Career and Workplace Health 1: Stress Awareness

Stress is the single most condition that we can change in our lives and improve the quality of health, relationships, and mood. Left uncontrolled it can devastate our health, including affecting hormone levels, the cardiovascular system, and the gastrointestinal system. The biological affects of stress are profound. Another area where stress and the biochemical changes that go with it causes major health issues is in the area of mental health. Depression and anxiety are major issues in the workplace.

Stress affects the sympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System. The adrenal glands are activated releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine and steroid stress hormones (cortisol or glucocorticoids). The output of the heart is increased, blood pressure is affected, and long-term stress likely produces cardiovascular disease. Also under long-term stress the adrenal glands become depleted. Norepinephrine is released in the hypothalamus, frontal cortex, and lateral basal forebrain (Carlson, 2010).

Glucocorticoids also break down protein and suppress sex hormones. Their influence is profound because most cells in the body have glucocorticoid receptors in them. Other affects of long-term stress include increased blood pressure; damage to muscle tissue, steroid diabetes, inhibition of growth, and inhibition of the inflammatory responses that impact healing (Carlson, 2010).

The brain is impacted by long-term stress and there is evidence that glucocorticoids destroy neurons limiting the entry of glucose and the reuptake of glutamate. This is especially concerning for the aging process because of the decrease in blood flow to the brain area and the potential for memory lose in later life. Prenatal stress is shown to impact learning and memory and normal development of the hippocampus that could potentially signal problems later in life (Carlson, 2010).

Gabor Mate's book "When the Body Says No: The hidden cost of stress" outlines the physical aspects of stress and he provides a list of the "Seven A's of healing":
Acceptance, Awareness, Anger, Autonomy, Attachment, Assertion, and Affirmation.

The previous articles I have written on anger on the Dragonfly Blog have indicated that the expression of anger and frustration is integral to the level of stress we feel. If it is suppressed or not expressed constructively the effects are felt, biologically, emotionally, and socially. Managing stress well therefore requires us to handle anger and strong emotions well, learning to say no, addressing our concerns in a proactive manner and communicating our needs to others. Otherwise it gets buried and it wrecks havoc on our bodies.

Another area of stress that we can become Aware of is the affects of our workplace. In my Masters and Psy. D. programs I have researched extensively in the area of helper stress and "Compassion Fatigue"  citing Martin Shain, (1999, 2000) Best Advice on Stress Risk Management in the Workplace written for Health Canada suggests that employers must do their "due diligence" to not place their staff in harm's way. In allowing the workplace to be structured to encourage "excessive stress" they run the risk of accidents and injuries on the job and provide an environment that facilitates conflict.

He outlines the ethical responsibilities of employers in his Stress and Ethics Summary:

  • Stress is often the product of choices that people make about how they will treat one another.
  • Employers know, or ought to know, that when they impose excessive and unnecessary stress on employees they place them in harm’s way
  • Therefore, Employers have a responsibility to avoid the imposition of excessive and unnecessary stress.
  • It is the forseeability and avoidability of harm that attracts responsibility for it. (p. 21)

Shain, (1998, 2000) defines conditions that affect mental health in the workplace excessive stress is produced when work is organized and designed in ways that ignore or devalue certain basic human needs, particularly those related to our mental or emotional health and The publication identifies the affects of a failure to attend to stress in the workplace as:
* Higher benefit payments
* Higher absenteeism
* Lower efficiency
* Lower productivity
* Less creativity
* Less competitiveness
* Less client/consumer satisfaction
* Higher injury rates
* Higher property damage rates. (p.26)

In our awareness of the workplace conditions and how they affect us we have choices in how we deal with the stress. Mate suggests we need to slow down long enough to become aware and accept what is going on in our life and the potential damage that this can cause if we don’t deal with it. Awareness includes being in touch with our body's signals that stress is affecting us negatively.

Autonomy is about having a sense of efficacy, thinking that we have the power to change our life. It is developing an inner sense of control. If we feel helpless to change our conditions then it is time to seek help from others and to examine the areas we have control over such as our attitude toward what is happening. If we feel we cannot speak up and assert ourselves then we may need to find an advocate and/or a helper to assist us. Maybe many of our colleagues are feeling the same.

Attachment is the feeling of being connected with our community and world at large. The signs of distress are isolation, disconnection, and alienation from the self to begin with and then friends, loved ones, family and the greater community. Healing is in renewing that attachment, in fact, connecting with others is essential for health and denying our connection is toxic to others and us.

Mate describes Assertion as the very act of being of value and independent of the events and conditions that affect our lives. With assertion we neither act nor react, we assert our being as being separate from other perceptions of us and of the dominant cultural story. It is the very act of empowerment.

Finally Affirmation is acknowledging everything that is around us that is good, that gives us strength that helps us heal from debilitating stress. We affirm what we do towards better health; we affirm the positive relationships in our lives, our strengths, and our connection to something greater than self.

Gaining personal power over stress and tackling it head on is not allowing us to be made a victim of it. In accepting the conditions we face we gain power. Remember that much of which we find stressful is externally placed, however, we have choices in how to deal with it. Some of it is grounded in others perceptions of us, which we do not have to take on. Some of it is in our expectations and self-criticism we place on ourselves much of which can be highly unrealistic and inaccurate. In knowing our options, in talking and connecting with others, and affirming what we are doing right we gain power, autonomy, and start to direct our own lives. Then we manage our stress it does not manage us. 


Carlson, N.. (2010). Physiology of Behavior, Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Mate, G. (2003). When the Body Says No, Toronto, Ont.: Vintage Press

Shain, M. (1998, 2000). Best advice on stress risk management in the workplace, Ottawa, On: Health Canada