Most of us have to work in order to live. For many, work can take up a large proportion of our waking lives with up to a third of our lives being spent at work.
While the primary reason for working is to make money, our work life can (and should) be much more than that. Working and having a career can become an intrinsic part of our identity and can indeed give us meaning and purpose in the world.
When we meet a new person, one of the first questions we often ask them is: “What do you do?” We can identify ourselves by our work and the position we hold within it, and our work can become one of the most important aspects of our life.
When our work life becomes stressful, our emotional response to it can become out of proportion to the actual situation. We can feel that our livelihood is jeopardized and at a deeper level it may feel like the very core of our being is threatened. Stressful situations at work can soon spiral out of control as we lose our clarity and our ability to stay objective in the face of these perceived threats.
What is stress?
There is no clear medical definition of stress, but generally speaking we can say that stress is our body’s natural response to demands or threats that are put upon it. The stress response is usually the ‘fight or flight’ response that can help protect us in dangerous situations.
Under normal circumstances, stress is healthy and can help us stay alert, focussed and be more energetic. It can give us the motivation to get up in the morning and get on with our day.
However, if we have a demanding job or there are conflicts at work we can end up in a heightened stress state for a prolonged period of time. This can have a negative affect on both our physical and emotional health and we need to be mindful of the signs that we are becoming too stressed.
What are the common symptoms of stress?
Cognitive symptoms: Inability to concentrate, constant worrying, racing thoughts, seeing only the negative in situations.
Physical Symptoms: Frequent colds of flu, aches and pains, nausea, dizziness, chest pains, rapid heart beat, loss of sex drive.
Behavioural Symptoms: Changes in sleep pattern, using alcohol or drugs to relax, changes in eating habits, withdrawing from other people.
Emotional symptoms: Depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability and anger, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness and isolation.
What is causing your stress?
As well as noticing the signs and symptoms stress, we also need to identify the situation that is causing us stress. Some of the main work issues that can cause stress are: being overloaded, conflict with colleagues, management style of the organisation or our line manager, change and personal factors such as work/life balance. Some of these will be easier to address than others, but as a starting point, don’t carry the stress alone.
What can you do?
If possible, speak to colleagues and your line manager, and to your HR department if you have one. Letting others know that you are stressed will enable them to step in and help if they can.
Additionally, think about your work/life balance. Are you spending too much time at work with not enough down time? It’s easy to fall into the trap of needing to work more because you are stressed, which means you have less downtime and hence more stress. Re-addressing priorities in an important part of dealing with stress – make some time for yourself. If you able, do some physical exercise to help you unwind the physical tension. Start a mindfulness practice to allow your mind some ‘time off’. Speak to your GP if you are experiencing the physical symptoms mentioned above. And finally, if it becomes overwhelming, consider speaking to a counsellor or psychotherapist to help you process the emotions than can arise from feeling stressed.
Dr Simon Cassar is an integrative existential therapist, trained in Person Centred Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), and Existential Psychotherapy.