Stop this wheel — I want to get off!
Area experts offer advice on dealing with workplace stress.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
The summer of 2018 will be remembered statewide for more than its share of catastrophic events, from a devastating gas main explosion in downtown Sun Prairie to incessant rains and unprecedented flooding.
Lives, homes, and businesses were casualties of the torrent. Locally, unprecedented flooding closed East Washington Avenue and many streets around the isthmus as officials hoped the Tenney Lock would hold. Roads, railroad tracks, and bridges west of town were washed away, and areas as far away as the Mississippi River were compromised, towns were devastated, and school openings delayed.
Estimated costs rose quickly. As of this writing, the latest price tag for Dane County was $154 million and growing, with 1,544 residences and 107 businesses impacted in varying degrees.
If there’s any excuse for experiencing higher than usual anxiety, the summer of 2018 could be it.
Whether or not your business or home or life was impacted, the effects of stress on a human being can be significant. The World Health Organization considers stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century,” costing society an estimated $300 billion per year. Stress affects more than 100 million people a year in the U.S. and on average costs employers $702 per employee per year.
Workplace stress can come from any number of sources, personal or workplace related. The Mental Health Foundation claims two-thirds of adults will suffer from some sort of mental health issue in their lifetime, and since the average worker now spends more than 40 hours per week at their job, employers and supervisors may find themselves having to recognize when an employee might need extra support.
If that wasn’t bad enough, in his blog “When should stress be considered a disability at work?” David Brown, employment law partner at Shakespeare Martineau, a U.K-based law firm, says, “Failing to identify or take action when employees are suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression can leave employers open to discrimination claims.”
The problem is that we can’t see stress. We can’t put it in a box and discard it, but boy can we feel it, which leads one to wonder: Are we destined to just accept our fate on this continuously spinning wheel?
We asked several area experts about workplace stress. Are there signs to watch for? What role can employers play in managing stress, and when might an employee need to recognize they need help?
Stress and the brain
Cathy River, founder of the Madison Brain Center, discusses the physiological changes that stress can produce. Stress affects the body’s vagus nerve, she explains. “All of our nerves to our stomach and heart come off the vagus nerve, and when it’s operating at a high frequency, people can exhibit symptoms similar to PTSD, but it doesn’t mean they have PTSD, which is a very specific diagnosis.”
Symptoms like migraines might mean the vagus nerve is pinched, she explains, whereas reactive anxiety, when a person may not feel safe anywhere on the planet, is an anxiety on a different level, and one that the nervous system might have a hard time shaking off. “Frequently it has to do with things that are out of our control,” River explains.
But humans are remarkably resilient, and eventually, most people are able to work through or manage their stress.
“We’ve all had events where we might have been in a car accident or just missed being in one, but we know we’re okay and get past it,” Rivers suggests. “Others might not be able to drive for weeks or months because they’re so worried about car accidents.”
Such associations can trigger the amygdala, an almond-shaped region of the brain linked to the normal expression of emotions, particularly fear. Imaging has shown that high activity in this portion of the brain happens when people are anxious, under stress, or facing phobias.
It’s the piling on of circumstances that might put someone over the edge, River notes, and from an outside view, employers and managers don’t know what’s happened in a person’s past.
Everyone reacts differently, River explains. “Some people cope with stress or anxiety by being overachievers or perfectionists on the job, even to the point where they might alienate colleagues or clients, while others might become foggy minded or convoluted.”
The Madison Brain Center offers treatments such as biofeedback to help people “reboot” their brains, but she also acknowledges that sometimes just showing a little bit of empathy and compassion can work wonders.
For one thing, companies can’t expect perfection, she says. Her advice to employers, if an employee’s job performance begins falling off, is to designate a “safe” person they can talk to and trust — not necessarily a manager — but perhaps a friend or another employee.
“Employers also need to understand that they just might be creating a very stressful workplace,” she adds, and that offering things like mindful meditation, or even mindful listening, can go a long way toward healing and retention.
“People deal with stress or high anxiety their own way. Some may need to rest, or talk, or sing, or dance. Me? I’m a verbal vomiter. I need to talk. I know that.”
If an employee asks for an extra-long lunch once in a while, let them take it, she encourages. If they’re needing to de-stress by meeting with someone to manage their stress, “Pay them for the time,” she insists.
“Someone making $12 an hour likely won’t take the time to leave work because the idea of losing income creates even more stress.
“The fact of the matter is that in our society, the more money we make, the more freedom the business world allows us to take better care of ourselves, and the more freedom we have to take time off from our jobs with few, if any, ramifications.”