An Extended DISC study shows that Polish employees are in the group of the most stressed employees in the world. What causes stress at work and what are its effects? These are important issues we should be aware of, because stress related to professional issues affects not only the effectiveness of our work, but also the quality of life in general.

The Extended DISC study shows that the stress indicator among professionally active Poles is much higher than among employees from other countries, including those employed in highly developed countries, such as the UK or the USA. What stresses us in particular? “The most frequent cause of stress at work is excessive, unreasonable requirements of bosses and/or the employee themselves, such as too short, unrealistic deadlines, too many duties, tasks that cannot be performed properly or simply make no sense, too much responsibility, lack of adequate tools, people, means or possibilities,” remarks Romuald Korach, psychologist, business trainer at ARK Consulting. Stress at work is not only related to many different professional challenges that we face every day, but also to what the relations with colleagues and the supervisor are like. “Higher stress is associated with work that requires more responsibility or involves a higher risk, for instance a doctor’s or police officer’s work, but it is also associated with work with high variability, where tasks do not show any recurrence, e.g. the creative industry. A higher position and related pressure also usually lead to more stress,” explains Gabriela Słowińska, psychologist and psychotherapist. Even though stress is the bread and butter for almost every employee, very few people know the mechanism of the body’s stress reaction and understand its effect on everyday life. “It is about the lack of awareness among Polish employees. They don’t know the effects of excessive stress, its sources, methods of preventing it, and they don’t understand that it is necessary to react to chronic symptoms of stress and burnout,” says Sebastian Szenrok, coach at the Inspeerio psychological and coaching centre.

WHAT CAUSES STRESS?

Stress at work is caused by reasons related to the psychosocial working conditions.

These include:

  • quantitative work overload – excessive amount of work,
  • qualitative work overload – work is too difficult,
  • monotonous work – work is too repetitive,
  • too little work – the amount of duties is insufficient to fill a working day,
  • no control over the work – employee has no effect on what they are doing,
  • unclear professional role – lack of specific information regarding the scope of responsibilities,
  • lack of cooperation – supervisors and colleagues are unhelpful,
  • lack of free time – work makes it impossible to deal with other duties or needs.

By Agata Kot, specialist – National Labour Inspectorate, District Labour Inspectorate in Warsaw

The two faces of stress

As a physiological phenomenon, stress has a beneficial function in the human body, it makes it possible to deal with challenges that lie before us quickly and effectively. A moderate level of stress is also a factor driving human growth. “We deal with this type of stress (called eustress by professionals) when supervisors present employees with challenges adjusted to their physical, emotional, and intellectual capabilities, and these employees have the knowledge and abilities within the given area, and they can count on their colleagues and supervisors in their work environment,” explains Agata Kot, specialist at the National Labour Inspectorate. Negative stress – distress – occurs when the power and intensity of stress factors is too high for the body to deal with or when the body is affected by them for too long and its resources for dealing with those challenges are diminishing. The effects of long-term stress for the human health are very serious. “The stress factor has a considerable effect on the occurrence of many serious illnesses, in particular those of the psychosomatic kind, and contributes to depressive disorders and neurosis (e.g. PTSD). Apart from that, long-term stress leads to harmful psychological changes, like becoming accustomed to overload, ignoring alarm signals sent by the body, addiction to adrenaline, inability to rest or relax, to name but a few,” warns Romuald Korach. The condition of constant stress eventually leads to physical and psychological exhaustion and can cause health problems leading to serious changes, such as neck, shoulder, and lower back pain, peptic ulcers and painful intestinal spasms. “Relatively frequent signs of stress include symptoms such as decreased immunity and infections, high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease, heart attack, depressions and neurosis, cancer, health disorders, and behaviours aimed at decreasing psychological stress, such as smoking, drinking or taking drugs,” adds Agata Kot from the National Labour Inspectorate.

HOW TO DEAL WITH STRESS OR SEVERAL TIPS FOR WORK & LIFE BALANCE

  1. Know yourself and your needs
    Only by knowing what causes stress in relation to your work will you be able to deal with the problem.
  2. Set clear limits
    Separation of your professional and private life (even at the cost of a quick promotion) is a much better solution than exposing your body to chronic stress.
  3. Active leisure
    It is good to divide the time out of work into time spent with family and friends and spent doing your favourite sports activity (chosen by you) and pursuing your hobbies.
  4. Acceptance and distance 
    Be sure to accept what you have no influence on. Choosing to be responsible for your own stress (influence on what stresses you) enables you the escape the vicious circle of stress.
  5. Remain assertive
    In the current multitasking era, you have to be able to say “no” to people who want you to do tasks that you know you will not be able to perform in a way that is satisfying to everybody.

The destructive power of stress

Due to the pace of life and work in the 21st century, companies demand high resistance to stress from candidates more and more often. The ability to stay calm under pressure is especially valued on managerial positions and customer service-related positions. At the same time, it is believed that without adrenaline, people cannot find the motivation to act effectively. So is it possible to work without stress? “Working without stress is impossible, because stress is always present when the body is dealing with the external environment and interacting with it. Stress is a part of our everyday lives. Limited stress helps us take action, but excessive stress can be harmful and can lead to serious health problems,” Gabriela Słowińska explains. It should be emphasized that long-term stress at work is a path leading directly to burnout. In some countries, e.g. France, burnout is diagnosed by doctors and is considered to be an official disease entity and an occupational disease. It may be diagnosed regardless of the type of business. This is not the case in Poland and this is why it is important to be aware of the symptoms and seek assistance as soon as they are recognized. “There is a whole list of burnout symptoms. The three primary and major symptoms include emotional and psychophysical exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of lack of satisfaction and lowered self-esteem,” says Sebastian Szenrok. “Burnout can lead to depression and we should remember that it actually is a fatal disease,” he adds.

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Work & life balance

Because there is no running from stress, the fundamental question is how to protect ourselves from its negative impact. According to experts, self-awareness and self-reflection in particular are the key to avoiding reaching the point of no return. “The ability of self-observation and understanding stress mechanisms are particularly important, and so is the ability to relax, rest, and regenerate (taking breaks, free weekends, holidays, quality sleep, a healthy diet, sufficient physical activity). Self-awareness lets you keep your psychological health in check and allows you to notice the first symptoms of long term stress,” Romuald Korach says. When struggling with stress, it is beneficial to introduce a strict separation of the professional and private lives and to make sure that it is observed. An assertive attitude in relationships with colleagues and supervisors, clearly set limits, and establishment of working time limits guarantee good psychological health and minimize the risk of negative effects of stress occurring. Many employees who are overly dedicated to work are unable to rest properly and effectively. They should acquire this ability. The resources gathered during free time are the very source of strength to cope with stressful events at work and in life. “When stress is already there, physical activity helps. It allows the body to let go of excess energy and makes it use the hormones produced by the body for fight or flight. Having support of family and close friends, satisfying relationships in your private life, and taking care of your development shield you from stress and reduce its effects,” Gabriela Słowińska sums up. Another aspect should also be considered, namely that a profession incompatible with the temperament or preferences of a given person can also be the source of stress. “In this case, stress and burnout prevention consists in conscious selection of a profession that suits the person’s character. I personally recommend cooperation with a coach as a form of support at every level of burnout, also as a helpful tool when seeking one’s own professional path,” Sebastian Szenrok remarks.

What is needed for the employee to be effective

Recommendations in the form of a catalogue of good practices prepared by the Employers of Poland organization in cooperation with the Central Institute for Labour Protection, recommended to all employers in order to limit the occurrence of the stress factor in workplaces:

  • definition of stress, preparation of a catalogue of factors and adverse effects,
  • preventive measures taken by the employer,
  • development of a complaint filing procedure,
  • establishment of a committee for investigating employee’s complaints,
  • code of ethics,
  • selection of suitable employees for individual positions, successful recruitment,
  • streamlining communication,
  • clear procedures, clear goals,
  • positive relationships in the company, social support,
  • employee participation in decision-making,
  • enabling interdependence between employees,
  • employee diversity,
  • ensuring employee autonomy,
  • individual treatment of employees.

The most effective way of managing the negative effects of long-term stress is the implementation of the principles of balance between professional and private life. As a wise saying goes, sometimes less is more. The balance between the time spent at work and home (or with friends) has a real effect on the efficiency of professional task performance. A well-rested and relaxed person is a creative employee ready to face new challenges everyday.

By: Beata Pałac