According to the UK Labour Force Survey (2017-18), some 57% of days lost through ill health were due to stress or anxiety. Work stress is everywhere.
The term ‘stress is often used very loosely. You might hear, for example, that ‘she seems to thrive on stress’, suggesting that it does not need to be a negative thing. Yet we all know what it means to feel ‘stressed out’, and that is not a condition in which we appear to thrive.
So where does this stress come from? Like many things we have to deal with in life, a part of it comes from the outside – our working environment – and part of it comes from within us: how we see that environment, and our role within it, and how we attribute some kind of meaning to the things that happen around us. So in other words, we might be rather chaotic at work, miss a load of deadlines and have someone complaining down the phone, but we might firmly believe that none of this is our fault and people are just going to have to live with it. So our personal level of stress is zero. Or, conversely, we might be more or less on target with everything, but be losing sleep over the possibility of missing a deadline, terrified about what people might say about us as a result.
Being very conscientious is often seen as a great quality, but conscientiousness is often driven by fear (see our article on Perfectionism). Getting to the bottom of why we are like this means going back in time (through a course of counselling) to see where it started – and asking whether things may have changed since then, allowing us to unhook ourselves from that particular way of thinking.
But there is another aspect to this, which involves something we all tend to do at some time or another, which is blurring the boundary between who we are as employees, and who we are as individuals. So if someone criticises your work (because it is their job to indicate what needs to be changed) you can end up feeling as though they are criticising you. A comment such as ‘this needs to be improved’ is heard, instead, as ‘you are just not good enough’. We make it personal.
And how about working relationships? When it comes to dealing with bosses, our own experiences from earlier in life – from parents, or teachers, or older siblings – can influence how we respond. Are they just adults in a different role in the organisation, or do we see them as critical ‘grown-ups’ who are going to ‘tell us off’? Similarly, the patterns that have formed over the years in how we relate to others will play out with all of our colleagues. And for some of us, that will just ramp up the stress even further.
In a more complex way, our own stress may be linked up with other people’s stress – so that there can be something dysfunctional about the organisational setting where you find yourself working. On paper, organisations give people distinct roles (with neatly printed job descriptions) that, if carried out to the letter, may get everything done to plan. In reality, people’s actual work often varies from these written down roles, and the more stressed and anxious people get, the more they tend to stray from the role, or might even completely re-invent it. This causes a knock-on effect through an organisation, as bits of tasks are not dealt with and people begin to get anxious. It is no longer clear who does what, and responsibility gets blurred. A perfect storm.
The stressful day gets started.