The current spread of corona virus and its repercussions on organisations, the economy at large and on each one of us individually influences how we are responding to the situation, both physically and emotionally. It is imperative that we closely monitor our mental and emotional well-being, understand our stress triggers and deal with them constructively so that we emerge from this crisis strong. In this article, we have tried to break down the issue of stress so that each one of us can deal with it in our own ways.

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s response to any challenging or demanding situation -actual or apparent. Any type of challenge whether it is related to work, completing certain tasks within specified time, a significant life change or facing any tough, adverse circumstances can cause stress. Even events like getting married, receiving a promotion (and hence dealing with increased responsibilities) could cause some amount of stress!

Stress is different for everyone. What stresses me out may not even bother you or vice versa.  May be because some of us are better able to manage stress than others; or may be because we are better attuned to dealing some situations while others might overwhelm us.

It would also be right to demystify the myth, that stress is always a bad thing to happen. In small doses, stress can do good. All of us are equipped mentally and physically to handle some measure of stress. It challenges us to stay alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. It can give us the push we need, persuading us to do our best.  But we need to be watchful, when it gets too tough and demands in personal and professional life exceeds our ability to cope. That is when it starts impacting our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress is a part of our lives and can impact us in many ways. It may be impossible to stop it from impacting us, but the best we can do is manage it better. The first step to doing so would be identifying its symptoms. But recognizing these symptoms can be harder than we think.

People handle stress differently, hence its symptoms also may vary. Symptoms could be implicit or same as those caused by a medical condition. They could either be physical, emotional, behavioural or cognitive.

Most common physical symptoms of stress include fatigue, lethargy, headaches, insomnia, low energy, frequent colds or infections etc.

Feeling overwhelmed, becoming easily agitated, frustrated, irritability and moodiness could be emotional symptoms of stress.

Behavioural Symptoms could be changes in appetite, exhibiting nervous behaviours like nail biting, fidgeting, procrastinating, social withdrawal.

Cognitive Symptoms are the most difficult to identify which include concentration lapses, forgetfulness, constant worrying, being pessimistic to name a few.

It is important to be aware of these common warning signs. This can prevent stress overload. Else, ongoing stress, if not addressed on time can cause or aggravate serious health issues like mental health problems – depression, anxiety, cardiovascular diseases – heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, skin and hair problems etc.

What are the triggers of stress linked to work?

Since stress is a very personalised phenomenon, a stress trigger could be an event, stimulus that causes stress and could be different for all of us. Numerous surveys and studies confirm that workplace pressures and fears are a leading source of stress and has been steadily increasing over the past few decades. According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. Some of the potential sources of workplace stressors include:

Basic to the job – which include long hours, work overload, time pressure, difficult or complex tasks, lack of breaks, lack of variety, lack of adequate resources and poor working conditions (light, spacing, temperature etc). Given the current lockdown situation, some people might be facing issues in delivering on the basics. In certain cases, like in manufacturing or sales field jobs, there might be a complete stand still. For those who can work from home, handling of household chores and distractions might be leading to stress.

Job Content – Unclear /ambiguous work, conflicting roles and responsibilities, vague organizational boundaries and responsibilities for others can cause stress. In the absence of regular meetings and face to face interactions, this could possibly aggravate and be an area of concern.

Career Development – Lack of opportunities for job development, lack of growth opportunities/promotions, lack of training, and job insecurity is a major reason for stress at work. The current situation which has been impacting the economy, growth of organisations and in some cases business continuity will impact employee careers.

Relationship at work – It includes poor relations with superiors, team and subordinates create an environment which is critical, demanding and unsupportive. At times even leads to discrimination, bullying and harassment which creates stress. On the contrary, a positive social dimension of work can reduce it to a large extent. In remote working situations, lack of managerial empathy, connect can be extremely stressful.

Organization Culture – The organizational structure and climate where there is little or no participation in decision making, influenced by office politics, no stability, frequent changes like restructuring, mergers relocations etc are major contributors to workplace stress. The current situation’s financial impact may reflect in salary raises, pay-outs and layoffs and other drastic policy changes in many organizations leading to heightened financial stress amongst employees.

Work-related stress is a management issue

Stress is a costly affair. In the US industry it costs over $300 billion annually as a result of stress related – accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity and medical/ insurance costs.

It is important for employers to recognise work-related stress as a significant health and safety issue and take appropriate steps. Given the current crises we are in, employee mental wellbeing has become an extremely important area for organizations.

Workplace Culture – Employers need to work on creating robust relationships with managers and colleagues, employee participation, level of responsibility, authority and decision making, optimal workload, flexible working hours, and career development prospects which are key factors defining the work culture of an organization. Specially amid the rumours and speculations doing the rounds these days, organisations will need to pay extra heed to connecting with their employees, regular communication to ensure a positive culture.  Employers need to lead with empathy and enable its managers to build psychological safety in teams– conduct awareness and sensitization sessions that help them build trust, acceptance of vulnerability and failure and ability to speak up without fear.

Safe physical work environment – A healthy workplace environment involves the physical environment of the office or shop floor and the occupational health & safety of its employees. Employers can reduce the worry of its employees by looking into the safety of the workplace. In current situations, extending medical and insurance benefits to employees and their family members would be key. Once the lock down is over, having a phased plan to get people back to work, ensuring complete sanitization of the workplace, make work from home a formal policy will go a long way in creating a safe work environment.

Customised Wellbeing Solutions – The symptoms and triggers of stress could be different for every organization. Employers need to deep dive into the same by administering wellbeing surveys to recognise the specific stress triggers for its employees. Accordingly offer solutions, interventions, introduce activities and even policy changes to mitigate the stressors.

Stress is a part of life. All we can do is focus on things that are in our control and worry less for things which are out of our control. Create healthy boundaries like setting realistic deadlines, take appropriate breaks from work, prioritize, adopt healthy lifestyle practices like exercise, diet and sleep. This way we can surely prevent stress overload and manage it without impacting our heath.  Stay Positive! Stay Healthy and Safe!