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Handling stress at work

As the recession bites and job insecurity increases, how do we cope?

An ICM survey showed that 72% of people enjoy their jobs. Yes, they complain about them, but they also like them.

The Bible tells us that work is good because God is a worker and we are made in his image (Genesis 1.26,27). So, being productive in some way, whether it is at home as a mother, in voluntary work or in paid employment, is part of what it is to be a balanced human being. If we have our usefulness curtailed through illness or redundancy, we feel diminished as people.

What is stress?

But though work is good, statistics show that stress affects about one in five of the working population. Some say workplace stress is the single biggest cause of illness in the UK.

Pressure itself is not bad. It is good to be stretched a little and rise to the challenge. But sometimes pressure becomes too intense. Stress is basically anxiety which results from demands made on us being greater than our resources. Sir Michael Marmot’s research among civil servants showed that the lower you are in the working ‘hierarchy’ the higher the risk of heart disease and shorter life. He says that this is because stress is caused by high demands on people who have low control and low support in their jobs.

Computers have accelerated the pace of work. Smartphones can mean that your company wants you to be always keeping up with your emails. In a recession, firms cut staff and employees are expected to do the work of two or three. We can think that pressure and stress are products of modern society. But that is not so. Back in a slower age of agriculture and manual labour there were other things to worry about. Would the weather wreck the harvest, etc.?

Martha got stressed in offering hospitality (Luke 10.40). Even the Lord Jesus knew what it is to be ‘deeply distressed and troubled’ (Mark 14.33) as he contemplated what was being asked of him on the night before he would be crucified. So don’t think the stresses of modern life are beyond Scripture’s ability to address.

Signs of too much stress

Long-term or chronic stress can lead to depression and ‘burnout’, and can even increase your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. It is important, therefore, to know the danger signals.

* Physical signs
These can include muscular tension, loss of appetite for food or sex, overindulgence in sugar or alcohol, high blood pressure, headaches and continually feeling tired.

* Emotional signs
We can become angry, impatient and irritable. Or we may lose our confidence, feel victimised and withdraw from people.

* Intellectual signs
We find it difficult to concentrate. Making decisions about even fairly trivial things seems to be impossibly complicated.

* Spiritual signs
These might include inability to pray or read Scripture, loss of purpose or hope, doubting God’s goodness. In the incident which Luke recounts, it appears Martha is angry with Jesus.

Causes of workplace stress

We can picture ourselves as a spring with weights dangling on the end. The weights are our pressures. We are designed to carry some weights; to extend as we do so and then go back into shape when the weights are re-moved. Life should be a sequence of cycles of extension followed by relaxation. Our problems arise: 1) when the spring becomes weak by being extended for too long; 2) when the weights are too heavy; 3) when help in carrying the weights is removed. Here are four common ‘weights’ we carry.

* Change
Change moves us out of our comfort zone. It brings us into the unknown and can make us anxious. At work it might be caused by the threat of redundancy or your company being taken over or a new computer system or a line manager who does not make his/her expectations clear. It brings stress.

* Demands
Increasing workload, deadlines and a never-ending ‘to do’ list can cause stress. We may be given new tasks which are beyond us or for which we have received no training. In some situations we might be able to talk these through with managers. But sometimes it seems impossible to raise the subject of our problems. We feel bullied. We may cover up problems, causing more difficulties and more stress.

* Driven-ness
Self-expectation is one of the primary factors in stress because it is not just another ‘weight’. It multiplies the effects of the two preceding weights. Certain types of people experience this driven-ness. These include the ‘superman’ who misses coffee breaks and rushes around trying to be in two places at once because he/she thinks they can always work faster; the perfectionist who views anything less than perfect as a failure; the people-pleaser who fears criticism and does not want to ‘let people down’.

* Spiritual attack
We must not forget the spiritual dimension here. Christians are involved in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6.13). Often when we are facing some difficulty, the devil takes the opportunity to have an extra go at us in some way.

Ways forward

Jesus didn’t value Martha less for her dashing around, but he did spot her need not to get stressed out by his arrival and he tries to calm her down (Luke 10.42). How can we do that practically for ourselves?

* Respect God’s patterns of work and rest
The working week in the UK is three hours longer than the European average. The pressure is to work ever longer hours. Resist that. Genesis tells us God made morning and evening. He has given us the day to work and the night to rest. God has given us the weekly Sabbath; a complete day each week away from work. Try to stick to those patterns. The extended spring needs to relax back or it will lose its bounce.

* Find your personal worth in God’s love
Dame Carole Black did research into working people and she writes: ‘For most people, their work is a key determinant of self-worth, identity and standing in the community’. Thinking that way, we will put extra pressure on ourselves to perform so as to be esteemed by others. But, Christian, your worth as a person is not first of all dependent on your levels of performance at work. God loves you and values you. Christ died for you. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You are a child of God.

* Try to organise your work in a better way
It may not be possible. But it may be. God has given us our minds and we do better when we use them. It may be that a little time at the beginning of work, to think about what needs to be done (write a list?) and then to prioritise what must be done today and what can be left until tomorrow, would really help. Don’t fall into putting off the difficult tasks while you just do the tasks you enjoy.

* Improve relationships in your workplace
Much stress at work is caused by bad or non-existent relationships between people who work together. It’s not a happy place to be. You cannot ask for advice without being sneered at. That only adds to the stress. But where people work as a team, things are different. A 1994 study of social work teams found it was not the intensity of the pressures which determined levels of employee stress, but rather the effectiveness with which teams, led by their managers, coped with these pressures. As Christians we are called to be peacemakers. Are you someone who helps build good relationships in your workplace?

* Pray about your working life
Much stress is caused by uncertainty. Will I meet the deadline? Is the company failing? But we have a sovereign God who works all things for our good. Learn to trust him at work. Philippians 4.6,7.

* Recognise who your real boss is
We do not work simply for our company or earthly boss. We work for the Lord Jesus Christ who loves us, understands us and is in ultimate control (Colossians 3.23,24).

* Grasp the bigger picture of work
Stress can come if we think our work is pointless. But every honourable work, however humble, needs to be seen as co-operation with God for the transformation of the world he has committed to our care (Genesis 1.28). This applies alike to industry and commerce, to public services and the professions, and to full-time caring or motherhood.

Footnotes

In writing this piece I am indebted to the booklet Managing Workplace Stress — Christian Perspective by Dr. Adrian Miles, published by Transform Work UK, and also to the leaflet ‘A brief insight into stress’ by Beverley Shepherd from Crusade for World Revival.

John Benton