Stress, a word all professsionals are familiar with in some measure. Some have been more affected than others and have seen how it has affected their productivity, their relationships both in the workplace and at home and general health — sometimes with disastrous consequences. People have lost jobs, making a mess of their careers, gone through painful divorces and have also been afllicted with long-term ailments.
Such outcomes in most cases could be avoided if the malaise is tackled at the individual and corporate level. Yes, stress can be overcome says Carole Spiers, in her new book, Show Stress Who's Boss.
A Gulf News columnist with 20 years experience as CEO of a leading UK Stress Management Consultancy, Spiers has worked with multinational organisations in the UK and the Gulf.
Gulf News: How do you define stress?
Carole Spiers: It is often mistakenly thought that stress is good for people, when in fact long-term stress is invariably harmful. A certain amount of pressure can indeed motivate and can therefore be useful, but stress is never so. We can think of stress as a red light that our body turns on automatically under specific circumstances. However, the essence of stress management is the ability to know when [and how] to turn the switch off!
Fundamentally, it is the way that we react to a given situation rather than the actual situation itself that is the cause of stress. Problems occur when the pressure we are under seems to be out of our control. We perceive ourselves as not possessing the resources to combat the pressure experienced, and so we feel overwhelmed. A person experiencing stress will exhibit very clear signs and symptoms which can often manifest in irritability, anger, anxiety and mood swings, but unfortunately, these warning signs are often ignored.
Now coming to how stress is affecting the careers of so many people, please share some statistics you have mentioned in the book? How serious is it?
A survey [October 2011], released by the UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development [CIPD] and Simply Health, found that stress is the most common cause of long-term absence due to sickness for both manual and non-manual employees.
This is the first time this has been the case in the 12 years that the report has been published.
Specifically coming to workplace stress, how does it manifest itself? And is it across all age groups and across sectors/industries?
Stress manifests itself primarily in: absenteeism, reduced efficiency, poor timekeeping, reduction in output, anger, poor performance and productivity, low morale and sometimes, burnout.
Stress cuts across all age groups, all sectors and both genders — no one is exempt. There are no longer any ‘jobs for life', and many people are working on short term contracts which can create a stress of its own. The impact of job insecurity and mounting workloads upon employees is taking its toll on individual performance and productivity.
Has the recent financial crisis made stress at work worse?
Stress is undoubtedly increased when there are financial problems and these are made worse during economic downturns. Wherever there is a culture of fear, then there will be increased stress levels.
Any particular insights on this issue from the Middle East?
The recent collapse of the real estate market in the Gulf has caused great hardship and financial loss to many thousands of ordinary people. In some cases, such losses have caused stress leading to illness because individuals have no way to make good their losses and that has led to a loss of financial control, extreme frustration, anger and, in many cases, depression.
What could one do to tackle this malaise? Is it just a matter of individuals tackling stress on their own?
People need to be responsible for themselves. When you are driving your car and you see a warning light come up on the dashboard, you will probably take it straight to the garage for service. But do we do the same for our bodies? The chances are that you think that the headaches and heart palpitations may just go away if you ignore them, but in reality, they probably will not. If stress gets to the point where an individual can no longer cope by themselves, then they may need the professional support of a counsellor or doctor.
What could corporates do to help their employees to tackle the problem?
Although stressful situations are sometimes unavoidable, it is very often possible for management to both anticipate and pre-empt their occurrence, and for employees to learn to effectively cope with the consequent pressure. A proactive management culture can avoid the worst effects of stress by use of risk assessment, improved communication, on-going performance reviews, education and stress management training.
Managers have a key role in identifying and dealing with workplace stress, together with building a healthy corporate culture. They need to value and recognise their employees and ensure that they feel appreciated for their contribution to the organisation and not made to feel that they are merely a number. That way, in return, they will receive loyalty and commitment.
Bearing in mind the cost of stress in terms of lost production, poor sales and problems with staff retention, organisations are strongly advised to consider how they can best manage stress effectively by carrying out risk assessments in order to identify possible stressors.
With the increasing pressures on people at work in a global, competitive, ever changing and less secure world of today, managing the stress of work and life are fundamental to people's well-being and to the performance of their businesses.
It is essential for organisations to understand that stress at work can damage their bottom line, as well as the health and wellbeing of their employees.