Technically stress is the adverse reaction an individual has to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them. In the workplace, the negative, damaging, effects of stress can arise at times when pressures are extreme, such as peak busy periods, but equally can be caused by continuous exposure to stressful conditions, such as being in an unsuitable job or being treated unfairly. Outside work, negative stress can be caused by major change events, such as a death in the family, but equally by continuous pressure of having a life constrained or dominated by the work situation.
Stress is personal in that stress affects individuals in different ways. In similar situations or conditions some people cope, even thrive, on the pressure, whilst others find it difficult to cope and suffer negative stress as a result. It is also personal in the sense that the amount of control that the individual has, over their workplace conditions, events, and work-life balance, will influence the amount of negative stress that they suffer from. Those individuals with greater control will tolerate and manage stress levels, or avoid them altogether, more successfully.
Work-life balance is, literally, balancing the demands, the amount of time and effort, given to work and the workplace, and that given to the individuals domestic, personal, family, and social life. A vital factor in achieving an appropriate work-life balance is ensuring that the work element does not dominate, and-or that it is not causing damage to the individual through the effects of negative stress. It is most unusual to find people with a work-life balance that is dominated negatively by their life outside the workplace. It is almost always the workplace activity that dominates and often negatively. For professionals undertaking personal and career development activities, the positive activity of personal development must be actively managed in order to ensure that it does not have a negative effect on stress levels and cause damage to the individuals work-life balance.
The increased awareness of the importance of managing stress and work-life balance effectively has given rise to approaches such as time management, managing stress, achieving work-life balance, managing personal development, and related approaches such as coaching and mentoring. The tools and techniques within these approaches are valuable in helping individuals to manage stress and work-life balance more successfully. All of these are worth exploring in more depth. However, here we will focus on simple, well established actions that any individual can take themselves.
There are some well established, simple to implement, approaches that will help to reduce the effects of negative stress and help to maintain an appropriate work-life balance. These include: Recognising the symptoms that will alert you to the fact that you may be under stress. Commonly experienced symptoms are: Poor health – headaches, upset stomach, sleep problems, change in appetite, tense muscles, indigestion, exhaustion, stomach, intestinal and skin problems, and heart attacks (extreme but not uncommon in severe cases); Personal behaviour – constantly worrying, irritated, feeling depressed, unable to cope and make decisions, being less creative, excessive smoking, excessive use of alcohol, not sleeping; Unsatisfactory work situation – low job satisfaction, poor relationships with colleagues, focusing on unproductive tasks, deadlines missed, performance level falling, opportunities missed, poor appraisal outcomes, feeling de-motivated; Personal life:stopping social activities, being irritated and argumentative with family and friends, personal relationships deteriorating.
Many of these symptoms can be experienced in normal life, but become symptoms of stress when several are experienced at the same time, or when there is no obvious cause, or when one or more symptom becomes overwhelming. We need to remember, however, that whilst the symptoms often are more visible, and potentially damaging, in the workplace, they are not necessarily caused by workplace pressures. Many are, but not all and not always.
Identifying the sources in the workplace: As individuals working in a business world that is continuously changing at an ever-increasing pace, we need to be adaptable and flexible. In order to avoid negative stress we need to be aware of, prepared for, and able to manage, the impact of: time pressures; demanding deadlines; increasing complex relationships with others; peaks and troughs of too much or too little work; multiple, overlapping business or work changes; threats of redundancy or unwanted job change; pressure from senior managers; unfair or discriminatory actions of management; travel pressures; increases in performance expectations; more visible scrutiny through technology and surveillance; requirements to undertake continuous personal professional development activities.
Identifying the sources in life outside work: Outside the workplace there are regularly occurring events and pressures that are a normal part of our lives, but which can be either a source of stress, or satisfaction, or both. These include: death of friend or family member; a relationship breakdown leading to separation or divorce; personal or family member injury; moving house; taking on large financial commitments such as for a mortgage; holiday periods where personal relationships are refreshed and renewed, or put under intense pressure; giving up a habit such as smoking; the birth of a child; getting married; and so on.
Knowing what your natural response will be: Individuals adapt and adjust to external pressures in different ways, depending on their personality type. The range of types is very wide, but two broad bands of personality type have been identified. Type “A” people are described as competitive, aggressive or hasty, whilst Type “B” people behave in a passive, non-competitive, slow to react way. Type “A” people tend to pass on stress to others, Type “B” tend to internalise the effects of stress. Whilst these are established, proven categories that most people fall into, other factors, such as age, gender, health, financial situation and access to support will strongly influence the response to causes of stress, regardless of personality traits. Knowing your personality type can be helpful, but can only play a small part in managing stress successfully.
Identifying strategies and actions that will help you to cope: As we have seen, individuals react differently to stress, so each of us will need to adopt different coping strategies. The following are well established, proven actions and strategies for managing stress and achieving work-life balance: be aware of your own weakness and strengths; understanding and accepting that certain things cannot be avoided or changed; taking action to reduce or remove the pressure; breaking down problems into smaller parts and setting targets to tackle each part in sequence; implementing personal time management techniques; replacing negative relationships with positive, supportive relationships; adopting a healthy living style; develop outside work interests, such as hobby, educational, social or sporting activity; undertaking positive professional career development activity; seeking advice and support from others, including professionals if appropriate; accepting that managing stress and work-life balance is a permanent continuous activity.
Corporate support mechanisms: Some organisations have recognised that stress and work-life balance are issues that need to be supported by corporate action. Individuals in these organisations should, where appropriate, take advantage of support mechanisms such as: Flexible working hours: allowing employees to organise working hours to accommodate important aspects of their home lives; Self managed teams:where teams work out their own hours, responding to each others needs; Using a buddy system:pairing with a colleague to provide cover for each other, enabling each to take time off when necessary, knowing that their buddy will take over their duties and responsibilities; Flexible locations:working from different locations, or from home, either regularly or occasionally, to help with family responsibilities and reduce or eliminate commuting time; Special leave availability: such as paid or unpaid leave, to give time to cope with personal crises and emergencies, without using formal holiday allowance; Career breaks:for study or research sabbaticals, travel, family commitments, or voluntary work; Health programmes – offer counselling and advice, for a range of issues; Private health insurance; Fitness programmes and gymnasium membership subsidies; Childcare/eldercare facilities or subsidies:workplace nursery or subsidised places in local nurseries or nursing homes. All of these are highly valuable support opportunities, which, if available, should be taken when needed.
For most managers and specialists, in all sectors of business today it is an essential requirement, that professionals undertake courses in management development, or in specialist disciplines such as quality management, project management, accountancy, human resources, or marketing. The objective of this activity, from the individuals point of view, is usually to obtain higher financial rewards, higher status, increased job security, and-or to increased opportunities and career choice. From the organisations point of view it is rightly aimed at improving the knowledge, understanding, skills, and ultimately the performance of the individual and the workforce collectively. The impact on the individual, regardless of these contrasting objectives, is that work-life balance is affected, pressure will rise and will need to be managed to avoid this resulting in negative stress. For any individual undertaking professional development activity, especially those studying at home, in part or in full, it is essential that this is recognised as a potential source of negative stress, and that the individual builds the monitoring and control of this pressure into their development plans.
In order to manage stress and to achieve a satisfactory work-life balance, it is necessary to avoid the most common pitfalls that professionals encounter. These include: Believing that suffering from stress is a weakness, it is not, but positive, corrective action is needed to redress the situation. Allowing yourself to suffer from stress and an out of balance work-life equilibrium, when simple, easy to apply solutions are at hand, is a weakness; Keeping stress to yourself is the best approach, it is not. All the evidence shows that seeking advice and support is the key to reducing and eliminating negative stress and restoring an appropriate work-life balance; Assuming that others are to blame for your stress and the imbalance between your work and your outside work life, they may be the causes, but you are responsible for allowing the negative situation to continue; Cutting back or eliminating social, sporting, or personal interests activity is the answer to restoring a work-life balance, it is not, because these are essential positive elements necessary to achieve a healthy work-life balance and a relatively stress free life; Ignoring the warning signs, these are easy to identify, if not by you then others will see them; Not identifying the sources of stress and reasons for imbalance, a simple analysis of your situation, perhaps with some help from a professional advisor, colleague, partner, or friend, will identify the main causes of your problems; Not looking after yourself in terms of health and happiness, if you are unhealthy, unfit, or in an unhappy relationship, or not in any relationship and are lonely and isolated, you will find it difficult to manage stress and your work-life balance effectively; Believing that there is a single solution to your negative stress and work-life imbalance problems, there is not. You need to take a holistic approach to managing your life, at work, at home, and socially. This encompasses your work, your aspirations, your personal development, your fitness, your lifestyle, your health, your relationships, your general attitude to life, everything that makes you an individual, a unique person.
This has been a first look at the links between workplace stress and work-life balance, and has been specifically aimed at those professionals who are adding to the pressures of workplace and home life by taking on professional development activities. Continuous personal professional development, for managers, professionals, and specialists, in all sectors is essential. Even entrepreneurs and those leaving organisations to be self-employed risk being overwhelmed by workload and pressures from work-related activities. The solution to avoiding the negative effects of stress, and maintaining an appropriate work-life balance, when taking on additional personal development workload, are the same for those in organisations. You will need to be aware of the dangers, be alert to the symptoms, put in place defensive mechanisms, and then pro-actively manage your work life and personal life in a way that protects you from the dangers of negative stress and enables you to maintain a healthy and satisfying work-life balance.