From the June 2019 issue

The Mental Health Impact of Workplace Stress

Find out how this often-overlooked issue can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions – and what you can do about it.

Brought to you by Flinn Foundation

Stress at work is normal, many would say. But should it be?

While a stressful week on the job or a particularly busy time of year can feel like an expected part of the grind, experts say work stress can have a significant impact on your mental health. Writing it off as “normal” can actually lead to major problems.

The American Psychological Association lists workplace stress as one of the top seven stressors, and some studies list it as the No. 1 source of stress. Certain occupations are even associated with higher rates of suicide – like construction jobs and positions in arts, design, entertainment, sports and media, according to a 2018 CNN article.

Though stress can sometimes be a positive driving force to maintain focus or alertness, it can also become harmful, says psychologist Leslie R. Johnsen, executive and clinical director at Perspectives of Troy Counseling Centers.

“When stress stops being helpful, it can be damaging to your health, relationships and productivity,” she says. “Stress typically occurs when a person is confronted with a threat that he (or) she does not feel they have the resources or coping skills necessary to deal with. Stress becomes negative when a threat is perceived as excessive or unmanageable.”

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As summer begins, it’s a key time to pay attention to workplace stress. June is National Safety Month, and parents also face added stress this time of year as kids begin a long break from school. Changes in the family’s schedule can create a stressful transition period, Johnsen says.

“Some parents might also feel a little more guilty being at work, and that might increase the stress of being pulled in two different directions – wanting to be with their family,” she says.

Even without the juggling act, demands at work often feel overwhelming. A recent study by behavioral health system Ginger found that nearly half of American workers have cried at work, 50 percent have missed at least one day of work due to work-induced stress and 83 percent of workers said they experienced stress on a regular basis.

Beyond that, 16 percent of people surveyed said they have experienced “extreme stress” daily at work.

Workplace stress has a variety of causes, including low salaries, excessive workloads, lack of social support, conflicting demands or unclear expectations, according to the American Psychological Association. This can result in anxiety, insomnia, depression and other health problems.

“Many anxiety-related disorders can be related to elevated levels of untreated and unmanaged stress,” Johnsen explains. “Common warning signs are memory issues, inability to concentrate, poor judgement, negative attitude, anxious or racing thoughts and constant worrying. This can be displayed through physical symptoms as well.”

For parents, this can “absolutely” have an effect on their children, Johnsen says, in part because of symptoms like poor judgment or irritability that can impact parenting.

So what can be done about it? The American Psychological Association recommends establishing boundaries, taking time to recharge, relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness and – importantly – talking to your supervisor about what’s happening and seeking mental health support.

It’s also important to “act rather than react,” Johnsen says, by identifying aspects of the situation that you can control and working on those. Eating right, sleeping well and eliminating interruptions at work can also help.

“Schedule your day for energy and focus,” she recommends. “Take regular breaks, stretch (and do) breathing exercises.”

Parents can also benefit from “a cool-down between work and home” to help them refocus on the tasks at hand, she says.

As workplaces become more open about discussing stress and ways to avoid it, there’s hope for a less stressful work life in the future.

“I do think there is a higher level of attention focused on workplace stress recently as focus groups are working towards destigmatizing mental health issues in general,” Johnsen says. And though she believes the stigma is decreasing, “we have a long way to go.”

People in management need to acknowledge workplace stress, validate their employees and try to identify and resolve the root causes.

“Improving communication and assigning appropriate workload are two of the most important preventative measures management can instill in an organization to reduce chronic stress,” Johnsen adds. “Communication is key.”

Brought to you by the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Find more information at flinnfoundation.org.

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