When Joshua Scott was asked to give a presentation on workplace stress at CU Anschutz, he anticipated an audience of 20 or 30—40 maximum. Within two hours of the announcement, the workshop had filled—with 130 on the roster. That only confirmed what Scott, Director of Continuing Education at the Colorado School of Public Health’s Center for Health, Work & Environment, knew already—many people feel the need to reduce stress in their lives … especially at work.
“Attempting to cultivate a ‘stress-free’ life isn’t possible,” Scott said. “But ‘stress-managed?’ Now that’s something worth working towards.”
‘Stress … has changed’
Scott has stress management in his DNA. His father was an educator and lecturer on the subject for 30 years—a good indicator, Scott points out, that the “good old days” were also not stress-free even though 75 percent of employees believe that today’s worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
“Stress is not new, but it is different,” Scott said. “The pace and type of changes we’re experiencing do create stress.”
Scott points out that stress can be created by perceived threats (Am I going to lose my job?) and/or by real conflicts (I’m being attacked by a bear). Perceived threats like job loss can feel as real to a person as a real threat like the bear. So regardless of the type of stress, humans have a “fight or flight” instinct which causes the human body to react in much the same way. Increases in epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) cause blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate to increase at a level comparable to the real or perceived threat.
“There’s no doubt that cumulative perceived stress response over time has detrimental health results,” Scott said. “It could affect digestion, sleep, really any system in your body.”
Tips to reduce stress
At the Stress Management Workshop, Scott used a smartphone app to poll participants about where they perceive their stress originates. The results were unequivocal and landed in one of two categories:
- My stress comes from managing expectations, whether they originate with myself, my coworkers, manager, clients or leadership.
- My stress stems from difficulty disconnecting, because the same tools that help me communicate also prevent me from taking time off from communication.
Acknowledging these stressors are realities, which often cannot be changed, Scott defines stress management as the ability to alter how a person reacts and responds to life’s irritants and challenges. He offers five strategies to manage stress at work … or at home:
- Keep moving. Whether it’s with walking meetings, sit/stand desks, stretch breaks, regular exercise—whatever it takes, keep moving.
- Set clear boundaries for periods when you are available to work and times when you are offline. Use “away” messages to clear time to get work done. Consider taking email off your phone.
- Humor, fun and celebration of achievements can help reduce stress.
- Stay mindful. Remember to breathe. Eat healthfully and pay attention to nutrition. Consider meditation.
- Express gratitude. Think about why you are thankful and increase expression of gratitude in all communication.
‘What are your options?’
Scott likes to tell the story of himself as a 10-year-old taking a rock-climbing course with his family. He got half-way up the rock face and froze. But when he asked his father to belay him down, his father refused and instead asked him, “What are your options?” Eventually, Scott figured out the path, and climbed to the top.
A week later, the tables were turned when his father found himself stuck on a rock. “Bring me down, Josh,” he told his son, who held the ropes. Instead, Josh asked him, “What are your options?”
To some extent, that’s what he’s still doing in his work on stress—advising people about how to react to a stressful environment they cannot change. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the conflict and what can I do about it?’” he said. “There are always options if you are willing to look.”
One of those options are the resources provided by The Center for Health, Work & Environment. The center’s team works with faculty, students and community partners on numerous projects in worker health, safety and wellness. Faculty members, students, residents and community partners are engaged in community practice, education and research. The Center for Health, Work & Environment also works with community organizations to improve health, safety and well-being through Health LinksTM, one of the largest areas of the center. Health Links is a nonprofit initiative that helps businesses support the health, safety and well-being of their employees and organizations.