Article at a glance

Feeling stressed at work often comes from not having control or predictability over our work or our days. From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies respond to psychological stress the same way our ancestors responded to physical stress-producing stress hormones that can impact our immunity and increase our risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders.

Finding ways to ‘play’ during your day, working towards your dreams, redefining stress and keeping socially connected are recommended strategies for helping you beat your work stress.

Stress is not a bad thing

Regardless of whether you see your work as a calling, a career or a job, you probably do experience stress from time to time.  It could be due to unreasonable demands or expectations: the client’s, your boss’ or your own.  It might be a lack of resources or support.  Or for many, stress comes not having control or predictability over our work or our days.

Stress in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Under the right circumstances, it enables growth and gives us an essential feeling of being alive.  It also plays an important role in our survival.  When our ancestors faced a physical threat, their bodies would prepare them to either fight or flee.  Hormones such as adrenalin and glucocorticoids poured into the system, raising the heart rate, sending blood into the arms and legs and increasing energy levels.  Bodily functions that were not essential at that moment, such as digestion and ovulation, were shut down until the threat had passed.  This is incredibility adaptive and useful when we are fleeing a predator.


However, in our modern lives, we no longer need to worry about predators or tribes of marauding barbarians.  Yet we are stressed all the time.  Now it is psychological factors: money and bills, office politics, the challenges of child-rearing and the daily commute.  Our bodies respond to these mental events in the exact same ways as they did when facing a physical threat.  The difference is these psychological stresses last all day.  Our bodies’ natural restorative and reparative functions remain in the “off” position and we are at increased risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal disorders.  There is more plaque in our arteries.  Our immune systems shut down.  Menstrual cycles are disrupted.

There are things we can do

Find ways to reduce your stress.  Exercise.  Meditate.  (Note: Everyone reading this should exercise or meditate regularly.  Everyone.  The documented benefits are tremendous.)  Rediscover the things you loved to do before you got so serious and started going to the office every day.  Work hard, but don’t forget to play.  It could save your life and will insert much more joy into your days.

Undust your dreams

You may be the low man or woman at work, go unrecognised for what you do, and have little control in your job.  Yet you stay up late each night writing thriller novels.  Or maybe you lead the company clothing drive each year to support the local women’s shelter. If that is where you get your sense of leadership, meaning and value, then it might not matter if your day job is nothing but a means to pay the bills. It is OK that work is just a “job,” if we get our self-worth elsewhere.  That also can free us from of the office politics, the nit-picking and slights.  Importantly, the Whitehall Studies found that people who find their sense of meaning, self and self-worth elsewhere, do not have the negative health risks associated with work stress.

Redefine and celebrate your stress

How we think about stress matters.  Remember, stress is not always bad.  In the right amounts, it can make our lives much richer.  In addition, data suggests if we recognise stress as a sign that our body preparing us to successfully navigate some challenge, then we avoid many of the negative health effects.  If I did not feel anxious before the big presentation at work, then I might not be taking it seriously enough.  Stress sharpens us.  It helps us prepare.  Give the stress a helpful context.


Social connections

Above all else, our social affiliations, our connections with one another, are the most important factor to reducing stress, and recovering from its potentially harmful effects.  In addition to creating a sense of meaning at work, increasing camaraderie, giving us allies and people to lean on, our social relationships help protect us at the cellular level.  At the end of each strand of our DNA, we have something called telomeres that protect our chromosomes.  These become shortened under chronic stress, causing our cells to age faster and lose their function.  Social affiliation, kindness, compassion, and connecting to one another, increases the enzyme telomerase.  This enzyme repairs the damage to the telomeres, protecting our cellular function.  Social rank is not as important as social context.  Caring for and connecting with one another is good for us right down to our DNA.

Source: Psychology Today via Synergy Health Ltd.

  • Share

You might also like

The doctor duo tackling the challenges of GP life

13 January 2020

Two Invercargill GPs are working to create a general practice where autonomy, a good work-life balance and wellbeing can thrive.

Renee Liang and Michele Powers

MAS Members' remarkable lives – Finding the time to breathe (and write)

12 February 2020

Professionals across the country are proving that you can have creative side hustles as writers, playwrights and artists no matter what line of work you do and how busy you are. Here is Renée and Michele's story.

Alexandra Muthu

Protecting health and wellbeing

19 February 2020

Occupational and environmental physician Dr Alexandra Muthu believes more needs to be done to protect the physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing of New Zealand workers.