Stress is a normal body reaction when changes or challenges occur in our lives. In the presence of stressors, the body reacts physically and mentally, helping us to adapt to the stress.
Stress can also be positive because it can keep our attention active longer or prepare us to avoid danger. But it becomes a problem when stress factors occur continuously, without giving the body moments of rest or periods of relaxation.
A stressful situation - whether it's a deadline for a project or the fear of losing your job - can trigger the release of a whole cascade of stress hormones that cause all kinds of changes in the body: from increased heart rate, shortness of breath, to muscle tension or sweaty palms.
This body reaction to stress is called "fight or flight," a survival mechanism developed by humans (but also by other mammals) that requires a quick response to situations perceived as threats to life. To the brain, both are life-threatening situations.
Exposure to prolonged stress, researchers say, has significant effects on the body: it contributes to increased blood pressure, leads to the formation of deposits that clog arteries, and causes changes in the brain that can later lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction. And obesity can be caused by chronic stress, either through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing time spent on sleep and exercise).
Those with high levels of stress hormones in their bodies may experience headaches, chest pain or a racing heart, exhaustion, sleep problems, dizziness or tremors, high blood pressure, muscle tension, digestive, and weakening of the immune system.
Besides anxiety, depression, and addiction, chronic stress can cause irritability, panic attacks, and excessive sadness in terms of emotional balance.
But the good news that neuroscientists are coming up with is the brain's neuroplasticity, that is, the fact that 10,000 new neurons are produced every day that we can direct towards treating these stress-induced emotional problems. Attention training, meditation, and mindfulness techniques can change the structure and size of some regions of the brain, especially those used to manage emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration, and fear. So we can, through simple exercises – thanks to neuroplasticity – increase the size of the areas of the brain that control stressful emotions and reduce the size of the areas that generate them.
Breakthroughs in brain imaging technology show how the brains of those who meditate exercises change. After months of such practices, the size of the middle prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain directly responsible for controlling our stress response) and the decrease in the amygdala (the area of the brain that causes stress) can be increased.
What types of stress can we face?
Stress can be of three types: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
Acute stress is every day and happens to all of us. It is the body's rapid reaction to a new and challenging situation. It can also be the somewhat terrifying but exhilarating feeling you get on a roller coaster or down a steep mountain slope. This stress does not harm the body but prepares it to develop optimal responses to future stressful situations. And most importantly, once the danger passes, the body's systems return to normal.
Severe acute stress also occurs when faced with a life-threatening circumstance and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.
We speak of episodic acute stress when a person experiences frequent episodes of acute stress. This happens if you go from one stress crisis to another. Specific jobs are more exposed to this stress (law enforcement, firefighters, intensive care doctors, surgeons). As with severe acute stress, episodic acute stress can affect physical and mental health.
Chronic stress occurs when you have high-stress levels for a long time. Or, as I said before, such long-term stress can hurt health.
Overwork is one of the most common causes of stress at work, followed by various types of abuse (which causes anxiety and stress). Unfortunately, because overwork and prolonged stress do not hurt, the brain gets used to exhaustion and stress, and often we do not even realize - only in advanced stages - that we are mentally and physically exhausted.
Unfortunately, many managers tend to overwork employees, and the job descriptions' duties are not respected. Today you work one hour overtime; tomorrow, you work another hour, the workload accumulates, and you don't realize that you're working much more than you should, and maybe you're not even getting paid. This is a clear example of overwork + mental abuse from the superiors, who do not consider that employees, in turn, need certain limits.
I've noticed that the mindset of "I'm afraid to ask for a raise/I'm afraid to ask for more money for the work I'm doing, being unpaid" is widespread due to the fear of being fired and loss of financial security. I think it would be essential for all employees to know their rights to significantly reduce the number of employees being exploited in the workplace.
But in reality, things can be different, especially in times of crisis like the one we are going through now.
What are the effects of stress at work?
The workplace is an essential part of our daily lives. Whether we have a job that fulfills us or we work strictly to support ourselves, we do it for at least 8 hours a day, and this period is practically a third of a day. Going to work with love is crucial, without tension and stress, because when we develop negative feelings, the consequences are not long in coming. Stress can bring effects such as acute mental fatigue, high anxiety, and depressive states. Lack of motivation is also among the consequences, and eventually, we will end up not being productive at work precisely because we stress too much about doing everything right.
What can we do as an employee to manage stress at work?
It is undoubtedly also the duty of employees to take care of themselves and their psyche, and in this regard, it is essential to ask for help when we feel overwhelmed and learn to say NO. As we mentioned, knowing your rights at work is a crucial element that can save us from many worries.
Many times, we avoid talking to our superiors for fear of being kicked out or being "scrutinized." But personal good must prevail in such situations. It is essential to be able to delegate when we are busy, take moments to breathe, and use mindfulness techniques to relax (breathing, meditation, guided imagery) because these, as I said above, are scientifically proven to reduce stress.
What can we do as an employer to minimize stress for employers?
A periodic check of the employees is essential. I encourage free, honest, constant discussions. As a manager, we must consider our employees' mental and physical health, and when we notice the slightest sign of disorder, we can find the best solution together. There are jobs where more flexibility is allowed (like working from home), which seems to help employees a lot, but there are jobs where physical presence is unavoidable. In these situations, communication is critical.
It's essential that when we know employees have been handed a more significant workload, we make sure they can handle it and give them all the tools they need. Moral and financial support are crucial elements! I think flexibility can be beneficial in this regard. If we show empathy and listen to what they would like, we can together create an atmosphere that makes them feel good and can be productive without leading to stress and the development of workplace anxiety.
That's why an HR department is mandatory in any company. A psychologist would undoubtedly be helpful for periodic checks or to support all employees going through more delicate moments and needing mental and moral support.
There are companies, more recently, that have developed an employee well-being department, taking care to offer them personal development programs, mindfulness workshops, or techniques against burnout.
Employees and employers must be together for the company's good without forgetting the personal interest!