In November 2017 I received a Fellowship (Honoris Causa) of the International Institute of Organisational Psychological Medicine (IIOPM) for my contribution to this new field of study. For the soon to be published Oxford Textbook of Organisational Psychological Medicine, I have written the chapter Stress and Relaxation in the Workplace. This is research about:

  • Defining stress and symptoms & signs of stress.
  • Common causes of stress and stress in the work place.
  • Consequences of stress.
  • The price of stress in organisations (Europe, USA, Australia).
  • Costs of health effects of work related stress.
  • Economic evaluation of interventions.
  • Emotional costs of chronic stress and acute stress.
  • The effects of stress (depression, burn-out, illness); presenteeism, absenteeism.
  • The influence of perception: Changing your state, changing your meaning.
  • Specific causes of stress.
  • Moste effective interventions:  Learning how to change states; Controlling meaning; Owning meaning; Resilience.
  • Stages of resilience and explaining the stages of resilience.

Dutch magazine AGConnect of the Royal Dutch Society of IT professionals (KNVI) published the Dutch conclusion in their June 2018 edition (condensed version, translated from Engels). The pdf can be read by clicking on the picture. The full article can be read on the  site of AGConnect (members only)

Below you can find the complete conclusion in English as well:

Oxford textbook for Organisational Psychological Medicine

Stress and relaxation in the workplace

Conclusion

Stress is the imbalance between environmental demands and adaptive capacity. There is a mismatch between the amount of challenge/ pressure is that’s offered in a given situation and the capabilities necessary to deal appropriately with the challenge at hand. In the workplace stress is also described as the physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the employee. Stress is the natural response of body and mind to demand and or threat and originates in our innate fight or flight reaction to real or perceived danger. Perceived is an important word because for our nervous system it is difficult to distinguish between real threat and perceived threat, both are experienced the same way.

The costs of chronic workplace stress are high. The financial as well as the human costs. From a financial perspective, stress related problems are enormous for organisations, society as a whole and for the individual experiencing stress. One would imagine that most companies have stress prevention and/ or repair programs in place for their employees, however this is still rarely the case. Many organisations do not know what to do and/ or believe that the costs of such programs would be too high. But the contrary is true. Although there are not enough studies yet to verify the impact of prevention and repair programs empirical data shows that companies that do have programs in place report reduction in costs and sick leave, higher job satisfaction and overall increase in wellbeing.

The human costs are significant. From reports of more fights with loved ones, sleep disorders to serious ailments like anxiety, depression, burnout, cardiovascular disease and even diabetes.

The occurrence of workplace stress is closely related to the sense of control a person experiences. Many current interventions aim to reduce as much environmental stressors as possible. This is a good and necessary thing, however, as stress is a subjective experience and strongly influenced by our individual map of reality and the meaning we give our experiences we have to conclude that stress reduction interventions have to focus on regaining an internal sense of control. Especially when we understand that when stress happens the influence of external sensory based stimuli increases. Bringing our attention even more to the external constraints.

The three core interventions for prevention and repair programs are:

  • State management
    • The ability to influence one’s state and change a stressed state. This ultimately enables individuals to strengthen and optimise states that are effective for the job requirements.
  • Increase ownership of our meaning making capacity
    • Increasing awareness that experiences do not have meaning by themselves but have meaning because we give it our personal meaning. The meaning we attribute will trigger new meanings and so influence our state. Depending on the quality of our meaning making we can experience distress as well as eustress. Many people will only start with exploring their meaning making when they feel that the environmental constraints cannot be changed. As long as we believe that something still can be done about our circumstances we stubbornly cling to the desire to change our environment. Empirical research has shown that individuals can hold on to that idea for years without actually being able to change the external constrains. That same empirical research tells us that the sooner we embrace the fact that our ultimate freedom is in our meaning making the sooner we will master our stress response.
  • Increase resilience
    • Resilience is our ability to effectively deal with change. In our current environment changes happen so frequent that individuals rely on a strong sense of resilience. When change changes into setback resilience is diminished. Resilience is complex. Setbacks can be experienced when we are setback by external factors as much internal standards we’re not able to meet. To regain resilience, we need to address all factors related to a faltering resilience. This means a combination of level 1 interventions (coping strategies) and level 2 interventions that aim for changes in self-worth; empowerment; owning meaning making, changing limiting beliefs and future perspective.

Working with these elements can also be beneficial for the repair of anxiety, depression and burnout. Research has shown that corporate culture can have important influence on the occurrence of stress in an organisation. Working with both the corporate culture as well as the individual has shown to be most effective however not all organisations are keen to look at their corporate assumptions that create workplace stress. It goes beyond the scope of the chapter to discuss organisational interventions.

Understanding workplace stress and how to prevent and repair the ill effects of stress will reduce both the financial as well as the human costs of workplace stress. Understanding workplace stress and it effects as described above takes the problem out of the medical perspective to a workplace perspective that organisations can incorporate, leaving the taboos about stress behind.

Author

Wassili Zafiris is Fellow and boardmember of the International Institute for Organisational Psychological Medicine. He has a mental-coaching and training institute and supports organisations and individuals with implementing stress reduction- and repair programs. He can be contacted via his website: www.wassilizafiris.nl/en