I have been involved in studying stress for over twenty years now, and what has worried me most during that time is not the apparent growth of workplace stress as a phenomenon (worrying enough though that is), but rather the extent to which so many people now accept stress as inevitable. It is as if we now expect to face health-affecting levels of stress in the modern workplace.
It is, of course, important not to confuse pressure and stress. Pressure is neutral, in the sense that it can be positive (motivating, rewarding, stimulating) or negative (draining, undermining, overwhelming), depending on the circumstances, but stress – as currently defined in official documentation (from the Health and Safety Executive, for example) – refers to a level of pressure that does us harm in some way (in terms of our health, well-being, relationships, quality of work and so on). So, I am not simply saying that the workplace is a pressurised environment. It is much more than that. What I regularly encounter through my training and consultancy work are employees who are suffering considerably because of the work pressures they face. I regularly hear about unmanageable workloads, poor or non-existent support, rock-bottom morale and considerable distress and disaffection.
Such situations quickly become characterised by a vicious circle. The more stressed people feel, the more difficult they find it to get through their work. This then has a knock on effect in terms of both confidence and morale. Flagging confidence and lower morale then make it even more difficult to get through the day, thereby adding to the stress. And so it goes on.
One very real danger is that the people affected in this way then become burnt out. Many people see burnout as a form of stress, whereas in reality it is an attempted solution, a response to stress. By adopting a mechanistic approach to our work and becoming emotionally disengaged, we are trying to insulate ourselves from stress. The pressures cannot hurt us so much if we are on automatic pilot, if we are just going through the motions in order to get through the day relatively unscathed. Of course, as an attempted solution to the problem of stress it is potentially disastrous, as it takes away our job satisfaction and renders us ineffective, even dangerous.
For some people burnout becomes their characteristic approach to their work. For others they may find themselves slipping into burnout for a while, then managing to rise above it for a while, but still vulnerable to sinking back into it again.
Of course, burnout is not inevitable. Many people struggle on, wrestling with excessive levels of pressure over extended periods. In such cases we have to ask ourselves: at what cost to their long-term health are they making this sacrifice?
There is no easy answer to the problems of stress and burnout, no magic wand we can wave. It took a long time for us to reach the current situation of stress being so commonplace, and it will no doubt take a long time to get out of the difficulties we now face. However, there are things we can do to move in the right direction. In my view one of the first and most important things we must do is to recognise that stress is not inevitable. Pressures are only to be expected, that is what we get paid for, but when those pressures reach stress levels and are harming us or our colleagues, then it is telling us that there is something wrong. This should then move us to explore what options we have to reduce the pressures, to increase the level of support available and to increase our coping abilities. Recognising that there are no easy answers is certainly not the same as adopting a defeatist approach that just assumes there is nothing that can be done. Indeed, one of the very real dangers of stress is that it encourages hopelessness and helplessness – people affected by it get caught up in an atmosphere of pessimism and even cynicism and therefore allow themselves to be locked in to the vicious circle of stress. Breaking out of that negativity and cynicism is an important first step towards tackling the problems of stress that are doing so much damage to so many people in the modern workplace.
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Dr Neil Thompson (@DrNeilThompson) is an independent writer, educator and adviser. He edits the free monthly e-zine, Well-being BULLETIN (www.well-being.org.uk). A blog and free Tip of the Week facility are available at his website, www.neilthompson.info and details of his audio-visual learning resources are available at www.avenuemediasolutions.com. Dr. Thompson is a member of @SWSCmedia Expert Panel.