The high cost of stress in the workplace

Mary experiences a racing heart every time her supervisor passes her desk. She has been battling serious headaches and is on the verge of developing ulcers. She is a single mom. Fear of being laid off and an excessive workload has taken a toll on her health, but she doesn’t take time off because she doesn’t want to be seen as replaceable or lazy.

Jim rarely speaks up in meetings. He has learned to keep a low profile to avoid being publically ridiculed by the boss. On a scale of one to 10, Jim’s morale and self-confidence is hovering around a two. He dreads getting up each day to go to work.

Susan has been juggling work and caring for her ailing mother for the past six months. She tosses and turns at night with worry about work and the mounting medical bills. Her doctor prescribed sleeping pills as well as anti-depressants. Last week, Susan’s boss gave her a written warning for excessive lateness and for falling asleep at her desk.

Unfortunately, situations like these are quite common in the workplace today. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, signs of workplace stress include headaches, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, short temper, upset stomach, depression, fatigue and burnout. If left untreated, these issues can lead to more advanced health problems such as cardiovascular disease, back or upper extremity disorders, ulcers, impaired immune functioning, severe depression, and even suicide.

A recent survey conducted by Watson Wyatt Worldwide and the National Business Group on Health reported that work-related stress is at an all-time high. Yet the majority of employers are doing little to combat the issue.

The report found excessive work hours, lack of work/life balance, and fear and uncertainty about job security to be the top stressors facing employees today. Associated with these issues were marked increases in absenteeism and higher utilization of health benefits, disability insurance and EAP programs. These issues are linked to decreased productivity and have a negative impact on the bottom line. Furthermore, the survey sponsors predict that it will be very hard as a nation to ever fully recover economically if we don’t find better ways to help employees deal with stress.

And still the vast majority of employers look the other way. Many companies take the perspective that they don’t have time or resources to help employees cope with the struggles of life. After all, our country was built on the premise that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to admit that the current approach to work isn’t really working.

Happier, healthier employees

Enter Christine Gust. Gust’s unique blend of credentials includes an MBA and 15 years’ experience in human resources with Fortune 500 companies; she is also a doctor of naturopathy. Gust consults with organizations that are committed to helping their employees be healthier and happier, as well as individuals who are ready to make changes to the way they work.

Gust blends her business and HR background with her commitment to natural healing and wellness to help people create what she calls “personal sustainability.” For Gust, this goes way beyond simply managing stress.

“It is about caring for oneself and creating personally fulfilling, joyful ways of working,” she explained. “I want to inspire people to think differently about work. I begin by helping people discover their underlying beliefs about work. I don’t believe that work should drain or deplete us. Work should nourish and fill us up.”

Most organizations have varying levels of dysfunction embedded in their processes and internal cultures that are often the root causes of job dissatisfaction and workplace stress. But this isn’t about blaming employers. So much of what makes people literally “sick and tired” comes from within. It could be our limiting beliefs about work, unclear personal values, or the inability to set healthy boundaries.

Ultimately, the source of the stress doesn’t matter. It is how we respond that makes the difference. Where do we begin?

“Running away is rarely the answer,” Gust said. “I help people learn how to make better choices for themselves, and then if it makes sense we can explore new paths. Simply reminding people that they always have the option to leave and that they are not stuck in their jobs can reduce the strain they are under. This gives people the mental space to figure out what’s next.

“Many of the clients I work with are unclear about what it is they really do want,” she added. “Some discounted their dreams long ago and don’t want to get hurt again. Others cannot afford to lose their jobs and they are too busy holding it all together to consider other options. I help people begin to believe that it is possible to create satisfying work. Often when we begin caring for ourselves – nutritionally, physically, emotionally – we can find the joy in our current situations.”

Soft approach to change

Gust takes a soft, gentle approach to making change. Her work is guided by homeopathic principles that call for small doses and short sessions.

“When we make small, incremental changes in our lives, it is easier to observe and notice the difference,” she said. “For example, if someone is struggling with work/life balance, I don’t insist they leave the office by 5 p.m. every day. Too much change will only add to their stress. I might suggest they leave on time one day a week and then check in with themselves to see how that feels. Transformation and lasting positive change happens little by little.”

What we can learn from Mary, Jim and Susan is that we need to be aware of early warning signs of stress before the situation becomes more serious. Stress may be a fact of life but stress-related disorders should never be considered a natural consequence of working. We all deserve to find work that enriches who we are as well as the world around us.

Legacy employers, those who plan to be in business for years to come and want to make a positive impact on the world, will take steps to make wellness a priority for their workers. Ultimately though we must take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. Guidance from a professional can help us move beyond managing our stress to creating a fulfilling, sustainable way of working. The first step is believing this is possible.

Carrie Pinsky also writes the Career Enthusiast blog at


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