12 November 2018

Stress is a normal part of life. But there is a fine line between where stress is part of a healthy lifestyle and when it is dangerous for the individual and the organisation they work for. While many are aware of stress, it is not like having a broken arm. It is a silent pain that can be easily overlooked by the individual and the organisation.

It is also a diversity issue because how stress is caused, manifests itself and is dealt with will vary widely from one person to another. So as we embrace more diverse workforces, organisations need to find new ways to identify stressors and help people deal with it before it becomes a serious issue.

Stress is costly to everyone

SafeWork Australia has estimated that stress costs the Australian economy over $3.1 billion a year, giving businesses a significant incentive to help reduce the stress levels of their employees. Stress is known to increase staff turnover and absenteeism and reduce productivity. In fact, it is estimated that 60% of absenteeism is attributed to stress-related illnesses. Stress is also linked to an increase in accidents, injuries and chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and depression.

I spoke with Justeen Kirk, Regional Manager for GHD and a former colleague of mine, who knows only too well how dangerous stress can be. Justeen developed an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) after moving from Canberra to Wagga Wagga with her two young children. While her partner remained in Canberra, the stress of juggling kids, a new job and trying to develop networks in a new community simply became too much.

“I’m on the road a lot for work and found myself worrying about who would pick my kids up from after-school care if I had an accident. They were solely my responsibility and I was unknowingly putting a lot of pressure on myself to deal with it,” explains Justeen.

The causes of stress are often hidden

In Justeen’s case, her stress wasn’t caused solely by one factor. Life change, work/life balance, and family responsibilities all contributed to her additional load. Stress can often be a result of over-commitment, uncertainty and change.

Other things that can cause stress include management style, low social support and perceptions of adverse psychosocial factors in the workplace. Lack of control in the workplace can also increase stress levels – with employees who work casually more prone to stress, for example.

Diversity can play into this in a powerful way. If an individual believes their level of control in the workplace is negatively impacted by their gender, race, sexual orientation or another personal attribute then it could potentially create stress that their peers may not feel or be aware of. Research indicates that the more stressed an individual is the less they are also able to tolerate diversity, which in itself can trigger stress for people within those diverse groups.

Another challenge is that everyone deals with stress differently. Some embrace change while others feel like they’re drowning when faced with uncertainty. Some people may be more prone to stress-related illness, while others may not even realise that they are stressed.

“In my case, I don’t think anyone would’ve looked at me and thought I was stressed,” says Justeen. “I knew I had a lot on my plate but even I didn’t realise how stressed I was.”

There are many reasons why everyone handles stress differently. Some experts attribute it to our genetic makeup, while others believe differences in our central nervous system can explain it. Our past experience can affect how we handle situations and our psychological makeup can also help or hinder how we deal with stress.

Research has found that even our cultural background has a role to play. Diet, social support systems, and other lifestyle issues can all affect how an individual responds to stress. Cultural norms, beliefs, and expectations can affect physiological stress responses and coping mechanisms.

Organisations can help ease the pressure

While it may be difficult to pinpoint the cause of an individual’s stress or how they will deal with a situation, research has found that stress-attributable illness in the workplace is largely preventable.

While having a supportive organisation is certainly helpful, that is not always enough. Organisations also need to put in place ways to identify when an individual is struggling and then have the tools they need. Justeen is a case in point. While she had the support and tools at her disposal, she still developed a serious medical condition as a result of stress.

“It is difficult for someone looking in to understand what stressors an individual has. But organisations can educate their people so they can recognise the signs,” explains Justeen. “GHD has a resilience program that is about understanding what your drivers are and what releases stress. It’s a good program, but unless you practice the techniques it won’t make a difference. The individual still has to be responsible for knowing their stress levels and asking for help.”

Some ways that employers can prevent and control workplace stress include providing training on coping skills, like GHD’s resilience course, and employee assistance programs.

“Managers should get to know their staff; have conversations with them regularly so they can take note if something is not right,” says Justeen. “It doesn’t matter how good someone is at their job, home life can always intrude on work life.”

When talking to staff, managers can search for subtle changes in behaviour that may indicate the individual needs further support. “Detecting small changes can be difficult, especially if the manager or team leader isn’t in the same office,” points out Justeen.

While there’s no silver bullet to identify and prevent stress, increasing awareness is a good place to start. As we build workplaces where diversity can flourish, that awareness needs to go beyond just knowing what may cause stress and treating it. It’s important to create spaces where people can speak up if they’re experiencing stress or are in a situation that may cause stress so they can seek help.