best an employee can do is to tackle the employer or find a new job.

Froggatt, who also specialises in health counselling and psychotherapy and lectures in cognitive-behaviour therapy at the Eastern Institute of Technology, acknowledges self-help strategies can't help everyone.

"I encourage people to read [self-help] books sceptically and decide whether the advice is worthy. If they decide the strategies and exercises won't work for them, then they probably won't," he says.

General anxiety disorders, depression, and post traumatic stress syndrome - conditions that may require medication - can be mistaken for general stress, which is why his book includes information on these disorders to help people self-diagnose, says Froggatt. At the same time, he says people who have faith in mental re-training and who practice rethinking strategies will feel increasingly better over time.

"Rethinking strategies will never completely cure some things, but they will go some way towards ameliorating the symptoms. In my book, there are chapters on the need to be physically healthy, manage money well and there are relaxation exercises, but people can be blocked from doing any of these things by negative attitudes or patterns of thinking," says Froggatt.

He says old habits die hard, which is why people often feel stress management techniques have stopped working. Those prepared to check their tension levels daily using relaxation exercises of a few minutes will find adjusting their thinking becomes more automatic over time - how long depends on the length of time someone has been stressed.

"If you have been a tense person from childhood it will take longer," says Froggatt.

He says while its true employees can end up powerless as a result of an employer's actions, powerlessness is more commonly a perception by the stressed person. If it turns out the employee genuinely has no course of action, they may need help to accept the situation rather than be stressed by it, but the best option is to try to change the situation, and if people are calm rather than stressed they are more likely to be able to direct circumstances for their own benefit, says Froggatt.

Froggatt makes a distinction between good stress and bad stress in the workplace, which he terms 'distress'.

Examples of distress can be as varied as a bored employee stressed by inactivity and lack of challenge, and one whose workload and deadlines are too demanding and beyond their control. Conversely, good stress keeps people on their toes; ensures they sell well or deliver a dynamic presentation, aids creativity and will dissipate when the employee leaves for the day.

He says in today's stretched labour market it is in an employer's best interests to recognise stress in the workplace and manage it - improved ability to identify stress, especially burnout, is going to help an employer to be health and safety compliant, and to retain people.

"When an employer sees an employee regularly staying back to catch up on work when most people aren't, it doesn't necessarily mean the employee is facing burnout, but the employer should notice and be aware of the possibility," says Froggatt.

Taking Control: Manage Stress to Get the Most out of Life is by Wayne Froggatt. It is published by Harper Collins and retails for $29.99.

STRESS-BUSTER
Employees

* Examine your life and be clear about the causes of your stress - stress in your personal life is not your employer's problem. If workplace stress is the problem, inform your employer; if your concerns are ignored or derided, consult an employment lawyer or health and safety consultant about how to proceed.

* Use books, internet research, medical and mental health experts to help you understand the difference between stress, depression, anxiety and other highly common mental and behavioural disorders.

Employers

* Know your responsibilities regarding the requirement to provide a mentally healthy workplace.

* Understand the difference between stress and other mental disorders and train key managers to recognise the signs of workplace stress in employees. Realise that different people are stressed by different things.

* Handle employee feedback regarding stress professionally; avoid being defensive or dismissive. When the lines of communication are open, workplace stress can often be resolved by making slight and inexpensive adjustments to the way an individual is working.