STOP ROBBING ENERGY FROM THE WORKPLACE, START MANAGING STRESS
By J. Scott Gaertner, M.D.
Stress is inevitable.
To medical practitioners, stress is defined as a factor that causes bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that alter an existing equilibrium. In workplace terms it is change that is stressful. But change is inevitable, so the recognition and handling of stress is what makes all the difference.
Causes of stress vary greatly. In ancient times stressors included starving to death or being eaten by wild animals. Now there is stress if the traffic is too heavy or the latte is not hot enough. Regardless, stress is stress. Stress varies regarding socioeconomic class, as well. Higher socioeconomic stressors are frequently more self-induced including unrealistic expectations and time allocation.
Good Stress – Bad Stress
There is good stress and bad stress. Good stress gives motivation to perform under pressure, to do and be the best, or finish projects prior to deadline. Small amounts of stress can facilitate success – concern should arise when good stress escalates from constructive stress to negative stress.
What are the warning signs that stress has progressed from a positive influence, pushing performance forward, to a burden? Recognition can sometimes be difficult because stress has many symptoms. Interestingly, the most common cause of fatigue in the U.S. is stress. Excessively tired? It is stress that is robbing energy from the workplace. Stress can cause physical pain including headaches and abdominal pain. Insomnia is also a common symptom. Memory and concentration problems can also be attributed to excessive stress. All psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder are exacerbated by stress, as are autoimmune disorders.
At its worst, there is a direct correlation between stress and vascular disease such as heart attack and stroke. The immune system is affected adversely by excessive stress which equates to more sick-leave and all of the above leads to decreased work productivity.
Bringing Stress Under Control
Is it possible to learn how to handle more stress? Yes, there are a few things that can be done to increase stress tolerance – the first is exercise. Exercise will increase endorphins, clear the mind and frequently eliminate or significantly decrease the sensation of stress. Exercise is equivalent to pushing the reset button on stress levels. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 4 – 6 days per week. This equates to 2 – 3 hours per week, and should be scheduled into the day. Appointments should be made around exercise time, not the other way around. Plan exercise weekly and stick to a schedule.
A support network can strongly influence how stress is handled. Whether this is family or friends, stressors are handled better with a solid social network. Just verbalizing to an individual that stress is present can be therapeutic and decrease the sensation of stress. When stress levels are increasing, be surrounded with a good, solid team.
Optimism seems simplistic but is powerful. Seeing the cup half full allows detouring around situations which might otherwise seem dreadful, not to mention, optimism is contagious. Expect this attitude to trickle down to coworkers.
The unknown can be frightening. Preparation and increased funding of knowledge allows venturing into new or difficult situations with more confidence, ultimately resulting in successful outcomes. Homework pays off. Trying to control everything adds to stress; as Henry Ford stated, “Do the best you can then the hell with it.” Accept what cannot be controlled and move on.
Learning how to say “No” is paramount. Executives are pulled in multiple directions, and refusing some requests occasionally, in order to commit fully to responsibilities, keeps stress at bay. No one feels satisfied with a partial effort, so give 100% or say “No.”
Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms including social isolation, tobacco, excessive consumption of comfort foods and excessive consumption of alcohol. Alcohol in small dosages is fine. The American College of Cardiology recommends one alcoholic beverage per day for females, and on to two alcoholic beverages per day for males. This has been shown to decrease blood pressure and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. Everything in moderation.
At the risk of sounding like a parent, get plenty of sleep and eat right. The average adult needs between 6 and 8 hours of sleep per night – get it. Fueling body and mind with caffeine and high fructose corn syrup makes stress worse. Appropriate nutrition is good for both physical and mental strength.
Deal With It
There are some red flags when it comes to stress: significant anger, depression, anxiety or weight change. If the stress becomes uncomfortable, see a doctor. That anger, depression, and anxiety can do great harm to coworkers, family and friends. Physicians see stress-related issues daily. We can help.
Stress is inevitable, but with identification and appropriate stress coping tools, a person can control or even overcome life’s adventures. Set the tone for dealing with stress and lead by example.
Dr. J. Scott Gaertner is Board Certified in Family Medicine and practices at West Lake Family Practice near Austin. Dr. Gaertner is a graduate of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.
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