In a 2001, a report from the World Health Organisation warns us that depression will be the second most important cause of illness and disability by year 2020. This is a gloomy prediction that hopefully has the power to make us aware of the factors that determine depression. Prevention is obviously preferable to treatment when it comes to this condition that has complex psychosocial causes and processes. The causes can differ from person to person and from culture to culture, but there are similarities nontheless.
In the next paragraphs, we will explore a widely-spread phenomenon that constitutes an indirect, but very important factor that leads to depression: stress. We will further discuss a useful tool for leaders and employees as well, that helps identifying and eliminating work-related stress.
Stress is a word we often fear nowadays in phrases like 'I'm stressed out', 'I have a stressful job', 'those guys are stressing me out' and so on. It is clear that stress became a trademark of modern life, of how the society is structured and of the demands that exist in our environment are positioned by ourselves in this whirl of stimuli, actions, relations and possibilities. The ability to cope with stress is so important that, even in the vacancy announcements, we're told that we need to be 'stress resistant' or to have the 'ability to work under stress'.
Research on stress emerged almost a century ago. During this time, several theories and explanatory models were developed. Intuitively, we perceive stress as a clear and self-explanatory issue, but it's proven to be a real challenge for researchers.
The first definitions centered around the stimulus-response framework also known as 'fight-or flight' and they are founded of the relation between us and the environment. Specifically, as soon as our body perceives a shock or a threat it will release certain hormones in our blood stream to help us survive: run faster or kick harder. These hormones determine a series of reactions in our body in order to make us more able: heart-rate increases, we sweat to cool our muscles, the blood flows back from the extremities in order not lose too much in case of an injury. The effects can be found at a cognitive level also: we focus mainly on the threatening stimulus, in the detriment of any other event that could take place around us.
This turns into a problem when the situation that triggers this reaction in our body does not represent an actual threat to our life. The reactions described above also appear when we are facing the unpredictable or there is a factor that blocks us in pursuing our objectives - still a threat, but of a much lower intensity. This activation makes us iritable, more anxious and decreases our ability to make decisions and judgements. These are consequences that hinder our relations with the other people, that make us more susceptible to accidents and, if they become a constant in our lives, they can produce health problems in the long run, such as burnout, cardiovascular diseases or depression.
A widely-accepted definition of stress is atributed to R. Lazarus:
Stress is a state or a condition that a person feels when the environmental demands outrun the personal and social resources that one has available.
In a few words, the way we think/evaluate (appraise) a situation in which we believe we are losing control determines what we feel. Appraisal is a two-step process: first, I appraise if the situation is a stress factor for me, then I appraise the level of control I can exert on the situation and what resoures I do find available to face the stressor (coping).
Therefore we can state that stress is a reaction influenced partly by instinct, partly by the way we think.
Every person perceives and reacts differently to stress. What you may find as a small inconvenience, I may see as reason to worry. Maybe you don't even notice that there is no more coffee at the office, while for me it feels like the end of the world, as I know that I need that coffee to help me focus for the next few hours. This is a rather trivial example, but the World Health Organisation noted, in a 2003 report, several serious stress factors at work. Among others:
poor interpersonal relations
poor communication and weak procedures
inflexible working hours
It is natural and normal to feel stress sometimes. It turns into a problem as it becomes a constant in our lives, it hampers with our optimal functioning and we notice the quality of our life decreasing. For example: I am stressed -> I tend to overwork myself -> I don't have time to rest and to take part in leisure activities (sports, going out with friends etc.). Prologing this state can lead to chronicization, further leading to burnout and a dramatic decrease in wellbeing, which, in the end, can put our physical an pshycological integrity at risk.
The employee is not the only responsible for his/her wellbeing at work. The company too plays as very important part in creating a balance in its employee's life.
Arnold Bakkers' JD-R model is one of the most studied in the field literature and it was desingned to help at better understanding what employee wellbeing means and how it can be increased. The model emerged as an alternative to previous models explaining work stress with several limitations.
JD-R model is based on two important categories:
Job demands: physical and/or emotional aspects of work that impose effort or skills and are associated with certain psychological or physical costs such as time pressure, hard conditions, an uncertain role, frequent and demanding interactions with clients. The job demands are not necessarely negative, but can turn into stressors when they are very high, and we cannot recover sufficiently.
According to the model, limited resources and high demands favor stress and burnout. In addition, accesible and sufficient resources can neutralize the efects generated by high demands and also increase motivation and engagement.
Therefore, an employee engaged in a high demanding job, with many different tasks and frequent interactions with clients may not be bothered by this as he or she receives constant constructive feedback and support from the manager, has a good work environment and serious growth opportunities.
An important benefit of this model is that in can be adapted at an organizational level, as well as at team level. In this way, leaders can gain a broader and richer view on the factors that influence wellbeing and productivity. Leaders can also actively participate in creating a development-friendly and burnout-free work environment.
1. We identify the job demands, with emphasis on the negative-inducing effects and we separate the ones on which we can work. Among others:
poor work relations
The leader must be aware that people can perceive these demands differently. That's why it is important to discuss with each person separately.
1.a. We intervene where we can. For example we can clarify the role and objectives where it is needed to give a sense of purpose for those who lack this, we can assign tasks considering the experience and desires of our employees, we can analyze the workflow to make sure everything runs smoothly etc.
2. We identify the job resources (possible and already in place) and we discuss them with our team to make sure we are on the same page. For example:
offering constructive feedback
a friendly atmosphere at work
2.a. We promote these resources inside our company, we search for alternatives and build on what we already have.
The Job Demands-Resources Model is flexible enough to be applied at individual level as well, not just for companies or team leaders. I myself as an employee can identify my stressors at work, search and ask for resources that I need for a balanced work experience and discuss with my manager to find solutions together.
Stress is and will be around our workplaces under different forms and intensities, and it is necessary to search for solutions for ourselves and for our company. All this is meant to make us sure we enjoy a good work environment with healthy employees and colleagues.
Bakker, A., Demerouti E., The Job Demads-Resources model: state of the art, 2006, Journal of Managerial Pshycology
Gatchel, R.J, Schultz, I.Z (Eds.) Handbook of Occupational Health and Wellness, 2012, Ch. Theories of Pshychological Stress at Work, Springer
Leka S, Griffiths A, Cox T., Work, Organisation&Stress, Institute of Work, Health & Organisations, University of Nottingahm, World Health Oragnisation, 2003 http://www.who.int/occupational\_health/publications/en/oehstress.pdf
Shaufeli, W., Engaging leadership in the job demans-resources model, 2015, Emerald Insights
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