Those of us who have been subject to work stress will know that it’s certainly not an exclusive club. Perkbox’s 2020 workplace stress survey revealed that 79% of us commonly experience it, while only 1% of workers “never” experience work stress at all. In fact, work frequently tops the polls as the most prevalent source of stress, above financial stress, relationship stress and health stress. Inevitably, it’s something we are almost bound to confront at some point – but how do we cope with it?
Stress is linked to various health problems, such as sleep disturbances and insomnia, mood alterations, high blood pressure, poor immunity, depression, and heart disease to name a few. What’s more, our coping mechanisms can be equally as taxing; should we resort to common relievers such as overeating or alcohol abuse to cope, not only is this ineffective, but it makes matters worse. It may be little surprise, but it’s in the way that we cope in response to the onset of work stress that makes the difference.
I’m sure we can envisage the colleague who tackles difficult situations head-on, unrelenting to the stressors and strains around them. They dive in and come out strong. Some of us are simply built to cope better; those who are high on extraversion or demonstrate a proactive personality style tend to naturally cope best. For people who are naturally more introverted or standoffish, there is a danger of relying on less effective coping mechanisms.
In psychology, there are two classifications of reactions that we may have to a negative or stressful event. On the one hand, we have approach behaviours. These encapsulate the actions of the unwavering colleague who confronts and deals with situations in the moment. On the other hand, we have avoidance behaviours; these represent the actions we take to deflect the impact of the negative event and shirk from direct confrontation. This may include behaviours such as overeating and heavy alcohol consumption. All we do with avoidance mechanisms is prolong the inevitable confrontation. And the more we ignore the issue at hand, the more chance it has of succumbing to a snowball effect, making matters worse and more destructive than had dealt with the situation in the first instance.
If you recognise yourself in the latter camp, it may be time to make a change. Realising where your control lies is a good first step: we may not be able to control the external events that give rise to stressors, we can control the way we handle them. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the underlying principles teaches us that it is our perception of the event that makes it negative, rather than the actual event itself, which is neutral.
By realising that we have more control over our reactions, we can begin to make a change. We can engage in self-reflection and observe our behavioural patterns. This may involve keeping a journal where we can log our reactions, allowing us to review and actively alter our behaviour with a more discerning lens. We may also recognise that we need time to process the event before engaging in a more effective coping strategy. We might notice that we tend to disengage with others in times of stress, when we could benefit by garnering emotional support from our friends and family around us.
Work stress is everywhere, and many of us are prone to struggling with it. However, know that you have the ability to process and formulate the way in which you cope. In committing to more effective coping, you’ll equip yourself to leading a healthier work life.