ccording to the II Report "Cost of Stress and Psychological Health Problems at Work" (2023), by the Portuguese Psychologists' Order (OPP), stress and mental health cost €5.3 billion to national companies, having significant repercussions on productivity, absenteeism and turnover. OPP estimates that in Portugal1 employees miss eight days of work a year due to stress or psychological health problems.
The concept of stress is thus defined as a physical and common response that requires an effort to adapt. This physiological response is influenced by our self-evaluation of our reactions to certain changes, situations or events, and causes the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, enhancing a state of vigilance. It is fundamental2 3 to learn how to deal with stress, especially if we live in urban environments, where modern life is constantly changing and requires constant adaptation on our part. Tight schedules, daily traffic, noise pollution, queues for customer services and the impatience visible in the eyes of those who attend there fuel this adrenaline even more.
But is stress necessarily negative? When does stress stop being healthy and become excessive?
This turning point happens when the adrenaline that courses through our body starts to linger, remaining high even after the stressful event has ended. If it starts to bother us, rather than making us feel active or focused, we are facing the moment when stress is no longer normal, regardless of whether we live in the fastest-paced city or the most peaceful and remote village.
With the opportunity of remote work, many people have chosen to escape the big cities and embrace the serene life in more rural or outlying areas, with greater connection to family or nature. However, there are also those who love the frenzy of the city and feel unable to live in an environment that is too quiet and far away from everything. The self-perception of a certain situation has more impact than the situation itself. Each person should be in tune with the lifestyle that best fits his or her values and preferences. Furthermore, each person should try to understand when the pressure stops stimulating positive results and starts to cause blockages. What may cause one person serenity, focus or an invigorating adrenaline rush, to another may cause suffering, nervousness or impotence, culminating in psychological health problems.
More specifically, work stress can cause blockages or suffering when the demands are perceived by the employee as being too low or too high in relation to their abilities or available resources1.
There are some work situations that can cause excessive stress:
- when we feel we have too many tasks to accomplish in a short period of time or, on the contrary, that we have no tasks assigned by our decision makers;
- when we work in shifts and do not adapt to the schedules;
- when we feel little control over the tasks and how to carry them out;
- when we feel we work in poor conditions or without adequate equipment or furniture;
- when we feel little support from staff and leaders;
- when we anticipate low expectations of growth ou salary increases;
- when we fear being made redundant;
- when we find it difficult to balance work and family life;
- when we experience poor relationships with co-workers1.
When one or more of these things happen and continuously interfere with our well-being, we have to know how to deal with so-called pathological stress. Instead of trying to eliminate or fight against it, we should learn to identify its source, communicate with our support persons and bring the stress back to an acceptable level, the point of which is not the same for everyone.
In contrast, if we always had a zero level of stress, we would move to the other extreme. We would probably be in a too zen-like state to be able to be productive at work. We would be late all the time, we would be slower, we would become experts at interrupting tasks and leaving them halfway through, we would let our concentration slip, and we would deal very badly with unforeseen events.
So, when we feel an intermediate, positive and energising level of stress, the truth is that it can even be very boosting. For example:
- it helps us to be on time for appointments when the alarm clock doesn't go off;
- it helps us to be more productive;
- it helps us to be more focused;
- it helps us to be more agile;
- it helps us to be more able to improvise.
As with everything in nature, balance is ideal. To find it, we can put a few strategies in place. Studies show that companies can increase productivity by at least 30%1 if they take flexible measures to support mental health. But each of us must also find the best ways to deal with negative stress.
- Understand the indicators that separate healthy stress from pathological stress;
- Establish boundaries (e.g.: turn off e-mail notifications and those of social networks, and define specific timings to check those digital tools);
- Seek to reduce (instead of eliminate) stress, learning to accept it instead of fighting it: observe automatic thoughts without "grabbing" them or trying to change it (they will eventually lose their power);
- Build healthy sleeping habits, decreasing stimuli such as the computer, phone or television at night;
- Practice regular physical activity or find the time for a hobby;
- Invest in relaxation by resorting to breathing exercises, yoga, meditation or mindfulness (explore these short exercises of mindfulness so you can take care of your body and your mind);
- Communicate with your leaders about the factors that are causing you stress. If you don't have assigned tasks, ask for them! If you have too many tasks, ask for help or more time to work on them. If you are not satisfied with your salary, career progression, or type of contract, say so! Communication is the solution. Even if nothing changes, at least now you know that the company knows the reasons for your disquiet.
- If you still feel overwhelmed, seek specialised clinical support from a professional who will help you to identify the source and implement stress mediating strategies in your daily life. Taking care of yourself is always a good investment!
1Ordem dos Psicólogos Portugueses (2023). Prosperidade e Sustentabilidade das Organizações Relatório do Custo do Stresse e dos Problemas de Saúde Psicológica no Trabalho, em Portugal. Lisboa. [Portuguese Psychologists' Order (2023). Prosperity and Sustainability of Organisations Report on the Cost of Stress and Psychological Health Problems at Work in Portugal. Lisbon]
2Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life, New York, NY, Mc Graw Hill.
3Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S. (1984). Handbook Psychological Stress and the Coping Process, New York, NY: Springer.