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Coping With Stress at Work

Updated on January 17, 2013

Although most of us experience some level of stress at some time or times at work, this intermittent stress does not pose serious health problems.

Some of us, however, experience chronic, heavy-duty, daily work stress for years at a time.

It's important to investigate the health issues related to this latter type of stress so that we can make informed decisions about the value of our current job - and make changes, if necessary.

Some jobs are more stressful than others and require close self-examination before pursuing. Seek the advice of a career counselor, and ask yourself, do I have the personal characteristics needed to handle these jobs without sacrificing my health?

Job Factors that can Lead to Stress-related Illness

In this article, we will briefly examine:

  • Overload
  • Burnout
  • Lack of control
  • Other factors

Overload

Most of us perceive being overloaded when we have to work long hours, endure certain workplace characteristics, have no job autonomy, learning opportunities, scheduling flexibility, or supportive supervisors.

Here, we'll look at work overload vs role overload.

Work Overload

When we feel like we have too much to do, not enough time to do it, and don't take adequate rest or vacation periods, our health can suffer. In these instances, our HPA (Hypothalamic-pituituary-adrenocortical) system activates repeatedly and increases our risk of cardiovascular disease.

Also, many of us, when feeling overloaded, put exercise and nutritional eating 'on the back burner,' further increasing our stress.

Role Overload

Role overload is most often seen among working mothers with inadequate resources and support.

For many working mothers, fulfilling employment is a good source of self-esteem and life satisfaction. But, this only appears to be the case if the mom can balance her roles and receives adequate support in all of her roles - vocational, parental, and marital. Avoiding the sense of role overload requires that she perceive control at work, brings in a good income, has adequate child care, and has a supportive family.

Firefighters experience one of the highest rates of burnout.
Firefighters experience one of the highest rates of burnout. | Source

Burnout

Another aspect of career choice to ponder is the possible psychiatric problems that have historically occurred in jobs that carry high levels of physical and psychological exhaustion, such as health care workers, dentists, paramedics, air traffic controllers, firefighters - or any job where you work with needy people.

If you are entering one of those career fields, or are already in one, know that burnout is not inevitable. Factors that mitigate health issues among these types of workers are: good self-esteem, a strong sense of personal control, the ability to remain hopeful, and a generally optimistic view of life. Are these characteristics innate to your personality?

Some in wait staff positions report stress due to a perceived lack of control over their jobs.
Some in wait staff positions report stress due to a perceived lack of control over their jobs. | Source

Control

An issue common among secretaries, wait staff, and middle managers is that of perceived control.

Surprisingly, both extremes of control can cause stress-related health problems. Workers with little or no control over their jobs (those with dull, repetitive tasks) exhibit higher levels of stress hormones, higher blood pressure, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, anger, coronary artery disease, and an increased overall risk of death.

Communication Choices

On the other hand, too much choice can also be detrimental to our health. For instance, the telecommunications explosion has brought on a whole new type of stress for many workers. With e-mail, laptops, notebooks, cell phones, and more, there is seemingly nothing to keep us from working all the time. Are you the kind of person who can turn off their Blackberry?

Other Sources of Work-related Stress

  • Job Loss: Even the perception of job insecurity is linked with lower immunity levels and high blood pressures. Actual layoffs are often accompanied by high serum cholesterol levels, increased smoking, alcohol consumption, and prescription drugs, along with increased body weight and hospital admissions.
  • Inadequate Career Advancement: If you feel that you're being promoted too slowly or your work is not getting proper recognition, this too can lead to illness.
  • Shift Work: Because shift workers have interrupted biorhythms and encounter disruption in their personal lives due to working unpredictable hours, this type of work also leads to a number of health complaints.
  • Role Ambiguity or Conflict: A significant form of stress may come from an insecurity about the standards used to evaluate your work or if you get mixed messages from supervisors and co-workers.

The Solutions

See: How to Cope with Stressful Situations

  • Before deciding on a career, seek expert advice from career counselors and from those in the field you are considering, about the stresses and health risks involved in the job. Take time to make a sober assessment of whether or not you possess the innate skills needed to cope with the stresses involved in your choice of career. Sacrificing your mental and physical health for a job is not reasonable.
  • To remain in your current career, learn to recognize the way you are coping with stressors and whether or not the way you handle them is leading to poor or improved health.
  • Use problem-focused coping skills to buffer the negative of effects of stress by making concrete efforts to know what to expect on your job (this often involves effective communication).
  • Learn to express your feelings in constructive ways to co-workers and management to Increase your perception of control.
  • Keep things in perspective: avoid self-defeating thoughts and over-reactions.

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