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What are the major causes of stress in life and work?

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Stressors in life and work

What are the major stressors in life? A study by Homes & Rahe on 41 life stressors found the death of a spouse to rank the highest.

The amount of stress a person experiences varies depending on life and work factors. During the pandemic people have been worrying about their jobs, worried about their health and the health of their loved ones.

What is the inverted-U of stress? Did you know that if a person is too low in stress, they tend to perform poorly.

Why? Read on to find out.

The main causes of stress in life and at work

Watch the video to understand where stress comes from, what people find the most stressful in life and and at work, and how workplace stress can sometimes be useful.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 3 – Examining the neuroscience of stress

And watch the previous video here:

Part 1 – Meaning of Leadership: A Definition

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

Major life stressors

Welcome to video number two in our series on Leadership in Tough Times.

In this series so far, we’ve already dealt with the question of what we mean by leadership, but this one’s about stress and stressors, and here’s a very old study 1967 on 41 major life stressors.

And what they show you (refer to video) is that the amount of stress varies from incident to incident and from experience to experience.

Now, of course, this is a generalisation of many studies and over many thousands of people but of course, individually, the rankings change.

So we you find that the single most stressful thing that can happen to most human beings is the death of a spouse, but who knows, maybe under certain circumstances that’s not the most stressful thing. So it will vary from person to person.

Covid-19 stress

Now, at the time of recording this, we have been going through a thing called COVID-19 and you might be watching this in the thick of that, or you might, we are watching this years after that has faded into the background but think of it from the point of view of people who went through this COVID 19-experience.

Look at these experiences, these stressors, and how many of them relate to COVID-19. Death of a spouse. Well, thousands of people died and some of them were spouses.

Divorce, and certainly some of the collateral damage of things like shutdowns have been things like marital problems and increased levels of social and family violence, marital separation, imprisonment, death of a close family member.

So once more, we’re back to the death question, personal injury or illness, and of course a pandemic brings people face to face with that issue all the time.

And some people have died who have been perhaps even people that you would expect to be unlikely to die. Young people, healthy people, people who didn’t have additional illnesses.

Marriage is a stressful experience

Interestingly, marriage is also a very stressful experience.

So marriage and divorce, both stressful, dismissal from work and sadly pandemics have a resulted in that for many people.

Marital reconciliation is also stressful.

So stressful business, marriage, retirement, change in health of family member, retirement.

The great resignation

People talk a lot by the way about the great resignation and the great resignation is down to a couple of things.

One of them is people choosing to do work that’s kind of more interesting and fulfilling. That’s one reason.

Secondly, another reason is people have been dragged back into the office when they didn’t really want to go. So they quit.

But thirdly, many more people have retired who might have chosen otherwise apart from a pandemic to retire later.

So that’s been a driver of the great resignation. It’s also one of the reasons why many Western countries are having trouble with labour force availability right now as well.

The stress of life in general

So retirement, change in health of a family member.

Again, we’re back to pandemic stuff, pregnancy, sexual difficulties and so on.

So a range of major life stressors, a number of which relate to general life stuff but also a number of which relate to a pandemic situation.

Challenge demands

Now at work, there is stress and there are stressors

So we’ll talk firstly about stressors. And stressors at work come in two forms.

The first form is challenge demands and those are good stressors. So the pressure of workload, believe it or not most people’s levels of engagement which means their positive attitude to work increases when they have an increase in workload.

So having more work doesn’t of itself mean that you are likely to be more stressed. It can be a good thing.

And then there’s the pressure of processing lots of information and the pressure of problem solving. And these two could be characterised as intellectual challenge.

And when people experience intellectual challenge at work, they do tend to be happier at their work, more satisfied and appropriately stressed.

So being not stressed enough can be damaging almost in the same way as having too much stress.

Hindrance demands

And then there’s the negative stressors. These are called hindrance demands.

I mean, challenge sounds good, hindrance sounds bad, of course.

And these bad stressors would be things like lack of social support, where I feel that I’m being isolated from my colleagues. Job insecurity is a negative stressor. Inadequate resources. I have to get this job done, but I haven’t been given the tools necessary to get the done.

Role ambiguity and role conflict are big stressors

Role ambiguity is a big stressor.

And in fact, talking about the COVID-19 experience in the pandemic situation, one of the things that we saw is a lot of people going to work from home, and working from home has a number of challenges.

One is competition for resources if you don’t have good resources at home, another is technological skills, another of course is role ambiguity because is the job that I’m doing when I’m working from home the same as the job that I was doing when I was working in the office? And very often the answer is yes.

By the way later in their sequences, we do have a small segment about working from home.

Then there’s role conflict, which is to say, people have contrary expectations of you.

Mary Smith is asking me to do one thing, Bill Blogs is asking me to do another.

They’re both of similar levels of seniority. Who should I obey?

Pressurised stress

So we’ll talk a little bit about work stress.

There are a couple of forms of work stress which are really common.

The first is pressurised stress. So that’s experiences of uncomfortable or intention at work. That can come from a couple of different things. It can come from the workload, having gone from the functional to the dysfunctional where there’s simply too much to get done.

So you wake up in the morning and the first thought is crikey. Look at all the stuff that I’ve got to get done.

Another pressurised stress can be where the relationships are uncomfortable. There’s tension in the people around you.

So that can be a driver of pressurised stress.

Psychological distress

Psychological distress is much more about feeling anxious or feeling indecisive.

And you’ll see that whilst they’re similar, they’re psychologically quite different experiences, and they in fact come from different parts of the brain.

Pressurised versus distressed are different experiences for people.

Measuring levels of stress

Now you can measure stress.

So you can see that this is a measure of a workplace rather than an individual (refer to video).

And so let’s say that this represents 100 people. And so you’ll notice here that the pressurised stress is relatively adjustable only at the 33rd percentile.

So these are percentiles here. 33rd percentile means higher than 33% of organisations that have ever completed this instrument.

And what you’ll see there is that that’s actually comfortably below average whereas average would be 50th percentile.

Psychologically distressed, closer to population average but certainly not a problem.

And then finally, if you combine those to an overall stress measure is about 40%.

Now we run engagement and wellbeing surveys for many organisations and many organisations want us as a matter of course now to run stress measures. And I think that’s a good idea. It’s a really good diagnostic because it’ll things like engagement.

So if people are highly stressed, they’re less likely to be highly engaged in their work but it’s also an indication of psychological damage that might occur to people, and that’s an important thing.

The inverted-U of stress

This is a thing called the inverted-U of stress (refer to video).

And the reason it’s called an inverted-U is that if you use your imagination, what you get is an upside down letter U.

Human beings in general, if they are too low in stress, tend to perform poorly. Their level of performance improves as they become more stressed till they reach to an optimum level of stress.

So let’s call that the zone. It’s often called that in elite sport. And then if it continues to increase, the levels of performance will be declining.

And this happens in elite sports. It’s used a lot where elite sports people try to plan the level of arousal that they need to have in order to be optimal in their performance, but it also applies to Joe and Jane average at work. If somebody is not stressed enough, let’s say they have to make a speech or something, if they’re too relaxed, maybe they’re not going to make a great speech.

If they’re exactly the right amount of tension which is kind of alert and focused, but not freaking out, that can be very good.

And then finally you get to the point where the person is too nervous and they simply can’t find their words.

So this is something about the nature of stress and stressors as they affect people at work and in life generally.

The next video in this sequence will be about the neuroscience of stress. We’re going to talk to you about how stress affects people’s neurological functioning.

And it is true to say that enough of the wrong type of stress can act as a kind of a reduction of people’s IQ points. People simply don’t make good decisions when they’re under too much stress.

Join us to see what happens next in this series.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about leadership in tough times:

Part 3 – Examining the neuroscience of stress

And watch the previous video here:

Part 1 – Meaning of Leadership: A Definition

And if you’d like some help with developing your leaders to better handle challenging times, contact us about our Wellbeing and Engagement Survey.

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