Improving the work-life balance through stress reduction

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With more people than ever before experiencing workplace stress, psychotherapist Jamie Patterson looks at various tactics for reducing anxiety levels and improving the work-life balance.

With one in six UK employees experiencing anxiety, depression and stress in the workplace, it has never been more crucial to tackle the work-life balance and the factors leading to workplace stress. These statistics, produced by mental health charity MIND, indicate that the line between work and personal life has become increasingly blurred. Technological developments, combined with the constant stream of business, mean that ­being contactable 24/7 has become a necessity for the majority of UK workers.

According to a survey of 300 employees in the City of London by Credent Technologies in 2008, almost 80% admitted to checking their emails while on holiday. Our use of and dependence on technology is a clear source of work-related stress.

Constant connectivity

As a nation, the UK cannot switch off. Rolling news streams and constant social ­media updates ensure we are kept abreast of events whether we like it or not. While this easily accessible information can be helpful, it can also become overwhelming.

Information overload is now part of modern-day life, so we have to make a conscious decision to remove ourselves from this barrage. Surplus facts and figures can not only engulf us but interfere with many aspects of our lives, including our social interactions, working life and family responsibilities.

In Credent Technologies’ survey of City employees, it emerged that fewer than a quarter of respondents had no contact with the office while on holiday.

Some 44% of the survey respondents felt that being contactable 24/7 gave them job security, indicating a possible reassurance role for technology in mitigating any potential underlying anxieties about “missing out” or not being included in the wider group.

While turning off our computers and smartphones may seem easy enough, for many this act of powering off is trickier than it sounds. The sense of control that comes with a smartphone links to the “fear of losing out”. In this fast-paced era, change is rapid. At times, workers may feel left behind if they are out of the office when important decisions are made.

Stress can take many forms; it can affect you when you do not realise it. While your smartphone may seem like a godsend, it could be contributing to your stress levels.

A study in March 2010 of Stanford University students revealed that one in 10 admitted to being addicted to their device. Indicators of possible mobile device obsession are excessive checking behaviours and an inability to delay responding to messages. Even on annual leave or time away from the office, many feel the need to ­respond to emails. Job security and the aforementioned “fear of losing out” are the drivers behind this notion.

Another potential consequence of technological preoccupation is distraction from core work tasks. Checking Twitter feeds and responding to personal email is not only distracting, but eats into crucial work time. This insistence to respond to flashing email indicators and social media mentions is an unwelcome interruption to the working day and may affect productivity.

quotemarksThis insistence to respond to flashing email indicators and social media mentions is an unwelcome interruption to the working day and may affect productivity.”

In his book “Disorder”, Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, explores the phantom vibration syndrome phenomenon. He notes that we are constantly awaiting and anticipating technological interaction, which usually comes from a smartphone. Due to this anticipatory anxiety, we may misinterpret sensory stimulation – such as our clothing rubbing against our leg, for example – as a mobile phone ringing or vibrating.

Withdrawal feelings such as restlessness, preoccupation and irritability while away from your mobile device could indicate you have an addiction to technology. Diaphragmatic breathing, distraction and exercising may help manage the anxiety felt while away from your tablet or other device.

Recognising the early signs of such device preoccupation is important in preventing it becoming an addiction. This is not only important for the wellbeing of the individual but also the organisation, because of the potential impact on productivity.

Mitigating the technology addicts

Employers need to take heed of those struggling with technology addiction and its potential detrimental effects. There are measures that employers can take to prevent constant email checking during meetings.

Technology breaks not only refresh the mind, but give strained eyes a rest from PC or laptop screens. In order to reduce the need to check BlackBerrys, iPhones and other devices, perhaps a grace period at the beginning of a meeting where employees collectively answer emails and calls would encourage a greater level of engagement. Once this one- or two-minute period has ended, devices should be turned over and ignored. Another checking period could be introduced after 20 minutes or half an hour. This way, staff members do not feel detached from their device and there is still a sense of connectivity.

Is technology actually the answer to combating workplace stress?

While smartphones and tablets may ­contribute to occupational stress, new technology may aid in helping to recognise the signs and management of stress. The so-called digital health revolution that we are in is a product of the widespread issue of stress and our willingness to embrace new technologies. Innovative software and apps provide us with the opportunity to self-diagnose, but also to raise occupational stress awareness. One such example is the Android Remote Sensing App (ARSA) developed by Cambridge University to measure stressful situations and help users lead stress-free lives.

The ARSA app determines physical changes in the environment, including noise, light level and weather. There are more than 60 values the app can track, including social activity, which includes the monitoring of texts and calls. The phone’s accelerometer has the potential to measure posture, mood, pulse and heart rate. Language and punctuation in text messages and emails are decoded to diagnose the user’s emotional state. Users are warned to ignore calls and other messages at periods of stress to lessen the pressure. Such developments are welcome and these apps may encourage us to become more mindful of occupational stress.

Poor performance

Occupational stress can lead employees to make rash decisions. Negative stress can have a damaging effect on an individual’s creativity, and can filter through to teams and even whole companies. Stress impairs concentration levels, which can have a negative impact on performance. Tiredness and low motivation have a draining effect on those who suffer from stress and those who work around the stressed staff member.

quotemarksPoor time management skills, procrastination, absentmindedness and overall reduced productivity are all possible consequences on work performance when stressed.”

Interpersonal behaviours may also be ­affected by stress. Those suffering can be irritable and become defensive when they are given constructive feedback or instruction. Poor time management skills, procrastination, absentmindedness and overall reduced productivity are all possible consequences on work performance when stressed.

Absence management

Sick days relating to stress are at an all-time high. The National Labour Force Survey (LFS) conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2011/2012) revealed that 40% of sick days in the British workplace were stress related, with the health and ­social work, education and defence industries reporting the highest rates of stress in 2011/12. The result of increased stress-­related illness can place strain on the ­organisation and affect staff morale. Workloads are intensified as a result of the ­absence. This can cause resentment and ­additional stress, and affect the performance of the other members of the team.

Workplace relationships can become strained when an employee is experiencing occupational stress. If someone feels overwhelmed, their views can become skewed – resulting in feelings of paranoia. Those ­experiencing occupational stress may feel promotions have not been earned because of implied favouritism, resulting in the employee feeling undervalued and singled out.

Comfort in chaos

As workplace stress builds, sufferers frequently look for solace in the familiar. For example, people may gravitate to tasks that they know well or enjoy, while leaving or delaying tasks that demand more effort, are less interesting or are outside their comfort zone. They may also turn to default coping strategies, some of which may have a detrimental effect on health.

Junk food, copious amounts of caffeine, sometimes alcohol and even drugs are just some examples of coping strategies. Comfort food may bring short-term relief.

For many, the sound of a boiling kettle can bring relief. However, as well as offering some respite, caffeine can be counteractive. It is a nervous system stimulant and when consumed regularly throughout the day can dehydrate and cause increased feelings of anxiety.

During stressful periods, potentially addictive substances may seem like a good idea to aid relaxation. However, any perceived benefits from cigarettes and alcohol are temporary and ultimately do not resolve the fundamental reasons behind the occupational stress.

Channelling stress

Good communication and support can help mitigate potentially stressful situations. An open-door policy in the workplace is one way of helping those affected. If employees feel free to communicate their difficulties, relevant temporary adjustments can be made and workload management strategies put in place.

A company staff stress management policy can also help embed stress management processes into an organisation. An effective policy can help guide managers on good practice processes for managing and preventing work-related stress. It can also help inform employees about what sources of assistance are open to them should they require it.

Communicating identified work stress problems at team meetings may help resolve issues and share the load. Such a move can ­enhance group values and create motivation, urgency and improved teamwork. It also means everybody learns from the issue and progresses.

Self-focus

Ultimately, the problems of the world are not for one person to bear. For those ­carrying a personal burden, it may be ­advisable to minimise exposure to the news over breakfast or heavy documentaries on ­television. A stressed mind can focus on others’ worries and concerns, thus creating overload and feelings of being overwhelmed.

When standing in a shop queue or waiting for a bus or train, rather than engaging in a vicious cycle of worry or losing ourselves in technology, take in your natural surroundings. Look up at the sky or out of the window, people watch or even strike up a conversation with the person next to you. It is important for your brain to daydream from time to time – it is a reset function and will help reduce stress levels. It is also worth testing yourself by leaving your mobile phone at home when walking the dog or visiting a friend.

Sometimes it is better not to be in the know. If relaxing on holiday, try to stay in that mood for a prolonged period by avoiding contact with home. A wave of worry can sweep in and ruin the moment if you read a negative email. Organise for colleagues to call rather than email if there is an issue of critical importance.

Mono-tasking

There is an often-used proverb in Japan that describes the downside of multi-tasking – “he who runs after two hares will catch neither”.

quotemarksIf employees feel free to communicate their difficulties, relevant temporary adjustments can be made and workload management strategies put in place.”

On the face of it, it may seem more can be accomplished through multi-tasking, but it is likely the outcome will be of a lower quality and careless mistakes may occur. Mono-tasking can actually produce better results in the workplace.

In a recent TED talk, product designer and professor Paolo Cardini argued that multi-tasking is an outdated ideology. He showed his audience a photograph of a burnt barbecue and explained it was a result of him answering the phone, sending text messages and uploading social media updates about the barbecue all at once.

He urged busy, multi-tasking people such as himself to try mono-tasking. If he had  concentrated on the barbecue it would have cooked properly in less time, leaving space for a celebratory tweet or a call to a friend. This is a light-hearted example, but it demonstrates that multi-tasking is not always the most ­efficient option.

Organ retuning

Many people treat their essential organs with respect. They have a sensible diet to lower the risk of heart disease, they curb alcohol ­consumption for good liver function and they moisturise the body’s largest organ, the skin, to keep it supple and glowing. However, when it comes to brain health people are far more nonchalant.

Feeding the brain what it needs is essential for positive and clear thought function. A balanced diet, plenty of water and sufficient sleep is a good physical start. Meditation, yoga and exercise can have positive effects on the nervous system too.

Forward planning

Employees who are supported through workplace initiatives feel valued. They are motivated and are more likely to remain loyal over the long term, which is good for health and business. Setting up OH workshops rather than making referrals when problems arise is a proactive approach. Better understanding of ­individual and collective needs in the first ­instance ensures workplace harmony allied with a happy home life.

Jamie Patterson is resident psychotherapist and a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist at health services provider Abermed, which provides remote medical support services to the energy industry and OH services across the UK.

One Response to Improving the work-life balance through stress reduction

  1. Jacquie Damgaard PhD 25 Jan 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    Great post. I tell my clients at ExecuCare that the first step to managing stress is making a plan to recognize and address it. Ask yourself: what are my physical and psychological signs of stress that I should watch for? What are certain situations that increase my stress levels? What activities and daily routines can I add to my life that will help me relax and combat stress?