What to do about Workplace stressOct 4th, 2016 | By Sarah Glenn | Category: Business Features
By Sarah Glenn/For the Journal
POCATELLO – The deadline is nearing. Your heart is racing. Bills are looming. E-mails are piling up and colleagues are griping.
You probably know first hand that being a working adult can be stressful.
What you might not know is all that stress has a major effect on business productivity as well as America’s financial bottom line. Americans are working longer and harder than ever. In March, The American Psychological Association released a staggering study. They said that Americans average stress levels rose since 2014, from 4.9 to 5.1 on a 10-point stress scale. There was a particular increase among adults reporting “extreme stress,” with 24 percent saying they were highly stressed in 2015 compared to 18 percent a year earlier. Since the survey started in 2007, money (67 percent) and work (65 percent) have always been the American worker’s two greatest stressors.
Our phones have become such a constant appendage that the Society for Human Resource Management has released several cautionary bulletins, warning that encouraging your employees respond to work e-mails during off hours could mean a costly lawsuit.
Stress also has a price tag. The American Institute of Stress says that job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.
Let’s look locally
If we delve into a little data, the good news is that people in Idaho (generally) aren’t very stressed out folks. WalletHub, a lifestyle and finances information company, released a study this summer that looked at America’s Most and Least Stressed Cities. Out of all the 150 metro areas they looked at, Pocatello didn’t even make the list. Boise ranked 136th, with excellent scores for work-related stress. The WalletHub folks measured average weekly work hours, job security, a commuter stress index, the unemployment rate and the area’s average commute time. When considering those factors, Boise made the top 10 for “least stressed workers.”
However, a few readers might scoff at that survey as they consider their own workplace stress. While averages are interesting, the stress story changes when we look at individual careers. CareerCast recently looked into America’s most stressful jobs. They were:
- Military personnel
- Airline Pilots
- Police Officers
- Event coordinators
- Pubic Relations executives
- Senior corporate executives
- Newspaper reporters
- Taxi Drivers
Amid a storm of police shootings, backlash against officers and public outcry, a police officer’s jobs comes prepackaged with plenty of stress.
“There are two or three things we do to manage that stress,” said Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen. “Number one, we just use our sense of humor. We tease each other a lot – in a good way.”
In addition to fostering a friendly environment, Nielsen also requires mandatory counseling for everyone he oversees – that includes 139 people ranging from patrol deputies to court marshals.
“We know that life is stressful and being in law enforcement is stressful,” Nielsen said. “When you can feel safe taking about it, sometimes joking about it, that helps. We always encourage them to talk about (workplace stressors). I make it mandatory for everyone so that they know they don’t have to step up. I can be the bad guy that forces you to go, so there is no stigma there.”
Nielsen added that stress is sometimes a necessary evil in the work of a deputy, but knowing how to handle it is crucial.
“In (law enforcement) you are on hypervigillence,” Nielsen said. “You always need to be ready. … so you have to get that stress under control and be able to switch gears really fast when something happens.”
After responding to a difficult call that might involve violence or death, Nielsen also makes sessions with professional counsellors available to spouses as well.
In Pocatello, police officers are often asked to manage stress on the run.
“There’s not a lot of down time for them,” said Pocatello Police Chief Scott Marchand. “Our guys go pretty hard.”
However, Marchand has also noticed that being able to talk and joke in a difficult situation helps officers manage their stress.
“There’s always strange little funny things that happen that help lighten the load,” Marchand said. “Some days are more stressful that others, but I’d say they manage pretty well.”
Other businesses in Idaho with traditionally lower average stress levels approach workplace wellness with recreation opportunities.
For the past four years, Idaho Central Credit Union has been ranked as the “Best Place to Work in Idaho” for businesses with more than 100 employees. The distinction comes from national marketing research firm POPULOUS after they surveyed employees across Idaho.
“We allow time for our team members to manage stress levels at work,” said Ben Davidson, vice president of human resources and training at ICCU. “We do training on stress management and healthy living as well as teach our team members ways to manage their money, because financial pressures can be one of the biggest contributors to stress.”
At ICCU’s main offices in Chubbuck, they offer employees an outdoor walking path, onsite gym, ping pong tables, and comfortable sitting areas. We have a nice break room with natural light, a massage chair, air hockey table, Wii, televisions and vending machines.
“It’s because we encourage a culture of fun that makes you want to come to work every day,” David Wedler, a card services specialist, told the Journal in April, speaking about the “Best Places to Work” designation. “When you’re not here, you wonder what you’ve missed out on.”
Local experts on stress
Few know the effects of stress and how to manage it better than Kristin Stewart Yates and her colleagues at the Idaho State University Stress Management and Biofeedback Center.
The center takes some of the most stressed among us – college students – and through biofeedback analysis helps them manage their pounding hearts and sweaty palms.
“We are a free service for students who are feeling the symptoms of stress: anxiety, depression, can’t focus well, rapid heart rate, etc,” Stewart Yates said.
Students who need the service are referred by the university’s counseling center. After setting an appointment, the student is led into a room filled with computers where they are hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), sweat response monitors, temperature sensors or other stress-monitoring apparatus.
“We gather information about what’s happening in their body and then see how long it takes for them to relax,” Stewart Yates said.
All that biofeedback information is then used specifically to help the student with coping mechanisms; none of the data collected is being used in academic studies.
The program is in its infancy – it was started last fall. However, in that short amount of time those running the center have learned a lot about stress and how to effectively manage it.
“What has been most interesting for me to learn is that we actually have quite a bit of control over how our body responds in stressful situations,” Stewart Yates said. “My body doesn’t have to respond in the way I think it will. It is empowering to realize that I am in control of my body no matter what happens.”
Due to funding and grant constraints, the service is currently only available to students. While faculty and staff can come into the center and take a tour, they can only do so to pass on information to students who they think might benefit.
“It would be really interesting to implement this on a community scale,” Stewart Yates said.
Your brain on stress
When we are stressed out, our bodies react in a few predictable ways, according to the biofeedback experts at Idaho State University.
“When we experience stress our sympathetic nervous system is activated,” said Cameron Staley, a psychologist at ISU’s Counseling and Testing Center.
Often called the “fight or flight” system, the sympathetic nervous system makes us sweat and increases our heart rate. Someone experiencing heart failure often feels the sympathetic nervous system shift into overdrive, increasing the force of the heart’s contractions and the amount of blood it’s pumping.
A Yale study from 2012 found stress can shrink the brain in the areas that control emotions and metabolism. The researchers believe prolonged stress is actually more effective at causing this shrinking than specific traumatic events. They believe prolonged stress can decrease a person’s ability to avoid things like substance abuse and risky behavior.
When stress becomes a chronic problem it can literally drive you crazy. Researchers at the University of California, Berkley found that stress damages the hipocampus – an area of the brain associated with both mood disorders and serious psychological illnesses. When stressed, our bodies dump hormones such as cortisol. The Berkley researchers found that this and other biological reactions created by stress essentially disrupt the balance of how much white and grey matter the brain is creating, which affects how the brain operates.
Staley went on to further explain how our bodies naturally combat stress through the parasympathetic nervous system. This involuntary response system is in charge of “rest and digest” functions – it kicks in when we are at rest, or feeling calm.
“In our go, go, go society we are very sympathetic dominant,” Staley said. “The trick is getting those two to balance. It takes a lot of practice.”
Take a breath: Ways to cope with workplace stress
When stress gets the better of us, it’s a good thing to remember how to breathe.
“That’s most of what we teach around here,” Staley said, adding that there is good medical research to back up breathing exercises for stress management.
In entry-level exercise science classes, students usually learn that the lungs and heart work together. When our heart rates go up (when exercising for example) we breathe faster. Conversely, when the heart rate slows, so does the breath, Staley said.
“We teach a lot of diaphragmatic breathing,” Stewart Yates said. “These are long, slow, steady breaths from the body.”
Stressed students start out with a daily dose of five-10 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing.
“What we’ve seen is that over 2-5 sessions there can be dramatic results,” Stewart Yates said. “There comes a point where you get it and then you can practice whenever you want.”
While breathing is the most effective mechanism the ISU center has found for eliminating the symptoms of stress, researchers at the American Institute of Stress say that real results require digging deeper.
“Some sources of stress are inescapable but there are others you can do something about,” the institute said in an e-mailed fact sheet. “Most of us never bother to distinguish between the two. Make a list of things that you find stressful in your life and divide them into these two categories so that you can concentrate your efforts in areas where they are most likely to achieve results. Don’t waste your time and energy in a frustrating attempt to influence things you can’t possibly change.”
According to the institute’s website, chronic stress can only be permanently solved by “identifying the sources of stress in your life and finding ways to avoid them or reduce their impact.”
“Just as stress is different for each of us there is no stress reduction strategy that is a panacea,” according to the institute’s website. “Jogging and other aerobic exercises, different types of meditation, prayer, yoga and tai chi are great for many people but when arbitrarily imposed on others, prove dull, boring and stressful.”