‘I’m so stressed’

How often have you heard this phrase lately? Be it the weary iterations of colleagues, the exasperated utterances of companions or the heavy despair of your own internal monologue – it seems that everyone around us is shouldering the burden of immense pressure, responsibilities and obligations.

In a world where deadlines loom menacingly, the demands on our time continue to compound and constrict our bandwidth and the pressure to attain success and status in a ubiquitous way create more strain than ever before, research is showing that for the first time in decades, adults over the age of 30 are becoming less happy than the generations before them. In a time where opportunity is rife, where the world is our oyster; we are educated, we have all the advantages of technology and scientific advancement, we are in the age of information and unlimited scope for achievement, why is it that we appear to be psychologically unfulfilled? With mental health issues such as anxiety and depression on the rise, it is time to seriously appraise our attitudes to our mental and psychological well-being, and the actions we are taking that are contributing to their protection or decline.

We have created a culture in which we enforce and perpetuate the idea that if you are not ‘stressed’, you are lazy. We have equated ‘stress’ and busyness with a good work ethic and ambition. This is a grievous flaw. The average person is juggling so many balls that they are ultimately going to lose their footing – and it is only after the fact, when it all comes crashing down around us, around our loved ones and friends, that maybe we take the time to re-evaluate our priorities and the (lack of) balance in our lives. Or we hop straight back on the merry-go-round at break neck speed to make up for the time we have lost; until each fracture reduces us to an increasingly brittle, hollow structure, diminishing our resilience and our capacity for joy until it consumes us. Because this is what is happening. This is what we are allowing to happen.

But this does not have to be the case.

The wonderful thing about ‘stress’ is that it is in fact neutral. Stress results from an individual’s perception and reaction to stimuli known as stressors, stimuli that challenge the body’s homeostasis and trigger arousal. The reaction of the body’s attempt to mitigate the stress will depend on our interpretation of the event or stimulus. Distress is the term given to negative stress, which results in a number of negative physiological and biological reactions, such as fatigue and illness. Alternatively, certain stress responses result in increased performance and act as a trigger for motivation; this type of stress is referred to as eustress. The Yerkes Dodson Law, however, suggests that even the positive effect reverses after a certain point, and advises that excessive stress will result in diminished performance over time.

This is where we need to assess the delicate balance between motivation, ambition and a strong work ethic, and burnout, disillusionment and fatigue. Setting high standards for ourselves and our staff is a positive way of driving our development and our progression. Hard work and continuous development and efficacy is vital to personal improvement and career progression. It is striking the balance between challenging ourselves and our staff, and pushing our limits and identifying when we are pushing ourselves to breaking point that is key to sustainable success and fulfilment in the long term.

Setting goals and taking measurable, deliberate action towards achieving them is fundamental to driving ourselves forward. It is imperative however that in defining our goals and our strategy for attaining them, that we also appraise our psychological and physiological needs, and incorporate these into our action plan. We must prioritise the preservation of our mental health and that of our colleagues and staff as we do productivity, innovation and commitment – because in the long run, they are in fact one and the same.

Happy individuals are more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours within an employment context. They are more likely to demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations. Happiness is positively correlated with individual earnings and financial security and longitudinal evidence supports happiness as a consistent predictor for success in the workplace over time. Studies continue to show that workers who establish a good work-life balance show less burnout, less absenteeism and lower staff turnover.

In addition to the social and performance related benefits, the necessity to manage workplace and occupational stress is paramount to our psychological and physiological health and well-being. The toll that stress takes on our body and mind is tremendous, and the scope and severity of the effects are immeasurable. The consistent and prolonged production of stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol increase blood sugar level to provide energy for the adrenaline ‘fight or flight’ response and can lead to type 2 diabetes. Stress can increase heart and respiration rates, cause muscle tension and can cause erectile dysfunction in males and irregular, painful or cessation of menstruation in females. Too much cortisol as a result of stress response damages neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved in modulating the stress response. This leads to a decrease in the inhibition of cortisol secretion, resulting in more cortisol secretion under prolonged stress, causing further damage. Depression is also associated with HPA axis activation and elevated levels of cortisol and catecholamine. Studies show that depression is associated with lower T-cell and Natural Killer cell activity, which are vital to the healthy functioning of the immune system.

Therefore, the approach we take in mitigating workplace stress and the steps we take to manage it in an adaptive, effective manner are vital to our health, our well-being, and our professional performance and the capacity to achieve our goals. Employers and organisations need to create a culture where work-life balance is encouraged and enabled. Employees should feel supported and empowered to address these challenges in a proactive way, establishing an open environment in which mental health is valued, discussed and protected. Taking proactive steps such as talking it out, approaching colleagues or superiors to collaborate on an effective strategy, collaborating with a professional development coach, and incorporating techniques and healthy behaviours such as meditation, exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep are paramount to establishing a healthy work-life balance, which in turn will lead to a happier, more fulfilled life and enhance professional performance and progression.

Originally published at aretepsychology.com