There is no question that mental health in the workplace is one of the most spoken about subjects in the in the media right now and hundreds, if not thousands, of companies are creating and delivering initiatives designed to tackle it. One of the biggest causes of mental health problems in the workplace is stress and as it’s National Stress Awareness Day, let’s look at how stress is defined and what causes it.
Definition of stress
The definition of stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. We have all experienced it at some stage of our lives and some people constantly experience it because of their jobs and other pressures placed upon them. As human beings we need a certain amount of stress to develop, but too much of it can impact us in a negative way.
There are two key physiological systems that co-ordinate the body’s response to stress and they are the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hormonal system. The ANS reacts almost immediately and the hormonal systems occurs and persists over a much longer period of time. The stomach and the kidneys also pour out hormones in response to stress and unless these hormones are checked then they can have a damaging effect on the body. Even after stress has subsided the hormonal levels can remain very high. Because of the high-stress society we live in, the stress response is activated so many times that hormonal levels don’t always have time to return back to normal, leading to many different health issues.
How stress weighs heavily – literally
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. One reaction that most of us will have experienced is when cortisol levels spike, the signal tells the body to eat something with a lot of quick calories in it. “A great survival tactic if you need energy to flee a predator but not if you’re fretting over how to pay bills,” says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, PhD, author of The Cortisol Connection.
Chronic stress produces high levels of cortisol over a long period of time and the body’s internal mechanism resets and directs the body to maintain a higher level of cortisol. It is the day-to-day accumulation that causes the most damage because we don’t feel it creeping up on us. Symptoms of elevated cortisol levels include anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, memory and concentration impairment and weight gain. Chronic stress can lead the body to ignore the function of insulin. Insulin resistance develops when the cells fail to respond to insulin’s message to take in glucose from the blood stream. It is thought that elevated blood sugar due to stress and diet contributes to the development of insulin resistance. When insulin fails to unlock our cells, the appetite is increased while the body’s ability to burn fat is decreased. This syndrome is part of the modern problem of rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
This gradual increase is the silent killer because we accommodate it and accept it as normal. A paper in 1996 by Rosenman found that over half of the new cases of heart disease had none of the normal risk factors associated with coronary artery disease such as high blood cholesterol, diabetes, smoking or a poor diet. What was present in the lives of these new cases though was stress.
In general, the most common deaths in the UK for people aged 40 to 75 are all linked to lifestyle diseases such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, cancer, strokes and Type 2 Diabetes. Unfortunately, many of these people are caught on the hamster wheel of life and don’t even know that they are working themselves into an early grave until it is too late. They tend to be overweight and be constantly stressed, feeling as though they have little time to get things done and never have the energy or will power to make a change. Just have a look at the case study of the CEO of Lloyds in 2011 when he worked himself into a nervous breakdown.
Stress doesn’t only impact heart disease but it is also linked to cancer. Stress inhibits the production and activity of natural killer cells, known as NK cells, as much as 50%. NK cells are responsible for identifying and destroying cancer and virus cells. Even more scary, chronic stress can accelerate the growth of cancer cells in the body as well as block the body’s ability to fight cancer. It promotes the synthesis of new blood cells in tumours and accelerates the growth of some tumours.
Causes of stress in the workplace
With constant connectivity, stress is a big problem in the workplace with the five main causes being: poor leadership, poor communication, poor working relationships, workload and change. It has been identified as such a big problem that the Health & Safety Executive now state that “Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it”.
So have you got a risk assessment for stress in place and does your employee handbook have a policy on stress and mental health in the workplace? Do you have an Employee Assistance Programme as one of your controls in your risk assessments? An EAP provides you with a host of support services including counselling, wellbeing information services and health tools, allowing you to proactively invest in your employees’ wellbeing.
Right now many companies have an EAP as part of their employee
benefits package but it won’t be long before it will become an employer must-have rather than an employee benefit.