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Stress at work



Kirjoittanut: Felix Schwarz-Pajunen - tiimistä Crevio.

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Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 7 minuuttia.

Intro:

Stress and burnout are an increasing problem in today’s world and working environment. As early as 1986 studies suggest that up to 60% of work absence is stress related (Cox, Griffiths, Eusebio 2000, 29). This trend is increasing and especially the COVID years fueled the increase in mental health challenges at the workplace. In 2022 the European Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) reported that “27% of workers experience stress, anxiety or depression caused or made worse by work” (European Occupational Health and Safety Administration 2022). In 2011, depression alone costs employers in the EU €272 billion (Executive Agency for Health and Consumers 2012, 32).

As entrepreneurship students and potential future employers, the pandemic of mental health problems at the workplace cannot be ignored. When employing others, being self-employed and anyhow, it is important to be aware of certain aspects of mental health.

Today’s world is a fast changing one and so are the challenges we face. When I first experienced symptoms of excess stress at work a few years back, I did not consider burnout because I assumed that is only something that top-level executives experience. As it turns out and as seen in the statistics, this is just not true.

Different types of stress:

 

In the podcast Diary of a CEO hosted by Steven Bartlett, Aditi Nerurkar, a medical doctor and expert on mental health and stress, explained some simple and interesting concepts on stress.

There are two types of stress, acute stress, and chronical stress and to understand stress a bit better one need to know some things about the brain. On a day-to-day basis, we or our brain governs our lives from a part called the prefrontal cortex. It’s the part of the brain that is just behind our forehead and it is good at planning, deciding, memory, strategy etc. If we are stressed, the amygdala, a much smaller part of the brain takes over and we function from what is commonly known as fight or flight mode.

Historically, human life was slower, we were exposed to less stimuli on a day-to-day basis but occasionally there was an acute threat. In such a case the amygdala would take over, fight or flight mode would kick in, and when the threat is resolved one would go back to a baseline of little stimuli and a slow everyday life.

Today that has changed. Life is very fast paced; media and especially social media is an ever-present part of it. Work does not end as we walk out the office door, but teams messages, e-mails and phone calls can reach us 24/7, the same is true for advertisement, bills, news.

Humans are very good to deal with acute stress and there is no negative effect on health or performance. But we are not made for chronical stress.

If the brain has no chance to unwind and relax, and one experiences a constant buzz, it becomes dangerous for our mental health. Chronical stress will eventually result in burnout. (Bartlett & Nerurkar, 2024.)

When thinking of unwinding and relaxing, scrawling on social media or watching a series may feel like relaxing in the moment but in fact, it is the opposite to the brain.

 

A-typical burnout – the stuff for entrepreneurs and even entrepreneurship students:

Aditi Nerurkar goes on to explain that the definitions of burnout are changing as a response to the new challenges we face. Traditionally, a burnout comes with symptoms of apathy, lack of motivation and not being productive. In recent years this has changed and 60% of people with burnout experience what is called A-typical burnout. It characterized with the inability to disconnect from work. It goes well together with people who are addicted to work and often pride themselves in their ability to work harder and longer than others. In the Podcast the host, Steven Bartlett, asks how this is a problem when one loves what one does and is performing well. Surely engaging is not a symptom of burnout and of course, it is great to love what one does, to be ambitious but if one sees that many other aspects of life like, hobbies, friends, family, relationships, sleep suffer then it will result in mental health issues in the long run. (Bartlett & Nerurkar, 2024.)

It is important to know that our body has real physiological limits, one of them being sleep. If one does not sleep more than 6-8h per day for a long period of time, there will be some damage. Somethings is going to give.

Like the tolerance level for stress, so are the warning signals different for each person.

It is important to be aware of, and notice that, being unable to disconnect from work is a warning signal for stress related problems down the line.

Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory:

 

In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a method to quantify stress by assigning numerical values to different live events, based on the stress they typically cause. This scale can give basic insight in how stressful one’s previous year has been and show a potential risks for stress-related health problems.

Mental health experts view the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale as a useful tool for identifying potential stressors in a person’s life and raising awareness about the impact of major life events on stress levels. However, they also recognize its limitations and advocate for a comprehensive assessment that considers individual differences and psychological factors in understanding and managing stress.

The test consists of 43 questions about 43 typical live events. Each event has a specific number, indicating how stressful that event typically is for a person. For example, death of spouse adds 100 points to one’s stress scale, beginning or ceasing formal schooling adds 26 points, change of residence adds 20 points, divorce adds 73 points, vacation adds 13 points and so on. It is important to notice that both negative as well as positive events add to the stress scale.

If the total score is around 150 points or below, there is little chance for stress related health issues. If the total score is between 150 and 300 points, one has a 50% chance of major health breakdown in the next 2 years. Even higher scores result in higher chances of stress related health issues.  The source of the of this paragraph will lead to the Americans Institute of Stress’s version of the test. (The American Institute of Stress)

 

In the podcast, Aditi Nerurkar talks about a delayed stress response, meaning that usually the adverse effects of stress do not set in right away as one experiences but rather later (Bartlett & Nerurkar, 2024). This seems to go well together with what the Holmes and Rahe test suggest.

Responsibility:

Who is responsible for mental challenges at the workplace. This is a multiplexed problem with no easy answer, so I’m not attempting to provide one but rather discuss some basics. As mentioned, todays live is fast paced and everyone may experience many stressing life events that have nothing to do with work but will affect it anyhow.

I believe that ultimately, everyone has own responsibility and agency over their lives and wellbeing and needs to take appropriate actions themselves. I also believe that when one chooses to employ other people, a certain level of responsibility comes with it. Similarly, leadership in an organization requires taking some responsibility for the leadership actions and the environment one creates.

The OSHA suggests that “when viewed as an organizational issue rather than an individual fault, psychosocial risks can be tackled in the same structured and organized way as other occupational safety and health (OSH) risks” (European Occupational Health and Safety Administration 2022). That is a fascinating thought and something to consider when running a company. It implies that psychosocial risks and related stress is not some elusive concept but a real thing that can be dealt with by real measures.

 

Leadership actions.

While this systematic approach sounds very promising. Currently for our team something I heard on another podcast seems like a simple measurement of we are doing with stress. On the Psykopdiaa hosted by Nina Lyytinen, with the topic Good Work environment – and how to create it (translated), Marja-Liisa Manka, Professor and Docent of Occupational well-being management at Tampere University describes a good work environment simply as “It’s nice to go to work and nice to come home from work” (Manka 2024). As team members and as leaders in our teams, do we help create such an environment?

MIT professor Edgar Schein says, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture” A companies culture is made up of the beliefs, values and assumptions held by employees.

As a community and teams at Proakatemia, do we create a culture that increases stress and mental health challenges? Being honest about it, I think especially in the first half year of operations as a team, we created more stress than necessary, and I believe many did not feel that it was “nice to go to work and come home from work”. I believe we came a long way from there and the environment we created within the team is much better now. I also believe there is still space for improvement.

 

Conclusion:

 

Stress at the working place is a real issue and a real challenge, the same goes for Proakatemia.

Entrepreneurship studies push for action, for initiative, for all-in engagement but at the same time the individual realities of the team members are very different. In normal circumstances, the capacity for additional action and stress of a student growing up in Tampere, with family and support system around is going to be higher than the capacity of a student that moves from aboard. In some cases, adding children, tuition fees, a new country and new language, financial burdens – and the above-mentioned stress scale from Holmes and Rahe is through the roof already.

Unequal capacity and baggage are going to be a reality of every Proakatemia team and every workplace.

I am convinced that if one buildings a good team environment the teams performance and involvement will get better. This is true for Proakatemia and for every workplace or business venture we are part of in the future. People spend one third of their day at work, if that work induces chronical stress, the team will not prosper and individuals and the whole organization will suffer.

Sources:

Bartlett, S. & Nerurkar, A. 2024. The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett Podcast. Published on 15.01.2024.

Cox, T., Griffiths, A., Eusebio, R. 2000. Research on Work related stress. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. https://osha.europa.eu/sites/default/files/TE2800882ENC_-_Research_on_Work-Related_Stress.pdf

European Occupational Health and Safety Administration. 2022. Phycological risks and metal health at work. Read on 19.02.2024. https://osha.europa.eu/en/themes/psychosocial-risks-and-mental-health

Executive Agency for Health and Consumers. 2012. Matrix Insights. Economic analysis of workplace mental health promotion and mental disorder prevention programmes and of their potential contribution to EU health, social and economic policy objectives.

http://www.mentalhealthpromotion.net/resources/matrix_2012-economic-analysis-of-wmhp-programmes.pdf

Lyytinen, M. & Manka, M-L. 2024. Psykopodiaa Podcast. Episode 139. Published 8.01.2024.

The American institute of Stress. N.d. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory. https://www.stress.org/holmes-rahe-stress-inventory

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