Stress at work can take many forms and range in severity from mild annoyance to burnout. It may be relatively easy to tell if co-workers appear to be under severe stress by observing the appearance and persistence of certain characteristic behaviors. It may not be so easy to diagnose dangerous levels of stress in ourselves, however, especially when other considerations of self-esteem, personal ambition to succeed, economic pressure, deadline requirements, and career goals may interfere with a sound and unbiased self-diagnosis.
Mild vs. Severe Stressors: It’s About Control
The first consideration is the severity of the stressors. Are they mild and can they be addressed by making appropriate adjustments? Stressors such as a noisy environment, not knowing one’s job objectives, and skipping meals can be (although not always) addressed by closing the door, asking for clarification, and committing to take lunch and snack breaks as needed.
The second consideration is whether or not the stressors are under our control. The presence or lack of control creates an internal vs. external locus of control situation, with important psychological consequences (see this post on the difference between internal and external locus of control).
Stressors that are beyond our control are far more difficult to address, as for example when there are too many things to do and not enough resources to get them done. Its opposite, the situation when there is hardly anything to do at all, is also stressful and may not have an easy solution.
Other relatively difficult stressors that may not have a solution within our control is not enjoying the job, and not knowing what else one could be doing or being in a situation where a change of job is just about impossible. In the current job market, this may not be an uncommon situation, as jobs that used to be good have become more stressful and jobs that were bad to begin with have not gotten any better.
Another difficult stressor where external control may be an issue is the experience of being caught between conflicting demands, often with insufficient information or resources to address them appropriately. Not feeling appreciated or under-appreciated while putting in long hours and hard work can also create a considerable level of stress.
On the other hand, many stressors can be successfully addressed because they do fall within our control. The most common are interruptions and how they are handled (the well-known inability to say “no”). Another is poor delegation skills, or not sharing work responsibilities with others. These are two examples of stressors that, although not easily eliminated, at least can be controlled and limited in their impact by making changes that are well within our possibilities.
When Stress at Work Is too Much: Burnout
There are times when the symptoms of stress are just too severe, too persistent and too intractable to be dismissed. They interfere not only with productivity and efficiency on the job, but they also have important negative health consequence in addition to being detrimental to interpersonal relationships at work and at home. The resulting complex cluster of psychological, physical and behavioral symptoms is defined as occupational stress or, for short, burnout.
The emotional exhaustion of burnout can result in diminished interest in work, fatigue, and detachment. Hopelessness is common: we "give in," "numb out," and "march like robots through the day."
The depersonalization of burnout, or the defensive distancing from the surrounding world, can result in diminished contact with coworkers and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and an overall negative attitude toward others.
The dissatisfaction of burnout, or the perception of unsatisfactory personal accomplishment, can result in feelings of failure, fatalism, diminished competence, and incapacity to respond to further job, personal and environmental demands.
Early Warning Signs of Work Stress
One of the first noticeable signs that stress is beginning to have a behavioral impact is irritability. Fellow workers will notice this first. They may or may not be able to point it out, but if they do, it is worth paying attention to their feedback and asking ourselves a few questions.
The second sign is fatigue. Even though it is hard to miss, fatigue very often goes unchecked not because it isn’t visibly affecting us but because we may refuse to acknowledge it. Pushing harder can become a mantra, a repetitive “principle-driven” set of behaviors that pushes rest and relaxation aside, with potentially serious health consequences.
Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness are also early signs of severe stress. Sometimes, stress affects memory in such a severe manner that, by evening time, we can’t remember what we did all day, or what we ate for breakfast.
Sleep ceases to be a safe haven for regenerating and recharging and becomes a place of torture. Lack of sleep is linked to so many health consequences, and to stress itself, in a circular causality pattern. Less sleep means more vulnerability to stress, which leads to more stress by the time we get to bed, with even less chances of getting a good night’s sleep. A potentially deadly vicious cycle!
The body complains about stress, too. Its messages take the form of bowel irritation, chronic fatigue, asthma and other respiratory ailments, headaches, rashes, tics, cramps, and many more pains and problems that appear to come out of nowhere and stubbornly refuse to go away.
Finally, withdrawal and depression may raise their ugly head. Burnout has arrived. It may take a few years to get here, or maybe just a few months of severe stress. In any case, burnout may be the end game of one very simple losing strategy: ignoring the obvious, steaming through the warning signs and hoping that stress will just go away by itself.