If poorly managed, and stress responses are not understood, the long-term effects can manifest themselves in physical, mental and behavioral ways.
Most of us spend a large majority of our time working, so it’s not unusual that a wide range of aches and pains may stem from this aspect of our lives. We’ve all had periods where we’ve undergone high levels of stress, whether it be an important work deadline or a final exam.
However, modern life has created an environment where stress is almost universal, and its constant nature is having a negative impact. A well-being survey we at Cigna conducted this year also points to high level of stress among the UAE population, with close to 22% of residents facing unmanageable levels of stress, reinforcing similar results from the 2018 survey.
According to a similar study we undertook in 2018, work and personal finances are the leading causes of stress. This study also revealed that seeking help is not a very common practice, due to feelings of unease about discussing personal issues with a stranger. However, some individuals are better at finding ways to reduce levels of stress, like meditation or exercise, which enable them to perform well in instances where others struggle.
It’s important to remember that while chronic stress can have negative long-lasting effects on the body, not all stress is bad. In moderation and managing effectively, it is an efficient motivator to overcome obstacles, and can help people to achieve their goals. That jolt of adrenaline caused by a looming deadline can be an effective motivator for some, but for others, it will have the opposite effect. One good comparison is amongst athletes, a group which are highly tuned to managing their physical and mental wellbeing. Sprinters Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin were keenly matched on the track, yet Justin Gatlin liked to listen to loud hip-hop before each race, while Usain Bolt preferred the calm of silence. If poorly managed, and stress responses are not understood, the long-term effects can manifest themselves in physical, mental and behavioral ways. From insomnia, back and muscle pains, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy dietary changes, the potential negative effects are multiple.
RECOGNIZING STRESS (AND ALLEVIATING IT)
Cultural shifts in attitude towards these problems are improving, with HR professionals becoming more mindful about the effect of stress on their employees. Although some companies promote a positive company culture, there are still many businesses struggling to identify their toxic environment. The positive thing is that there are techniques that can be taught which enable people to recognize stress in the body and find ways to alleviate it before it reaches a crisis point. 43% of the surveyed in 2019 in the UAE claim their companies have a formal workplace wellness program in place, with a high participation rate of 69%. However, more than half of them think that workplace wellness programs are committed only to physical wellness, and fail to give mental well-being the attention it deserves. Developing a culture of support is important for employees to know they can speak up when needed. This is parallel to prioritizing mental health. It’s no surprise, according to the World Health Organization, organizations that promote mental wellness find employees take fewer sick days, are healthier, and are more productive.
Other tools, such as having more flexible work arrangement/ hours, or even opening up to newer techniques such as yoga or gym sessions to help employees to move around, reduce pressure and release tension, allowing workers to better focus on the job at hand. One technique that I use is a self-body scan. This practice, which is easily trainable, allows people to sit back and do a mental scan of all places in their body where stress might have unknowingly built upeven something as simple as releasing your shoulders from your ears will help your body reset a little bit before tackling the task at hand.
Starting with your head, slowly move down your body, and notice where small tensions lie. Because of the fast-paced nature of the workplace, it’s very easy to ignore what your body is trying to tell you. Doing these exercises will allow you to slow down, and listen to your body more. Systematically focus on each part of your body, neck, back, arms, shoulders, chest, etc., and become aware and familiar with the sensations that are present in each part of your body. This method will become more automatic the more you do it.
Once you have identified those tense areas, breathe into them. Visualize breathing out the tensions in that particular area out of your body. The feeling maybe a little intense at first, but if you keep your focus, the feeling will dissipate. Move on to the next part of your body when you feel ready. The best thing about this is, you can perform quick body scans throughout the working day, providing you with an automatic reset function. Taking time out of your day to remind yourself not to hold onto unnecessary tension in your body may not seem like much, but it’s a start to being able to recognize how stress can manifest itself in the subtlest of ways.
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