All professional work is likely to come accompanied by some stress. Ideally, its level would be just enough to get more out of us, but not so much as to interfere with our performance. In reality, many people’s level of work stress is likely to be disruptive. Last year, a survey of almost 400 corporate employees in Ireland reported that more than one-third would consider changing job because of stress. Research has separately identified a link between stress and work impairment. People who self-reported as being highly stressed were significantly less productive than those who were not.
Stress may also affect health. For example, high work stress has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events, likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome (a risk factor for diabetes), and even of dying from any cause. Stress is also likely to play a role in the development of psychological illness such as depression and anxiety. All of these outcomes negatively affect a person’s productivity and lower their quality of life. In addition, high stress can affect the quality of relationships, between employees and managers, between co-workers, or between family members.
Effects on behaviour
The other area where stress influences wellbeing is through its effects on behaviour. Research finds that people make poorer choices when they are stressed. For example, people make less healthy choices around food; are less likely to stick with planned exercise; and are generally less disciplined. An incredible 80 percent of us apparently change our eating habits when stressed. Some increase food quantity and others decrease it but both groups tend to reduce food quality, by choosing more ‘comfort’ and rewarding foods. So stress can easily derail attempts at lifestyle improvement because of its influence on our behaviours.
In practice, people’s ability to deal with stress effectively is likely to vary substantially. Some people are better at managing stress than others and can find functional responses like being highly disciplined with their time or their health habits. For most of us, attempts to improve health and lifestyle will need to include strategies for managing and reducing stress. In corporate situations, approaches to stress reduction include in-house gyms; yoga; mindfulness; chill-out rooms; and employee assistance programs (EAP’s), which typically include counselling.
Any and all strategies may help. EAP’s are a good safety net but are not likely to be enough, typically only being used after a person develops a health problem. Exercise-based approaches are worth considering, not least because only around 20% of Irish adults get recommended activity levels. Mindfulness can be a good option because it may be the most transferable of strategies, given that it teaches fundamental, building block-type attending skills that can be readily used in daily life situations. The main thing is to create opportunities for stress reduction within people’s work environments, as it’s what people do consistently that they are most likely to keep up when they need it the most.