Trying to manage stress at work without addressing underlying causes is rather like snipping heads off weeds and leaving the roots beneath to regenerate.
We are told that some stress is good for us because we need a certain amount of it to motivate us, to engage effectively in our daily activities at work and in our private lives. A healthy measure of stress could be described as motivational “drive” or “get-up-and-go”
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be used for personal help with work-based stress and related anxiety problems.
A reasonably balanced combination of activity that promotes a sense of pleasure and achievement in our lives is essential to develop and build confidence and to control against high levels of stress.
Good self-efficacy relates to our own belief in our ability to respond to demands placed on us, and to do so with manageable or healthy levels of drive or stress. These demands can come from our own set of values and aspirations or demands placed upon us by significant others/employers. If demands are felt as manageable, good self-efficacy is reinforced and confidence is allowed to grow.
If however, demands placed upon us exceed our own perceived level of coping, our confidence potentially wanes and stress levels are likely to escalate as pressure to perform increases. Stress levels can escalate for one individual while not doing so for another so factors such as personal issues with time management, training, perfectionist tendencies and confidence issues can fuel and maintain unnecessarily high levels of stress.
Taking stress home
Personal withdrawal from pleasurable activities is common with high levels of stress. More often than not stress is taken home into our private lives where energy levels remain depleted and our overall relationship with our wider environment suffers. When pleasurable activities lose their pleasure, we become more prone to low moods and inactivity and are increasingly vulnerable to suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Alcohol and drug misuse are associated with stress, anxiety and depression.
Personal habits fuelling stress
Regardless of where our stress comes from, high levels of stress and anxiety are very often maintained by a combination of personally driven habits, i.e. unhelpful thinking patterns and coping behaviours. All of us embrace a range of personal coping strategies that vary in their effectiveness.
For example, If we believe it is OK on occasion to make mistakes and can see setbacks as part of learning, we are more likely to ask for assistance or accept help when it is offered. If mistakes are seen as failures, we are less likely to flag up concerns and are more likely to struggle in isolation.
Because our coping behaviours remain subconsciously driven, we rarely challenge them and so they become reinforced simply out of habit. We are also more likely to rely on old habits in a crisis. Other factors that negatively influence our perceived ability to cope might include:
• An underlying low confidence
• Poor assertive skills
• Unrealistic expectations
• Personal life issues like financial difficulties, relationship break-ups or health issues.
How stress affects us in the working environment
High levels of stress reduces an individuals tolerance for accepting change and being flexible to new learning. If for example there is a change of management, change in personal role or changes in the way that people are asked to work, stressed individuals are less likely to make healthy adjustments to these new situations.
Isolation is another common experience in stressful working environments, particularly if job security is an issue. Performance levels tend to be lower when jobs are under threat and healthy communication among colleagues tends to break down. Where people feel under any form of threat, they are more likely to withdraw from communicating, become less collaborative and are more likely to resist support to resolve work-related problems and perhaps are more likely to take sick leave.
Prolonged stress often leads to anxiety which is associated with a heightened sense of personal threat causing one to fear making mistakes or fear negative judgement from others.
How to deal with stress at work
Employers have a role in facilitating healthy well-being among employees by making the environment as user-friendly as possible, promoting healthy communication, collaborative engagement and providing individual support. However ,no employer can provide a stress-free working environment without cutting out all opportunities for personal challenge which is essential for growth and development, not only for the individual but for the company’s success.
To achieve this it is important to understand how stress plays out at an individual level first. Everyone who suffers from high levels of stress has followed their own unique route into their own personal stress problem, taking with them their own collection of strengths and vulnerabilities irrespective of the working environment in which they play out their coping strategies.
Getting to the root causes of work-based stress and stress more generally involves a more comprehensive educational approach.
The CBT model of intervention offers a unique educational approach that embraces informative and preventative elements for long term self-care. It would benefit all individuals who are suffering from high levels of stress to first learn to identify and challenge any unhelpful thinking and behavioural patterns. Secondly, to restore confidence and good self-efficacy, it is essential to strengthen assertiveness skills in order to help set realistic boundaries at work and to protect personal wellbeing, while making efforts to achieve a realistic and attainable work/life balance.
Aileen J Raftery
CBT Therapist MBACP Accred.
CBT Services at Pall Mall Medical