Work takes up a lot of our time – in fact we spend many of our waking hours there.
For many of us our work helps to give us a sense of identity and belonging, and a place where we can feel valued and respected. We love the tasks we are doing and we look forward to the social relationships that are forged there. Don’t we?!
The workplace environment can be less than attractive for many.
Stress at Work – A Big Issue
People can become quite stressed and anxious at the overwhelming workload or the toxic relationships occurring at their place of work. They feel undervalued, not recognised for their skills, or targeted. These feelings in turn can lead to a lack of motivation, being unproductive and also impact on their personal relationships outside of work.
In fact workplace stress can often end in people becoming physically unwell, and needing to take time off work.
Workplace stress is one of the leading WorkCover claims in Australia – between 2011-2015 a staggering 91% of WorkCover claims were due to stress related to work, and factors such as isolation, bullying, workload pressure, accidents and workplace harassment (https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/topic/mental-health).
In this article we will identify some of the key causes of stress at work, and develop some strategies that can help you with these. These strategies form some of the foundation skills we teach in counselling.
Workplace stress can occur across a range of areas, but generally arises around:
- relationship dynamics; and
Whatever the area, there are some common symptoms such as:
- Become hypervigilant
- Loss of motivation
- Dreaming about work at night
- Constantly thinking about it
Workplace Stress from Relationship Dynamics
I often have people who come and see me as they are struggling with relationships at work. Their workplace has become a real minefield; they comment that at times they leave work exhausted because they have spent their day just trying to avoid conflict.
What creates the issues and what can be done to resolve them?
Each of us brings our own experiences, personalities, and beliefs into our workplace. These factors influence how we view our work relationships, and underpin both how we respond to things and how others in the workplace are operating.
Some people have a positive outlook – those people who just seem to keep going forward and don’t let others affect them, they are always so positive.
Others just have nothing good to say about anyone and seem to intentionally undermine the good work and reputation of others.
Understanding what drives people can be difficult to grasp – however how we decide to respond, is something that is within our control.
Here are some tips if relationship dynamics at work are causing you stress:
Notice and become curious about what the actual issues are.
Ask yourself “Why is this really creating stress for me?”.
Sitting and just reflecting on this will allow you to do several things:
- it will allow you to bring your thinking into focus, and change your thinking from overwhelming negativing thoughts to problem solving;
- it stops your mind from catastrophizing a situation (believing something is far worse than possibly it is);
- it helps you to start to form healthier thinking habits.
Acknowledge the emotions and feelings the situation is creating in you.
This is an important step. There is no point just pushing away the feelings because they will come back and catch you off guard.
Acknowledging them allows you to then respond and take the next step forward. For example, if you have someone who says something that is untrue which leaves you feeling really angry, acknowledge that “I am feeling really angry about this” – then respond with either your action step or by questioning their ‘evidence’ then moving on. These strategies will give you back some control in the situation.
- “There is no evidence for what they have said and I am not taking that on board”
- “I know it’s not correct and I am not going to give any energy to it”.
Recognise what you can control and what you can’t.
This is known as your Sphere of Influence.
A recent client had been so busy trying to protect other staff, they ended up feeling so burnt out they were ready to leave the workplace.
Once the client understood that they couldn’t control the actions of others, they could start to make changes in how they responded to what was occurring and the impact it was having on them personally.
The first step when these thoughts come up is to learn to ask yourself: “Is this something I can control?”
Often it isn’t. But it also allows you to decide the steps of what you can do to control what is happening, such as following the conflict resolution pathway, having an advocate with you and talking to the person etc.
Identify what can be done to limit its impact on you.
There are several key steps in limiting the impact that difficult workplace relationships are having on you:
- Identify what part you do to contribute to the relationship stress. Johari’s Window is a technique that shows us that with every person there are things we know about ourselves no one else knows, things that others know about us that we don’t see about ourselves, and things that everyone can see. Checking with the source of the conflict (or with a colleague that we trust) about what they notice about our behaviour, may assist us to identify how we are contributing to the issue.
- Identify the negative thinking patterns. Our mind is a wonderful thing, but it is also what keeps us in a bad space mentally. It can become a tsunami that just takes us away! Once you notice the actual thoughts you can then ask yourself “Is this in my control?”, “Is there evidence that this is true?”, “Have I already resolved this?”. Changing your thinking into more problem solving or positive statements will help you slowly to re-wire how you are seeing things.
- Leave it at work. When we begin to take workplace issues home, we then do not get a break from the stress and it impacts on our other relationships. Using the above techniques will assist with this. One client has found having a landmark on the way home helps: that is, they can think about it until that certain point, then they begin to focus on what things they will do at home that evening, weekend etc. When the thoughts came back up, they would acknowledge them – but then remind themselves that they were not at work.
Workplace Stress from Workload Expectations
A recent client worked two part-time roles within the same organisation, and discovered that both managers expected more than a part time-load. As a result this individual became stressed, and felt very overwhelmed.
Whether you are working part-time or full-time, expectations on what you can do in those hours can at times be unrealistic and they need to be controlled.
What creates this issue?
Our values, which are also our strengths, underpin how we do everything in our life, both personally and professionally.
Sometimes we do not realise how much they can drive the way we work.
Often at work our values of being: dependable, reliable, helpful, thoughtful, caring and compassionate, can also be the things that create conflict for us and lead us down the road of being overwhelmed.
We can end up having an internal values conflict. This happens because we have strong values in wanting to show that we can do the work (reliable) but we also are experiencing a burnout or panic because we no longer feel we can be dependable or caring.
This results in a build-up of anxiety or even panic attacks. Below are some practical steps you can follow, however the strategies discussed earlier around acknowledging the feeling and thinking patterns are also very important.
How do you manage work stress from workload expectations?
- Have a clear job description for your job, even if there is not a formal one. Make a time to sit down with your manager and get a clear picture of what is expected from you in your role. If you know it is not possible to complete it all, feel confident to negotiate it. Remember if you keep saying yes, people will not see that you need assistance.
- Raise the issue. Sometimes managers are so busy, that if you haven’t said anything they can think everything is okay. Speaking up can be a good first step. Be aware though managers want solutions not just problems, so going with what the issues are and then what you recommend to resolve it may be a good approach. Diarising what your week has looked like may actually help them to see what you are talking about.
- Plan your days and prioritise. There will always be emergencies that come up, but if you have at least started with a plan you can then rearrange tasks.
- Make sure you block out time. If you are in a workplace where people often come up and want things, ask them to send you a calendar invite or block out time that you do not see people ie 8-9 each morning. Let them know!
- Learn to say no. At times you need to set some boundaries. Saying “no” (nicely) or negotiating a time that you could do it, will help them see that you are trying to manage your time.
Workplaces can be a great place to build a sense of identity and belonging, your skills and confidence, and for others to see your strengths and what you contribute.
Learning to recognise early relationship and workload issues – and the strategies to implement – will help you work towards a healthier and happier workplace experience!
Author: Amanda Renger, B Soc Sc, M Couns, M Soc Wk, ACMHSW.
Amanda Renger has a double Masters degree in Social Work and in Counselling, and enjoys working with individuals, families, young adults, people with a disability and older persons. Using evidence-based theories and comprehensive assessments, she works to build the capacity of people to self-determine their journey, and to restore individual and family wellbeing.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.