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What is stress?

In general, stress occurs when a person believes that the demands made on them are greater than their ability to cope. In any given situation, for example, losing an important work client, a person makes an appraisal of the potential consequences—such as losing their job—and whether these are dangerous. Subsequent thoughts assess their capacity to cope with the potential negative effects, for example, ‘My home and family are safe’ vs ‘I will lose everything’. Their assessment of how well they will cope with the situation is what leads to the amount of stress that they will experience.

A cognitive-behavioural approach to occupational stress places central emphasis on a person’s thought processes: it is the person’s perception of the event, the consequences and their ability to cope that mediates their stress response. This is not to say that actual events are not stressful, but that there is an interaction between the environment and the individual. This explains why different people find different situations stressful.

Stress is a normal human emotion and it is not possible, nor would it be helpful, to eliminate it. A lack of stress can lead to people feeling bored and frustrated at work. However, too much stress can lead to people feeling irritable, overloaded and exhausted. Short bursts of stress can be unpleasant; nevertheless, they are not harmful. Conversely, when stress continues for a long time and people do not have time to recuperate it can become a problem.

Stress manifests in a person’s thoughts such as ‘I won’t get this project finished on time’ or ‘It’s not fair that I have to deal with this’, emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, shame; and behaviours such as drinking more alcohol or over using the Internet, changes in eating patterns, putting off doing things, shouting, passive behaviour, withdrawal, taking on too much and lower work standards. Stress also effects the body because when danger is perceived the brain sends a signal to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare the body to defend itself, either to fight or to runaway (the  fight or flight response). Physical changes people may notice are: a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing and more muscle tension, sweat to cool down the body, changes to vision and a dry mouth.

Thus, stress affects the individual, their ability to do their job and to manage relationships.

Individual approaches to managing stress

A sensible place to start is at the beginning. It can be helpful for people to identify which situations they find stressful so that they can prepare for them both practically and emotionally. Further, by becoming aware of their own ‘stress signature’ people will recognise when they are stressed earlier on, which increases their chances of successfully managing it. People can find these two tasks difficult, so it can be helpful to talk to trusted family, friends or colleagues as they may be well placed to share their observations.

Given that a person’s view of the world is central to the way they perceive work related situations, it can be helpful for staff to become more familiar with their thinking styles.

Thinking styles can prevent someone from looking at a situation objectively or assessing all of the available information.   

Some common thinking styles which contribute to stress are

The following questions can help people to evaluate their thinking:

Compounding a person’s sense of stress is their belief that they should always be able to control the excessive demands made on them. This is not possible and becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and a lack of control is essential in stress management. Hence, the aim is not to get rid of stress, but to learn to manage it better.

Unfortunately, sometimes a person’s most dire work related predictions are realistic, so challenging their thoughts may be unhelpful. A person’s behaviour can contribute to the maintenance or resolution of a stressful experience. If a problem, such as double booking of meeting rooms, can be solved then it makes sense to look for solutions rather than to avoid the problem or only to manage the emotions that arise from the difficulty.

However, if the problem cannot be changed then trying to change it may be a frustrating and futile experience. In these circumstances it may be appropriate for a person to regulate the intensity of stress by temporarily distracting themselves from thinking about the difficulty, or conversely, to accept their thoughts about the situation.

Behaviour outside of work contributes to a person’s ability to cope at work. It is important to have a good work-life balance, to have opportunities for enjoyment and achievement, like hobbies, and to take annual leave. Research has found that people who leave work for a stimulating and supportive environment experience lower levels of ‘after hours’ stress than colleagues who do not return to a similar environment. This is because people who engage in activities outside of work spend less of their leisure time thinking about work. This is important to note, as 60% of Hong Kong employees recently indicated that they had a poor work life balance and 49% reported that they had no time for their partner and family (Source: Community Business, State of Work-Life Balance in Hong Kong Survey 2008).

In 2006, a Hong Kong government survey found exercise was reported to be the most frequently utilised stress coping method. Other ways to manage the physical component of stress are relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or visualisation, controlled breathing, meditation and yoga.

Directly changing emotions can be difficult as they are ethereal, however, a person who explores their thoughts, adapts their behaviour and manages their bodily feelings will likely notice changes to their emotions. Additionally, people can talk to others who make them feel better. Unfortunately, there are times when people cannot turn to someone they know for support. In these situations, it may be helpful to call a helpline such as the Samaritans or to seek professional help.

In summary, finding ways to manage stress is like developing a really good tool kit: the more tools a person has, the more likely one of them is going to work in any given situation. Initially, it may be a process of trial and error; however, as a person explores and practices different approaches they increase the utility of their tool kit and are likely to have the tools to do the job!  

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This article was published in HR Magazine

Finding ways to manage stress is like developing a really good tool kit...