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How to beat stress at work before it damages your health

ABC Health logoABC Health 14/04/2016 Scott Spark and Claudine Ryan
If you'd rather switch off than go to work in the morning, you are not alone. © Getty Images/Paul Bradbury If you'd rather switch off than go to work in the morning, you are not alone.

When you woke up this morning and registered (about halfway through your first cup of coffee) that you were heading into work today, what thoughts flashed through your mind?

If you're one of the lucky ones, you may have felt an eager sense of anticipation.

You know your employer values your efforts. You work with people you respect, who welcome input and push you out of your comfort zone (by just the right amount). Also, you get paid a decent amount of money and are reasonably confident that your job will not be done by robots in 10 years' time.

For others, the idea of work fills us with a sense of dread.

Knowing that you are about to embark on another week of unrealistic deadlines, conflict with your boss, poor communication about expectations or job uncertainty is enough to send you diving back under the covers. The feeling that aspects of our work are out of our control, or beyond our capabilities or resources, is one that most of us have had at some time or another. But prolonged periods of these feelings can make going to work seem like a nightmare.

What are the signs of a stressful work life?

There are many triggers for stress in the workplace and occupational physician Professor Niki Ellis included the following on her list:

Excessive job demands: Having a workload that's unreasonable. So you might find yourself working overtime or long hours, you also might not be getting the breaks you need throughout the day.

Not having enough control over your work: "Somebody who's working in a more junior capacity may be asked to do things in a certain way, in a certain time — every day. Whereas more senior personnel, for example, will be able to determine when they are going to do their work and how they are going to do their work," Professor Ellis said.

Lack of clarity: Not having a clear sense of what exactly is expected and what your measures of success are. "If people have a lack of clarity around what their role is in an organisation, they don't quite know what it is they are meant to be doing and how their contribution contributes to the outputs of the organisation as a whole," Professor Ellis said.

Job insecurity: Working in an organisation or small business where job cuts are on the cards is known to be incredibly stressful, and we are living with more organisational change than we have had to in the past.

Difficult relationships: These can make going to work a nightmare. Obviously having a bad relationship with your supervisor is something we all dread, but problematic relationships with co-workers and even clients can also make your work life pretty awful. "If there is conflict between their role and the role of other people, that can be very stressful," Professor Ellis said.

Bullying or discrimination: These are toxic for our health and for productivity. And sadly, people often respond by leaving their job rather than lodging a complaint.

Whose responsibility is workplace stress?

While your employer can certainly help when it comes to defining your role and having realistic expectations, Professor Ellis did not let employees off the hook.

"The model where we say 'this is the responsibility of the employer' is proving to be a little simplistic, and we need to move into a slightly different world where we have more of a shared responsibility," she said.

"Sometimes a worker brings a mental health problem into the workplace and other times we have to recognise that work can have an impact on mental health. So poorly designed work can actually contribute to mental health problems."

While employers need to provide healthy working environments for their staff, Kevin Jones — a workplace safety consultant — says we all need to ensure we are fit and healthy so we can do the job we are being paid to do.

"We need to be more conscious about our ownership of our own labour and of our own health and safety," he said.

Mr Jones said he often encountered diligent and motivated workers who were undermining their own health in the workplace.

"I once did an assessment of a pasta making factory and the sheets of lasagne were being packed at the end of a line into plastic trays … The folding of the lasagne sheets was manually done by two lovely ladies at the end of the line. One day I was assessing the workplace and they were saying 'we are getting back issues and sore wrists' from this activity," he said.

"Those same ladies were asked if they could do overtime, and they agreed."

Mr Jones said it was certainly their right to take the overtime.

"But what they were also doing was saying 'well we are getting ill, sore and uncomfortable from this activity, but we're willing to put up with it or make it worse for the potential of the overtime pay'," he said.

Take time out, improve communication

Mr Jones had one simple piece of advice, likely to appeal to many of us, on how to maintain your health at work.

"What you have is a legislative obligation not to put yourself at risk at work, or to create risk and ill health in others," Mr Jones said.

"So if you go to work and you are grumpy, tired or angry, you might increase the risk of your workers and colleagues being injured."

Mr Jones said when — within reason — people chose to take themselves out of that environment, they were doing their colleagues a favour.

"[If] you choose 'I'm not going to go in today because I am not fit for work', you are actually reducing the hazard that you might be presenting," he said.

So take the odd sickie when you need it, ensure you get a lunch break, leave work on time and don't forget to use your annual leave. It sounds like simple advice, but how often do we neglect these circuit breakers, putting work before our wellbeing?

Professor Ellis said employees — especially middle managers — also need to get better at talking to each other.

"One of the bits of feedback that I have got time and time again from people in lots of different sectors is that middle managers don't know how to have the difficult conversation," she said.

In her experience, she has found most of us want feedback from our boss or supervisor as long as they approach us in the right way.

"People actually like getting performance feedback. What they want is lots of informal feedback, as well as formal feedback," she said.

"So if you have created that as the norm, it would be quite easy to sit down with you and say 'look I have noticed that you've been late in a few times' or 'you have been late hitting your targets, is there something up?' So you can couch it in the context of work but also asking the question and then taking it carefully after that."

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