This post initiates a series regarding workplace stress that is created, not encountered.
Stress that is encountered is not preventable by an individual or company: the downturn in the economy that causes restructuring, or the cyclical nature of a product that causes a 'feast or famine' work environment of extreme overtime and frantic order fulfillment followed by layoffs. This stress may be acute or chronic. Either way, it requires that we find ways to reduce or manage stress to the best of our ability as individuals in order to avoid the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of stress. The workshops I offer deal with this type of stress.
A created stressor is one that is preventable, perhaps predictable, and certainly manageable, but not by the individual employee. This stressor impacts not just one individual, but many, and the only way to minimize or eliminate it is for the employer to be proactive. I'm talking about the bullying manager.
How bullies land positions of leadership and management is a quandary. One would think that at the bare minimum, if a person is entrusted to manage people, that person would have people skills. Further, if a person is known to be a bully, it is inconceivable that a company would allow the bully continued access to victims, as Workplace Bullying [is] Emerging As Major Employment Liability Battleground.
My work is about limiting the damage stress inflicts, so these posts will not focus on the responsibility of the employers. I want to explore the intricacies of what constitutes workplace bullying, what the mental and physical consequences of bullying may be, what the costs are to employees and employers alike, and ultimately what can be done about it.
How to Spot a Bully
There is a high probability that every body not only knows who their resident bully is, but he/she has been reported to HR for inappropriate behavior. Who are they? They are the bullies from preschool, grade school, high school and college. As long as they get away with reprehensible behavior, they will continue. They will be the bullies of retirement villages.
They are not people who have just had a bad day and lost their temper once. They are not just demanding bosses who lack a few interpersonal relationship skills, nor are they managers who have to take a hardline on slacker employees. Bullies are identifiable by consistent, crazy-making behavior: they are constantly over everyone's shoulder micro-managing to the nth degree; they use tactics like isolation, invalid criticism, constantly changing expectations, and unrealistic deadlines; they prohibit adequate training opportunities, but then scream or humiliate if the self-directed training is inadequate. Simply put, these people abuse power. They are not managing, they are damaging.
Employers can recognize bullies in a managerial position by an overabundance of disciplinary actions, increased number of sick days by employees under that manager, requests for transfers, high rate of turn over and failure to meet organizational goals.
Considering 41.4% of US workers in one study reported being bullied, there is a good chance that you or someone you know works for (or is) a bully. Corporate/Institutional bullying "...occurs when bullying is entrenched in an organization and becomes accepted…" In some instances, it may not be the company culture, but has become the norm within a division or department. Whether it is one bully, a team of bullies, or a systemic bullying corporate culture, real damage is done to companies, people and families. Shots In The Dark: "Murder By Proxy" Takes On The History Of Workplace Violence explores the role workplace bullies have in workplace homicides, and suicide is often cited as a consequence of bullying as people struggle to cope.
With these serious considerations in mind, we will continue the series with precisely how the bullied employee is affected physically.
Workplace Bullying-Managing or Damaging? Part 2-The Effect of Bullying
That extreme or chronic stress is harmful seems self-evident. I mean, it feels bad to be stressed out, right?
But what is it that is actually happening to our body when we are 'stressed out'? How can it be that stress is implicated in the 6 leading causes of death, "heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide" ?
High blood pressure-Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline cause the heart to beat faster and blood vessels to constrict in an effort to shuttle blood to the core organs. This raises blood pressure. This may lead to chronic hypertension, which can lead to increased risk of stroke, heart damage, damage to arteries, dementia and kidney damage.
Suppressed immune system-The immune system fights off disease with the help of B-cells and T-cells which are lymphocytes. The stress hormone corticosteroid can lower the number of lymphocytes, thus rendering the immune system less able to fight off pathogens...disease causing viruses and bacteria.
Stress also negatively impacts the digestive system, the first line of defense for the immune system. People under stress are more likely to engage in behaviors detrimental to health as well, such as smoking and alcohol consumption. Smoking contributes to heart disease cancer and lung issues, and excessive alcohol consumption damages the liver.
Lack of sleep-The hyper-aroused state caused by the physiological components of stress outlined above can make sleep elusive. Inadequate sleep can contribute to inattentiveness and poor concentration, which can lead to more accidents. This is not just a problem in situations such as driving...it costs the workplace a substantial amount of money in preventable accidents.
Depression-Elevated stress hormones like cortisol along with the inhibition neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, have been linked to depression. When the fight or flight response is a chronic state of being, it can lead to depression. If lack of sleep and illness from a suppressed immune system are tossed into the mix, or the initial stressor is something like loss of a job that also cuts off a support system, depression may be even more likely. Making matters worse is if lifestyle factors create a downward spiral of stress and deepening depression; nutritional deficiencies, lack of exercise, excessive drinking, etc. In susceptible people, this increases the risk of suicide.
There are so many easy and inexpensive ways to deal with situational and job related stress that make all of these potential problems less likely!
"I am so stressed out!"
"My job just stresses me out!"
"I am stressing myself out over these wedding plans!"
"This stress is just killing me!"
The word is tossed as both noun and verb, but do we really understand what it means?
One dictionary definition is that it is, "A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances." This is only partially true, but is probably what we mean when we utter any of the first three sentences above. Unfortunately, the rest of the story, the heart of the story, is in that forth sentence.
Stress is a physiological condition. It is not just a mental response to environmental cues. Our bodies automatically respond to outside stressors with the 'fight or flight' response. This fight or flight response is the physical condition our bodies will adopt to protect us by making fighting or fleeing the top priority. Fat and glycogen (sugar) are liberated to enable the muscles to work very hard very fast. Digestion slows down or stops. The heart beats faster and harder.
The interesting thing is that just thinking about stressful things can cause the same response. This doesn't even have to be a conscious thought. If a person is worried about job security, for instance, they are not constantly consciously thinking about what will happen if they lose their job. Yet their subconscious mind is very aware of what that might mean to the survival of the organism. Thus, stressful environments, whether outwardly stressful or inwardly, causes chronic stress. If the body cannot fight, flee or otherwise discharge this energy, the body is always in a state of fight or flight.
Stress related complaints comprise about 85% of all doctor visits. The top causes of death are all stress related. As much as stress costs us personally, stress in the workplace costs a staggering $300 billion (with a 'B') per year...about $5000 per employee.
And all of that is avoidable.
While we can't always avoid stressors, sometimes the stress response itself is preventable. At the very least, when it isn't preventable it can be managed to minimize the physical, mental, emotional, financial and societal effects. We know how!
I can help.