World Stress Day last week, shone a spotlight on global stress levels. The American Institute of Stress has reported that near-epidemic levels are being reached. 

One of the main contributors is the working world. Korn Ferry, the global organisational consulting firm, reports that employee stress levels have increased by close to 20% in just three decades. This has serious implications for people’s health, in the short- and long-term. 

Sanlam believes employers need to get more serious about their employees’ mental health to avoid stress reaching dangerously high levels.
Marion Morkel, the chief medical officer at Sanlam, said: “The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests work-related stress is often the result of people feeling that tasks don’t match their knowledge and abilities. It’s made worse when individuals don’t feel supported or find they have little control over work processes.”

In South Africa, one in six people suffers from anxiety, depression or substance abuse problems. Stress can contribute to and exacerbate these. Morkel said it can also play a role in catalysing systemic chronic disorders, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and auto-immune disorders. She suggested that employers consider taking time to talk about stress in the world of work and that they spend time understanding the warning signs and the preventative steps to introduce.

Of course, it’s impossible to alleviate workplace stress completely. In fact, short bursts of reasonable stress can improve productivity. But here are the signs it has got out of hand:

Six signs your stress is over the top:

1. You constantly feel worried, anxious and/or overwhelmed;
2. You have difficulty concentrating;
3. You experience frequent mood swings, irritability or a short temper;
4. You feel depressed and have low self-esteem;
5. Your eating has changed;
6. You’re struggling to sleep. 

You may also experience physical aches, nausea, dizziness and a reduced libido. Also,  you might turn to other substances like alcohol more to help you relax. Here’s how to spot stress in others.

Six signs your colleague’s stress is out of hand:  

1. He/she works longer hours and through the lunch break;
2. He/she is irritable, nervous and fidgety. Look out for over-the-top reactions or conversely, someone retreating inside themselves and becoming increasingly introverted;
3. He/she looks tired, indicating sleep issues;
4. He/she hasn’t booked any time off for a while, which could show concern about falling behind with work;
5. He/she is struggling to remember things, uncharacteristically. Indecisiveness may also arise, along with confusion.
6. He/she is increasingly sensitive and emotional.

Other warning signs are lethargy, illness and social isolation. Look out for a change in typical behaviours like increased smoking or changes in eating. Tiredness and stress may manifest as someone paying less attention to appearance.

What can employers do to prevent and alleviate stress in employees?

A lot of it comes down to creating an open, inclusive culture where people feel safe to share their mental health journeys. That means regular workshops and training, encouraging people to take the paid leave they are entitled to, allowing mental health days when needed and providing access to counselling and coaching services.
Burn-out is closely linked to stress. It has been characterised by the WHO as “feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy”. 

Employees who are stressed or burnt-out will often “check out”, leading to absenteeism and presenteeism – the epidemic of distracted employees – which costs the South African economy more than R100 billion a year.

Look out for it by:

– Checking with people on a one-one basis frequently;
– Noticing when people aren’t themselves and empathetically asking if they’re alright;
– Doing anonymous surveys gauging general stress levels in the office. If they are high, do something about it. Hire more people, hire freelancers, give people opportunities to learn to have the skills to match the challenges, provide rewards and incentives, recognise excellence, and provide ongoing support through mentorship and helpful feedback;
– Getting granular. Ask people what their specific stresses are, then address them appropriately;
– Helping people to learn to prioritise tasks and deadlines through training and tools;
– Allowing and encouraging Mental Health days;
– Setting a precedent where it is fine to go home when the clock strikes home time;
– Talking about mental health and bringing in coaches, counsellors and training;
– Encouraging people to take breaks and time off;
– Clarifying expectations around KPIs and setting clear goals together;
– Giving people more control over their work processes;
– Protecting a team from unrealistic deadlines;
– Alerting people to ways to protect their health and finances in the long term – like dread disease cover, medical aid and gap cover;
– Ensuring that people have time to exercise if they want to. Consider bringing yoga in-house, during work, once a week, for example;
– Providing meditation and mindfulness training.

“Keep talking about mental health. Raise awareness in the office and provide lots of sensitive training around it. Most importantly, people need to feel safe and supported enough to speak up when they’re not coping. It can also help individuals to have dread disease cover in place. Knowing one has it can provide peace of mind around health and future financial well-being,” concluded Morkel.

Supplied by Sanlam.

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