There are many situations at the workplace that could be sources of different levels of stress. When does that stress become problematic? EMCC Counsellor Ms. Sanny Chen provides some insights and advice.
Q: Why is stress bad for us?
SC: Firstly, not all stress is bad for us. In fact, some stress can be helpful. Positive stress, also known as Eustress, helps us to get work done and to do something about challenges that come our way.
What is not helpful is chronic stress, which is a state of prolonged and constant feeling of stress. During periods of chronic stress, our body produces large amounts of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Prolonged exposure to the effects of adrenaline and cortisol, can lead to physical and mental health problems over time.
Chronic stress can also cause us to act in ways (e.g., get angry easily, being curt with people) that hurt our relationships with the people around us.
Q: How does this stress usually manifest itself?
SC: When stressed, our immunity levels can drop, thereby increasing the chances of catching colds and other illnesses. Certain existing health conditions like asthma and eczema could become more frequent and worse than usual.
Stress may also cause our blood pressure to rise. Elevated blood pressure due to chronic stress increases the risk of stroke, heart attacks and other health conditions.
Some people may experience digestive problems like constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion and even Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) which is a condition that requires medical attention.
Sleep and stress are interrelated and can develop into a vicious cycle. When stress is prolonged, sleep patterns become disrupted. The lack of sleep causes the individual to struggle to focus and complete their tasks, which in turn causes the individual to experience higher levels of stress and difficulty sleeping.
Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are known to become more prevalent due to prolonged stress. If not managed over time, the individual may develop thoughts of suicide as they are unable to see a way out.
Q: What are some of the common sources of workplace stress?
SC: There are many situations at the workplace that could be sources of stress. Some of these are:
- Lack of opportunities for promotion or advancement
- Work that is not engaging enough or too challenging
- Lack of support or mentorship for new staff
- Insufficient training or guidance for staff to perform their work duties adequately
- Little to no control over decisions that are made in the workplace
- Conflicting demands from supervisors
- Lack of clarity in performance expectations
Due to Covid-19, a new source of workplace stress is coping with changes in the work environment. Many are working from home which can have an isolating effect. Of course, this would depend on the individual’s personality. For a personality that thrives in a team environment, this individual may struggle with the increased isolation due to work-from-home arrangements. For another who prefers a quiet environment to work in, work-from-home arrangements may be distracting for them as there are family members, especially elderly or children, who need their attention during work hours.
Q: What are some quick de-stressing techniques I can practice on my own?
SC: Chronic stress doesn’t happen overnight so it is unrealistic to expect it to disappear by simply relying on stress-relieving tips. However, quick de-stressing techniques can be helpful in the moment when we experience being overwhelmed or the sensation of being “flooded”. Below are some helpful de-stressing techniques to try. Remember, everyone is different so what may work for someone else may not work for you. What’s important is to try and see how you feel during and after.
- Be observant. Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as sleeping difficulties, increased alcohol and other substance use, easily irritable and triggered or angered, feeling depressed, and feeling fatigued. Noticing these symptoms helps us to recognize and acknowledge stress. Avoid the urge to deny that you are experiencing stress.
- Deep breathing. This simple but powerful exercise helps to increase oxygen to the brain and if done correctly (refer to ‘deep breathing’ exercises in books or online for the correct way to deep breathe) can calm us down by slowing down the part of the brain that is constantly on heightened alert.
- Move. While many would suggest exercise, this can add more stress to someone who is already experiencing chronic stress. Perhaps a better suggestion is to “just move”. This could be in the form of a leisurely walk, a hike in the forest, cycling, jogging, dancing or a game of badminton. This helps to create mindfulness for the individual and releases endorphins and serotonin, which are, “happy hormones” to counter adrenaline and cortisol!
- Self-care by taking time to relax. Find an activity that you notice yourself feeling more “chill” when you are engaged in it. You might even find yourself smiling, laughing or feel a soothing sensation. This can be in the form of journaling, playing with a pet, reading, baking, cleaning your room. Engage in the activity more when you are experiencing more stress than usual and try to incorporate it into your life rather than only when you feel stressed. Also be aware of watching TV and phone-scrolling. While they are relaxing in the short run, they are not always helpful for our mind when we engage too long in it.
- Prioritize and set goals for each day. Be clear about what needs to get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Actively recognize what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
- Stay connected. Avoid spending large tracts of time alone during and after work. Identify at least one person at the workplace and in your personal life who can be that source of emotional support and practical help for you. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, and community or religious organizations to journey with you.
Q: When should I seek professional help?
SC: Here is a good rule of thumb: If you are feeling low and depressed for more than 2 weeks, and the feelings are intense enough to seriously interfere with your ability to function at work, interactions with family members and in your personal and social life, or are bringing up thoughts of ending your life, it would be a very good idea to consult with a mental health professional as soon as possible.
You can first start with arranging a counselling session for yourself. Let the intake officer know clearly what your symptoms are so they can match you to the most suitable support that you need.
Where to get help?
Check if your company has an arrangement for employees to consult confidentially with a counselling agency like EMCC known as the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP.) If so, you can make an appointment at this link https://emcc.org.sg/counselling/appointment-form-eap/. All information you share with your counsellor is confidential and will not be shared with your employer.
If your company does not have such an arrangement, you can make a private appointment with an EMCC counsellor at this link https://emcc.org.sg/counselling/enquiry/ or call 6788 8220 from Mondays to Fridays, 9am – 6pm.
You can also arrange for a polyclinic appointment or meet with a GP so that they can connect you to a specialist (psychiatrist) who can assess your situation and provide medical support if needed.
If you have persistent and strong thoughts of ending your life, please do call Samaritans of Singapore at 1800 221 4444 (24/7 toll-free line) immediately. Alternatively, go to the nearest Accident and Emergency (A&E) and let the medical workers know that you are having strong and persistent thoughts of suicide.