Can you protect yourself from work-related stress?

Can you protect yourself from work-related stress?

“Take care of yourself” – we’ve heard that a lot over the past months. Easy enough to say, but not so easy to do. In this particularly stressful period for people working in health care and social services, we asked Manon Truchon, professor of psychology at Laval University, to talk to us about the field she specializes in: stress in the workplace.

What is the cause of work-related stress?

Workplace stress comes from an imbalance between demands and resources. Stress appears when we’re asked to do something that we don’t have the resources to handle. If this imbalance persists over time, it can lead to mental and physical problems. Think of demands as risk factors, and resources as factors providing psychosocial protection.

What are the risk factors and protective factors during a pandemic?

We don’t know yet, but we’re gathering data that should help us find answers. We do have information about risk and protective factors before the health crisis, based on our recent work and a large body of research on work-related stress.

What are the factors that create stress at work?

The main psychosocial risk factors are work overload; role ambiguity, when it’s not clear who does what; demands created by digital tools, when you have to process too much information, learn to use new IT tools, or deal with computer glitches or too many emails; having to be available all the time, no matter where you are; and ethical dilemmas, when you’re forced to act against your values. Unlike chemical or biological risks such as being contaminated by COVID-19, these psychosocial risk factors can’t always be eliminated at the source. But there is such a thing as “protective equipment” to cope with them.

Is that what you mean by protective factors?

Yes. We’ve learned recently that there are protective factors at two levels. At the organizational level, in terms of work climate, protective factors include caring and transformational leadership; a pattern of recognizing people and their contribution to the mission; an ethical culture that is respectful, transparent and fair; and an atmosphere of psychosocial safety. We’re talking about a workplace where the employer recognizes stress factors and uses sound practices, policies and procedures to handle them. Additional protective factors include social support received from colleagues and supervisors, and the proactive management of change.

You mentioned a second set of protective factors.

Yes, at the occupational level. These protective factors are based on the meaningful quality of the work; the latitude you have in performing it; the possibility of relevant training to do it better; and, of course, how much you enjoy doing it. Additional factors are being able to do quality work in an environment free of incivility; feeling secure in your position; benefitting from measures to help you balance family, work and personal life; and everything related to the organization of your work.

How can work organization provide “protection”?

Here’s an example: you feel better when roles and objectives are clear, when staffing needs are met, when new employees are welcomed and get the right training, and when instructions are clear and consistent.

In theory, who is supposed to deal with these occupational risks?

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, it should be the employer. Unfortunately, there is some confusion around the terminology of occupational stress. “I’m stressed,” which refers to one’s personal state, is sometimes confused with “I’m facing sources of stress in my environment,” which refers to causes – the psychosocial risk factors. Just as biological risks can lead to infection, psychosocial risk factors can create a state of stress and psychological distress, along with various other symptoms. It is crucial for employers to be aware of these risk factors and take preventive measures proactively.

As individuals, can we protect ourselves against these risks?

Yes, of course. First of all, knowing the risk factors enables us to assess them. Then we can join with others to demand a better response to them in each of our workplaces. It’s also important to be kind to our colleagues, and especially to ourselves, because these are risk factors that can lead to interpersonal conflict and incivility. Before blaming the other person, we need to keep asking ourselves – at least five times! – why the person acted the way they did. It’s rarely about malice and ill will, but invisible psychosocial risks are very common. Recognizing these risks, and recognizing their effects, is a really good way of counteracting them.

What are the dangers involved in ignoring risk factors?

Psychosocial risk factors create unhappiness at work, which leads to a variety of crippling and costly health issues including psychological, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal problems.

The opposite is also true: protective factors are associated with well-being at work, which is expressed in employees’ sense of commitment, vitality, energy, and work satisfaction.

There is an urgent need for us to be aware of these invisible factors and use the right tools to assess them in the workplace, so that we can take appropriate steps to maintain or restore the balance between demands and resources.

Is it possible to balance demands and resources during a crisis?

Research on risk factors during the pandemic will help us answer that kind of question. We’ll find out if some workplaces handle the situation better than others, and why. This research will help us prepare for the next crisis, as there will undoubtedly be one. Public policies must be adapted to this reality and provide all of us with better protection.

One thing is certain: we are not all equal in the face of this crisis and its effects on our well-being at work. Social and demographic conditions such as age, salary and family responsibilities, along with ergonomic conditions such as those involved in working from home are just some of the variables that can make us more vulnerable. Depending on the context, balance may be more precarious for many, especially since the boundary between personal and professional life has almost completely disappeared.

BY Chantal Mantha | photo Chantale Bouchard | JUNE 15, 2020