Employee Benefits... General Seriously Stresse...
Seriously Stressed Out
By Alissa Martin
Benefits Consultant, Hausmann-Johnson Insurance
Remember back in your teens and early twenties when you were invincible?  You could stay out until 3am, sleep for a couple hours, and be ready to tackle the day without a care in the world.  Back when you used to push yourself in reckless ways like driving too fast, partaking in too many extracurriculars, cramming all night for your mid-term exam, not realizing or even caring about the consequences these rash decisions could have on your future. 

Fast forward to your late twenties to mid-thirties when, for many, waking up after a late night for a 7am meeting is no longer painless and cramming for your big presentation the night before doesn’t seem as effective. There comes a point when our invincibility card begins to dissolve and we embark on the transition to being “grown-up”.  This inevitable journey comes with a lot of dynamic surprises, aside from larger pant sizes.  All of the sudden the weight of your decisions are pressing and there is a new unsettling feeling that follows you around; everyone seems to be calling it STRESS.

The American Psychological Association shows that there are many causes of stress in our adult life.  Everything from the economy, family responsibilities, housing costs, personal heath, but 70% of the population surveyed stated that work was a very significant stress in their lives.  Stress in the workplace has become a buzz word.  Many people are desensitized when a coworker says they are under a lot of stress or are stressed out about a deadline/big project.  Should we be taking this more seriously?

Sure, stress in the workplace is inevitable.  Some stress actually has positive impacts on performance at work.  It can help people stay motivated, on schedule, energetic, and alert to clumsy mistakes.  A study done by Laurie Erdman, international thought leader on stress in the workplace, states that “stress begins in our minds via a thought or belief.  Stress is not something that happens to us, ie traffic, deadlines, having to deal with lazy people.  It is our autonomic nervous system’s fight or flight response”.  Many people have ways and mechanisms to cope with workplace stress, such as meditation, exercise, talking with friends, and getting enough sleep to ensuring their autonomic nervous system stays in check.  For many of the American population, this may not be enough.

Princeton University Psychologist Eldar Shafir describes workplace stress as a cognitive capacity; the ability of the brain to process many different inputs at the same time, judge what to pay attention to, and make quick decisions on how to respond.  There is only so much you can attend to at one time and other things get neglected.  If stress is chronic, that neglect of other things, like work-life balance, can be costly over time. 

The definition of chronic stress is a stress that interferes with your ability to function normally over an extended period, becoming a public health crisis.  Associating stress with words like “public health crisis” may see dramatic, however, studies from Harvard and Stanford business schools show that between five to eight percent of annual healthcare costs in the U.S. are due to chronic stress.  That amounts to about $180 billion a year in stress related health care expenses.

Harvard and Stanford business schools also found that the health problems stemming from job stress can lead to fatal conditions that wind up killing about 120,000 people each year!  Which makes work-related stressors and the maladies they cause, more deadly than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or Influenza.  Nothing says welcome to the workplace like chronic stress statistics!  Unfortunately, many employers are not recognizing the disabling effects chronic stress is having on their employees.

The American Psychological Association states that, more than one-third of working Americans reported experiencing chronic work stress and just 36 percent said their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage that stress.   That being said, their study also shows that people experiencing chronic stress often deal with it in unhealthy ways such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes, or abusing drugs and alcohol.  Which in the end, only enhances or escalates their stress symptoms.  Once experiencing chronic stress, many people find it hard to get themselves back on track to feeling “normal” again.  Outward symptoms of chronic stress in the workplace could be as simple as fatigue or headaches.  When on the inside your coworker could be experiencing serious repercussions on their immune, cardiovascular, central nervous, and digestive systems to name a few.  Can you imagine dealing with major systems malfunctioning in your body while trying to meet a deadline or even function in your workplace?
So, the next time you hear a coworker say they are stressed out, instead of brushing it off and burying your face in the latest smart phone app, take a minute to ask what they are going through, or how you can help.  Social interactions in the workplace are proven to decrease stress levels.  A recent article by Harry Mills, PH.D states, “Socialization, or enjoying other people's company and maintaining a sense of connectedness to others, is an important component of stress reduction”.   Just by being friendly with your coworkers, you could be helping them avoid a devastating symptom of chronic stress or help them avoid chronic stress all-together. 
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