By the end of a work day, do you feel like you’ve been run over by a bulldozer? Is stress at the workplace pulling you down? According to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association, 65% of workers in the US cite work as a significant source of stress, and one-third of them are chronically stressed.
While similar data on Indian workers is not easily available, doctors say work-related stress is a big issue. “Of all the people I see every day for stress-related issues, over 50% come with work-related stress problems,” says Sameer Malhotra, head, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Healthcare, New Delhi.
“The reasons are/can be myriad—from recession, fear of losing job, bad boss (and) personal issues, to work that doesn’t excite or challenge enough. Plus, increasing demands of work, tight deadlines, unhealthy competition from colleagues, long commuting and working hours, not enough breaks leave people with little time for hobbies and relationships. This lack of work-life balance adds further to distress,” says Dr Malhotra. Whatever the reason, constant stress can have a far-reaching effect on a person’s mental health, sometimes even spilling into the physical domain.
“The mind and body are closely linked through a very fine network of neurochemicals, hormones and the immune system. And the problem actually arises because there is just one way we react biochemically to stress: an increase in the production of the hormone cortisol, which leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and rapid breathing. Now factor this in for every day of your work life and it’s no surprise that the negative effects pile on—leading to migraines, insomnia, high blood pressure, damaged arteries, changes in bowel system and a weakened immune system,” adds Dr Malhotra.
Save your heart
In 2008, a study in the UK, published in the European Heart Journal, linked workplace stress directly to coronary heart disease (CHD). Researchers mentioned that in 12 years of follow-up, they found that chronic work stress was associated with CHD and this association was stronger in both men and women aged under 50.
Another study published last year in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine reported that stressful situations at work can have a negative impact on the cardiovascular system. “Stress leads to an inflammatory response in the body, which can trigger cardiovascular diseases, among other diseases,” wrote the study researchers.
That’s not all. According to Minakshi Manchanda, consultant, psychiatry, Asian Institute of Medical Sciences in Faridabad, Haryana, stress can hurt work efficiency too. “Plus stress can impair the hippocampal function, crucial for good memory and absorbing new information, such as important names and facts, PIN numbers, etc.—leading to a vicious cycle. So worrying incessantly about a deadline is not going to help you meet it, after all,” she says.
If you’re one of those who think that some stress is good and makes you more productive (and a big achiever), think again. “It is only those people who have learnt to handle their stress better and empowered themselves who manage to perform well,” says Dr Manchanda.
Take your pick from these ways to curb office stress:
Begin your day with some form of physical exercise to activate the body, stimulate the mind, and take on the stress of the hours ahead. “This gives you a head start and the feel-good endorphins released in the body boost efficiency too,” says Dr Manchanda.
Have a time crunch on your hands? Well, try to fit exercise into the middle of your work day: Go to the office gym, walk around the block, fix up a tennis session with a colleague for after-work hours, and don’t forget to stand up and stretch your neck, shoulder, back and thigh muscles every 2-3 hours to stay stress-free. “Even some small movements like stretching, doing knee bends, walking to a colleague’s desk can help take the edge off stress,” says Dr Manchanda.
Make time for meditation
Most office environments are catastrophic at worst and chaotic at best. In fact, a study published in the December issue of the Journal Of Environmental Psychology suggests that the open plan office (fancy workstations notwithstanding) makes us less productive—and more stressed. In the midst of heightened noise levels, minute-by-minute distractions, overheard conversations, endless emails, office politics, back-biting...remaining calm and focused is simply impossible.
So what’s the antidote? “Meditation,” says Dr Manchanda. “It relaxes the body. And when somebody is physically relaxed, the blood pressure drops, the heart rate slows down, more blood flows to the brain. As a result, anxiety and stress are toned down, if not tamed completely. These few minutes (15-20 minutes are good enough) cultivate an inner stillness, prepare you for everything that is hurled at you during the day (including bad bosses) and train you to respond with wisdom instead of anger and frustration,” she adds.
Ideally, meditate at home before leaving for work. Failing that, take some time out at work; close your eyes and recite a mantra, access a meditation app on your phone or laptop, read a prayer.
“This is an important skill set to acquire,” says Dr Malhotra. “Even when the worst happens at work—the boss screams, your raise is measly, the deal you have been working at collapses or you are handed a super- unachievable target—just think about what the situation will look like a year or two from now. Will it still be so earth-shatteringly important? Look at it from that perspective, then decide whether you want to sulk, tremble, rant, rave or move on,” he says. “Concentrate on staying positive at all times.”
Take a break
“Ideally leave your desk to eat (and enjoy your food) as this signals a break. Second, don’t mix technology and food—resist the temptation to check mails or to make that quick call; munching on food with the laptop on your lap or ears glued to the phone is a sure-shot stress booster,” says Dr Manchanda. And when we are talking about food, it is also important to know that a heavy (in fats and carbohydrates) lunch, processed foods or too much sugar can be an energy killer. But if you eat the right foods at work, like almonds, prunes, milk, a banana, oranges, yogurt and coconut water, both your body and mind will feel refuelled. Begin the day by drinking lots of water—and rehydrate at regular intervals.
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These help too
A few suggestions on how to beat work-related stress
u Find an outlet outside of work. Trying out a new hobby (pottery, anyone?) or a competitive sport like marathon running is not only a healthy outlet, but gives a sense of achievement outside of work.
u Go through all the filing cabinets and trash old files that are no longer necessary. Ditto for your laptop too. Clutter equals stress.
u Display a happy photograph prominently at your workstation—a constant reminder of fun and good times, it’ll keep you charged.
u Proper sleep-wake schedule, some me-time, enough time with family and friends, and regular relaxation breaks (get away for a weekend) also help.
—Sameer Malhotra, head, mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Healthcare, New Delhi.