Workplace Stress and What You Can Do About It

Three years ago, I was thrilled to accept a four-week contract with a Toronto-based non-profit. As a former volunteer, I was excited to use my expertise to help an organization whose mission I supported and believed in. It also paid the bills!

What should have been a month of tireless, passionate work turned into four-weeks of absolute hell. During my short stint as a contract employee, I was subjected to verbal insults, public criticisms, the derision of my work and repeated attempts to sabotage my efforts, all to aid the organization. And I was not alone. Other employees had been enduring this chaotic, stressful environment for far longer, and the result was a high rate of illness and, subsequently, a high rate of absenteeism and employee turnover.

The reality is, we can no longer deny the link between emotions, stress and productivity. Any denial of this is the denial of health itself, explains Vancouver-based physician Dr. Gabor Maté. Four years ago he released When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) , which simply, effectively and clearly outlined the latest scientific findings on the role stress and emotional balance play in an array of diseases (including, but not limited to, heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cancer, ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord), among others).

According to Dr. Maté, when the mind-body connection is not optimal, various illnesses can crop up – a connection that is supported by research in numerous countries, over multiple decades. However, Dr. Maté’s interest in this connection first stemmed from his work as a Vancouver-area general practitioner (GP). As a GP, he would notice the correlation between the onset of a disease and the influence and final outcome of that disease and a patient’s psychological state.

He summed up his observations by stating, “when we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”

In other words, when emotions are repressed, this inhibition disarms the body’s defences against illness. And, in some people, these defences go awry, destroying the body, rather than protecting it. In fact, Dr. Maté asserts that physical and emotional self-awareness is at the root of much of the stress that chronically debilitates health and prepares the ground for disease.

So, how, then, can we get healthier? A good place to start is in the workplace. According to a decade-old study by the Canadian Physical Fitness Association, the average Canadian spends roughly seven hours each weekday at work; this averages out to, roughly, 31 per cent of our waking hours dedicated to our profession. Compare this with sleeping (which takes up about 30 per cent of our time), and we only just begin to appreciate the impact our employment has on our health.

Professor Graham S. Lowe, who published a report in 2004 for the Institute for Work & Health, a non-profit research organization based out of Toronto, Ontario, believes that “long-term exposure of workers to excessive work hours, evening and rotating shift schedules and high levels of work-to-family interference elevates their risk of mental and physical problems.” He goes on to state, “there are productivity and human resource costs to organizations in which these conditions prevail.” He concludes by saying managers at all levels need to become educated and cognizant of job demands, flexibility within the system and organizational cultures, in order to develop healthier work environments.

This shift can be hard in a culture that Dr. Maté believes “rewards people for identifying with your role, instead of with your real self.” He should know. At 63 the author-physician had undergone back surgery, treatment for persistent depression and dealt with a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.. At the time, he took each health issue in isolation; now, he sees these things as consequences of stress – stress from his own failure to look after himself.

For that reason, Dr. Maté and others are encouraging individual workers to take the initiative with their own health.

Here are some tips on how to develop a healthy perspective on life and how to incorporate this into your work day:

1) Don’t sacrifice
Dr. Maté believes those who, willing, continually sacrifice their own needs for others are the people most likely to develop chronic or serious illness. In psychological terms, these are the people whose sense of independence is fragile, leaving them to define themselves through relationships (or through their role in this world). He adds that this type of personality is often fostered when we are children, when parents fail to adequately meet an infant or child’s emotional needs. For people who do martyr themselves at work, it is important to learn to say, “no.” Remind yourself the only way you can truly help another is, if you learn to help yourself first.

2) Remember HALT
One of the first tasks people are told to do when starting a self-relaxation program is to become aware of their body. You can start this by focusing on the acronym HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, tired. This simple acronym – used by a variety of mutual-aid groups and self-help practitioners – alerts us to how basic feelings and instincts can affect our emotional states and, thereby, affect our day-to-day responses. One study from the University of Toronto found people who consumed diets with the greatest percentage of calories as carbohydrates performed best on memory and task tests – consuming sugar had the opposite effect. That means, when a person is hungry, they are adding stress to their body; subsequently, poor food choices can either heighten a negative response or diminish anxiety. For people in deadline-driven professions, this becomes paramount.
Rather than consuming large quantities of soft drinks and sugary or salty snacks, stick to hearty meals that include protein and complex carbohydrates. Only after you have eaten a good meal or snack should you then tackle a hard task. Other studies show sleep is essential in mental and physical tasks. Unfortunately, these studies also report that sleep deprivation affects tens of millions of adults each year. While some people believe they can train their bodies not to require as much sleep, studies, such as the 2001 study at Harvard’s Medical Institute, suggest that sleep deprivation may be linked to more serious diseases, such as heart disease. For that reason, taking charge of your basic self-care is absolutely essential in dealing with workplace stress. Make sure you are getting a full night of sleep before your work day; remember to eat at least three complete meals each day; make contact with loved ones (human or animal) each day; and deal with your anger in a healthy, positive way. By adhering to basic, self-care we have a much better chance at dealing with the day-to-day demands in our personal and professional lives.

3) Remove Rigidity
In a battle with a colleague? Fighting with your partner? Upset at your own negative self-talk? These are all common-place situations. Unfortunately, many people believe that by simply thinking positive these situations can and will disappear. Dr. Maté disagrees. “Don’t insist on rigid positive thinking.” He elaborates by stating, “real positive thinking is: whatever happens, I can handle it. That means not denying how things really are, but knowing you are capable of dealing with it.” Dr. Maté and others suggest that part of knowing how to appropriately handle a situation is learning to accept people, places and things. By accepting yourself, and your foibles, you create compassion, which translates into how you will handle others in your life. This creates more open, inclusive and productive relationships and aides in dealing with difficult people and situations. In practical terms, this acceptance attitude can be used when dealing with a difficult boss. For example, when I worked at the non-governmental organization three years ago with a micro-managing boss, I had to learn I was not going to change him. If I had spent my four weeks of employment attempting to get him to see my point of view, or to acknowledge my expertise, I would not have achieved my project goals and would have become very tired and very stressed. Instead, I chose to accept the limitations (my poor relationship with this man) and to focus on what was in my control (my tasks). Though the contract was still one of the most stressful I have endured, my approach aided me in avoiding major health issues that are exacerbated by stress.

4) Plan Relaxation
The next time you get a chance, look at a dog while he is resting. Notice how your pooch pal has a body free of tension, how his brain is, apparently, turned off and how peaceful Fido is just resting. This is the ideal model for what, we, humans, need to relearn. Because of our stressful lives, many people have lost the ability to relax. For that reason, we need to plan our relaxation. Planned relaxation calms anxiety and helps our bodies and minds recover from everyday rush and stress. Examples of planned relaxation include listening to peaceful music, taking a long soak in the bath or walking in the park. Unfortunately, planned relaxation at work can be a bit trickier, but not impossible. The first step is to choose a quiet place, where you will not be interrupted. Once you have found a place, do a few gentle stretches (this relieves muscle tension). Then sit comfortably and start to breathe slowly and deeply (this should be calm and effortless). Now, gently tense and relax each part of your body, starting with your feet and working your way up to your head. As you focus on each area, think of warmth and relaxation. If distracting thoughts come to mind (remembering to send that email), don’t fight them, just imagine them floating away. This exercise does not work if you try to relax. It only works if you simply let go of tension by focusing on breathing and relaxing. Try this for 20 minutes each day (for example, make it part of your lunch break or your morning or afternoon coffee break).

While many people continue to dismiss the effects of stress on our mental and physical well-being, more and more physicians and researchers are developing comprehensive studies to prove there is a strong and powerful connection. “This is only controversial if you don’t read the research,” explains Dr. Maté.

Originally published in Check UP! Magazine in 2007