Stress is the body’s response to pressure and demanding situations. While stress is common, and can even be helpful in certain occasions, it also causes mental, physical, and emotional strain that affects health and wellbeing. This is an issue for many people at the workplace, especially.
Dr Nicky Kimber-Rogal is a leading chartered psychologist and psychotherapist based in London who specialises in cognitive analytic therapy (CAT). In the first part of a two-part series on work stress, Dr Kimber-Rogal offers an expert insight into the effects of stress on one’s personal and professional life.
In what ways can work stress affect one’s personal life?
The effects of stress on an individual are multiple. According to a biopsychosocial model, the effects will be on the body, the emotional life of the individual, and their relationships.
For example, raised cortisol can cause headaches, anxiety attacks, and tension in the body. Emotionally, this in itself is depleting, which is reflected in an increase in over-the-counter medication for pain relief. In addition, 1 in 6 people in the UK are now taking anti-depressants.
Depending on the basic characteristics of the individual, stress can cause people to withdraw from social activity and the necessary self-disclosure to form meaningful relationships. Many studies have shown time and time again how important supportive relationships are as an antidote to stress.
In terms of romantic partnerships, people may become irritable and distance the other through, for example, controlling criticism, and obsessive and unreasonable demands over what would have been simple everyday tasks in the household. Children inevitably pick up on tense or stressed parents, and thus, the whole family system can be negatively affected.
Work stress can also cause an individual to spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to make amends, leading to a decrease in confidence, or alternatively, procrastination and avoidance of important tasks. Others may feel that they are indispensable to the workplace and be unable to switch off from work, perhaps responding to emails and phone calls late at night or not being able to disconnect from computers and phones – and, even if they do, lying awake at night worrying about unsolved problems.
‘Imposter syndrome’ is also a significant reaction to work stress; employees perceive others to be more successful than they are, and feel that they themselves will in some way be found out for not being good enough. The resultant shame and isolation that some feel engenders less productive work.
Is a certain amount of stress at work good in terms of productivity?
Some amount of stress is good; it stimulates action and goal-setting, a sense of achievement, and increased confidence. Competitiveness is also (to some degree) a good thing. Not only does it connect people to their peers, but it also measures where people are in relation to others, and feedback from managers is crucial. Notably, feedback should always include positive aspects as well as areas to improve.
The term for good stress is ‘eustress’ (as opposed to ‘distress’) and is motivating. Any performer (be it in sports, the arts or general performance, for example in presentations at work) will say that some pre-performance nerves, if channelled and controlled, will enhance a performance.
However, this enhancement is only effective up to a point. The Yerkes-Dodson theory demonstrates this clearly with a so-called bell curve: stress increases performance, but only up to a point. When stress is persistent, there comes a point when performance begins to diminish. Short-term stress benefits cognitive functioning and memory; long-term stress - especially without moderating factors such as good management, holidays, and supportive feedback - diminishes morale and motivation.
The amount of good stress also depends on the personality of the individual. Someone who has historically had high expectations put upon them may find that pressure gives them a sense of focus on a task - and the achievement of that task is then satisfying. Stress can also inspire the individual to go on to achieve more through increased confidence in achieving their next goal.
However, others who were brought up with similar expectations may find that an inordinate need to get everything ‘right’ becomes too much too quickly. On balance, it is important that managers identify the particular skills of any employee and encourage them to incrementally work on achieving tasks.
This is the first part of a series on work stress. Head on over to the second part of the series if you wish to find out about the health problems that can develop due to stress, the relationship between stress and burnout, and the effective management of work stress.
If you are dealing with stress, do not hesitate to visit Dr Nicky Kimber-Rogal’s Top Doctors profile today.