Health / Expert Advice

When Is Workplace Stress Good and When Is It Bad?

Stress is a normal part of life, but too much can do serious damage to your wellbeing.

Stress is an inevitable part of work. We need it to motivate us to get projects done and to ensure that we produce quality work. But, too much workplace stress is harmful for your body, mind, and productivity. Plus, it can have devastating long-term effects. Research shows that too much work stress leads to burnout, mental health issues, physical health problems, and increased occurrences of sick days. In other words, stress hurts employers and employees. So, what can we do about it?

The Difference Between Good And Bad Stress

Good Stress

Not all stress is created equal. Good stress, also called eustress, is a type of stress that’s energizing and essential to certain activities, says Dr. Jelena Zikic, an associate professor at York University’s School of Human Resource Management. It’s a positive stress that benefits and motivates you. For example, it’s the type of stress that you feel when you’re excited about pitching a project. Or, when you work extra hard on an assignment that you’re passionate about.

Another type of positive workplace stress has to do with professional relationships, Dr. Zikic says. “If you have good relationships with your teammates or co-workers, that can also be energizing,” she says. “And, even if you’re busy or engaged with a lot of projects, if you have a really good work environment that’s basically founded on relationships with [co-workers], that’s positive.”

Bad Stress

Bad stress, on the other hand, can be overwhelming. “When stress becomes negative, it’s usually because the demands of you at work exceed your ability to control things,” Dr. Zikic explains. “It’s kind of an equation between demand and control. There are just too many demands on you, and you feel like you don’t have enough control over your tasks. That easily spills into negative stress.” This type of stress can result in physical and mental symptoms. These include increased heart rate, problems sleeping, irritability, inability to concentrate, changes in appetite, and racing thoughts.

Bad stress can stem from many factors. In many of today’s work environments, employees are expected to be “connected” even when they’re not at work thanks to email, social media, and smartphones. “Your work becomes sort of 24/7, something that surrounds your life even at home,” Dr. Zikic says. “You’re expected to respond to your emails—even when you typically would be considered ‘off work.’”

This type of constant round-the-clock work ethos is detrimental to your wellbeing, Dr. Zikic says, as everyone needs time to disconnect from their professional life. Plus, research shows that working overtime does not necessarily make you more productive or a better worker. It can actually make you more likely to make mistakes and experience illness.

Other sources of workplace stress can come from workplace bullying, job insecurity, lack of acknowledgment, discrimination, or workplace harassment, for example.

How Negative Stress Affects Your Wellbeing

There’s ample research that suggests too much workplace stress is bad for you. According to the American Psychological Association, stress can accelerate the onset of heart disease and lead to anxiety and depression. It can also lead to burnout—emotional and mental exhaustion—which can up your chances of diabetes, obesity, and stroke.

And, the bad news is that we know that more and more North Americans are feeling the implications of workplace stress today. “There’s more incidents of overwork, [and] all kinds of physical and mental health issues related to being connected and constantly [dealing with] the demands of work exceeding your ability to control them,” Dr. Zikic says.

This stress can also affect you beyond your cubicle and trickle into your home life. Dr. Zikic states that when someone is overworked or experiencing too much work stress, their personal relationships can suffer as a result.

How to Deal With Workplace Stress

In order to prevent your work stress from turning into a serious problem, it’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling and how your body is reacting. Mindfulness is a great tool, Dr. Zikic says. When done correctly, mindfulness can connect you with your current environment and help you focus on the present. It can also reduce symptoms of anxiety, and promote feelings of calmness and wellbeing. Dr. Zikic also says that meditation and yoga are great for stress. “Anything that can promote a worker’s ability to focus on one task at a time [is helpful],” she says.

Another way to cope with stress? Exercise. Working out is shown to reduce levels of anxiety, promote mood and sleep, and make you more productive. “People are now exercising more and more in the context of work,” Dr. Zikic says. Whether that’s using your lunch break to hit up your company’s gym or taking a brisk walk around the block for fifteen minutes, stepping away from your desk and getting your heart rate up is great for stress management. “The more you exercise, your positive hormones will kick in, [and] you’ll be able to better cope with work and do what you need to do,” she says.

You may also benefit from a mental health day, which is a great short-term coping strategy but won’t fix ongoing or chronic stress. The key to workplace stress is managing it through self-care and coping techniques so that it doesn’t turn into a much bigger problem.

Bottom Line

It’s incredibly important for your mental and physical health to manage workplace stress and not push yourself towards burnout. If you feel like you’re in a toxic work environment and need professional help, reach out to your workplace’s human resources department (if you feel comfortable). The important thing is that you look after your own wellbeing. And, even if you can’t control the stress around you, you can learn to control your reactions—and that can make a huge difference.

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