Stress is a part of everyday life, and for some people, the workplace can be a significant cause. Sometimes, when work isn’t left at work, stress from the job can bleed into your personal life and severely affect your physical health. But, dealing with work stress can be easier than people may think.
This week on Take Care, Jane Pernotto Ehrman discusses causes of stress in the workplace and ways to deal with it. Ehrman is the lead behavioral specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Lifestyle Medicine, in the Wellness Institute, where she develops and implements the behavioral and stress management sections of lifestyle wellness programs.
Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Jane Pernotto Ehrman.
According to Ehrman, there are many reasons a person would stress about their job. “Well so often, it’s because there is much less time and fewer people and much more to do. They have greater responsibilities and there is a perception of threat, for some companies that are downsizing, that their job is in jeopardy,” she says.
Another cause of stress is a lack of job control. “Demands and decisions are made from up above and we’re the ones who have to carry them out. And so that lack of job control often times leads to job dissatisfaction,” Ehrman says.
People often cope with stress in unhealthy forms, such as “eating foods that are high sugar, high fat and salty — lots of snacks. They self-medicate in a sense to self-soothe through food, alcohol and caffeine,” says Ehrman. Exhaustion may cause people to come home from work and sit in front of the computer or television instead of participating in more active pastimes.
Coping this way leads to obvious physical effects such as obesity and increased risk of heart disease. But the physical effects of stress go beyond that, as stress takes a toll on the immune system. “Our immune system is in jeopardy of either being suppressed — and we have more colds and flu and other infections — or it goes into overdrive and we can end up developing autoimmune diseases where our immune system is confused, and now it starts attacking healthy and important parts of our body,” says Ehrman.
While stressors are difficult to change, Ehrman points out that changing the way people deal with them are not. Before stress gets to the point where it takes a physical toll on the body, Ehrman suggests some very practical ways of dealing with stress in the workplace.
The first is easy — take deep breaths. “Our breath is the first thing that goes when we’re stressed. We shallow breathe, we hold our breath. Our body uses a lot more oxygen when we’re stressed and our brain needs about 20 percent more oxygen than our body,” says Ehrman. “So, when our brain is at a deficit, it also affects our memory recall, our ability to focus and concentrate, and our energy level.”
Ehrman also suggests, as often as possible, to get away from the desk and take a quick break, whether it’s a trip to the water cooler or just standing outside to get some fresh air. These breaks give the brain time to “recharge” and feel refreshed. Making a daily ritual focused primarily on calming down, even if it’s for five minutes every day during a lunch break, can make some serious improvement.
To ensure that work stress doesn’t interfere with life outside of work, Ehrman says, “if at all possible, avoid taking work home with you. And for a lot of people, that is a reality. They can do that if they would do it.” This also means avoiding talking about work issues and checking work email at home, especially right before bed time.
“What are you going to do about it at 11:00 at night? You’re going to lie there with your eyes wide open, spinning in it, and you won’t go to sleep,” says Ehrman.
According to Ehrman, more attention is being paid to worker stress lately on behalf of employers, as studies have shown that stress is the number one issue that affects absenteeism, productivity, and wellness. She notes that companies that stress positive worker wellness often produce better results and have healthier employees.