Expert topics

A great part of our everyday communication is focused on stressful events happening to us or others around us. Stress is an everyday part of our lives and there is no person that hasn’t felt stressed at least once in their lives. It can affect mental and physical health of an individual and affect their functioning in various areas. Lately, more and more research has been focused on stress in the workplace. Work life quality has become a very important aspect both to workers and the organisations they work in. With the changing standard of living, the change of the working system came the change of the traditional outlook on work. Where before work was solely means to an end, in the modern world, work is now an important source of not just material, but personal satisfaction also. If a person if exposed to stressful work situations for longer periods of time it can negatively impact other aspects of their life. Stress lowers the productivity and leaves long term negative consequences psychologically and on the quality of life in general.

What is Workplace Stress?

Stress in general is a set of emotional, physical and/or behavioural reactions that happen when we consider a situation dangerous or upsetting, when it poses a hard to solve problem (Arambašić, 200). Stress at work occurs when an imbalance between workplace requirements and the ability of an individual to meet those requirements. Depending on the type of job one has, sources of stress can differentiate, but the most common ones are bad working conditions, time pressure, to many tasks, unclear working role, lack of professional advancement, bad relations with coworkers, and the inability to balance professional and private life. Stressful situations and events are called stressors, and in time they can represent a negative experience from an emotional viewpoint, which correlates to anxiety, tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and lack of motivation to work.

How to Recognise if We Are Stressed?

Many people use the word stress when talking about an uncomfortable situation, others use it to describe a physical reaction, and some to describe their emotions and thoughts. The symptoms and indicators of stress are divided into three groups:

  • Physical symptoms – fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, racing heart, sleep issues, digestive problems, heightened blood pressure…
  • Psychological symptoms – feeling overwhelmed, irritability, pessimism, concentration problems, low self-respect, depression, anxiety, etc.
  • Behavioural symptoms – visible changes in behaviour, for example missing work, being late for work, heightened aggression, conflicts with coworkers, lack of creativity and interest for work…

When we are under a lot of stress symptoms from only one group can occur, or multiple types of symptoms can occur at the same time. We are usually the most aware of our physical changes and so we need to pay attention to those first, then focus on the other indicators. People differ in their responses to stress and in the situations they find stressful. Besides that, if we consider a situation harmless, we are less likely to find it stress inducing. The situation itself doesn’t necessarily have to be stressful, what is important is our interpretation of it. The factors that contribute to the interpretation depend on both the situation and the person in it. For the wellbeing of the individual, ways of dealing with stress are of great long term importance.

Dealing with Stress

When one experiences stress, dealing with it is an immediate reaction. It means thought and behaviour a person uses to lower the amount of stress they’re in and avoid unwanted outcomes. We differentiate three main strategies to deal with stress – problem/action focused, emotion focused, and avoidance focused. Which strategy someone will use depends on the situation and the person. When using the problem or action focused strategy a person actively works to remove the source of stress. This type of strategy is considered the most effective in situations we can influence. On the other hand, if the problem causing us stress is not something we can control, people use the emotion focused method, meaning they focus on their emotions and thoughts, less on the stressor itself. Avoidance focused stress deal strategy is the least useful strategy because one completely ignores the situation and their emotions and is thus not able to solve the problem that is causing stress.

Recovery from Work

In the last few years, work-related stress research also focused on everyday recovery from work. Recovery refers to all activities people do in their free time, that help them relax and think about work less. It has already been mentioned that demanding tasks at work lead to overloading the organism, which can be seen in behavioural, psychological, and physical responses of an individuals. Under normal conditions, that is when a person is not exposed to working demands, these reactions recede and the recovery process stars. The outcome is a decrease of fatigue and other negative effects of a stressful situation. Research shows that there are four main ways of how people recover form work:

  1. Psychological distancing – not thinking about work related topics. One shouldn’t think of anything that has to do with work during their free time, or in other words, “don’t take the job home with you”
  2. Relaxation – activities like relaxing, listening to music, taking a walk, other activities that don’t require great physical or psychological effort
  3. Perfecting of skills – activities that provide challenging experiences and learning opportunities in areas other than work, (e.g. learning a foreign language, new hobby)
  4. Control – the ability to choose between two or more options. If a person doesn’t have control over choosing a leisure activity, but is instead obligated to complete other chores, stress levels rise and the process of recovery is delayed

How someone recovers from work depends on the individual and on the type of work they do. If a person works in an office, or has a stationary, sitting job, it is likely that they’ll prefer a more active approach to leisure time. On the other hand, individuals who have a physically demanding and tiring job will probably spend their free time in relaxing, not moving around too much.

In conclusion, strategies for dealing with stress and recovery from work can have an important part in the impact of stress on our general wellbeing. When you think about it, people spend a third of their day at work, and if we are constantly exposed to stressful situations in our workplace it will negatively reflect on all aspects of our lives. We will become unsatisfied, frustrated, and depressed not just at work, but also at home with our family and friends. Because of that, it is important to fight stress, not let little things stress us out. And if stress does happen, we should focus as much as possible on removing the very source of it, that is to solve the problem causing it. Our free time should be spent on enjoyable activities, without thinking too hard about work, and it should be spent recharging our batteries for the next day. If one feels they cannot overcome stress on their own, seeking professional help is advised!

Emina Nezirević
Psychologist