Stress: The universal complaint


Just about everyone is experiencing stress-whether at work, at home, even on a holiday, there is stress. The holiday stress experienced by many is worrying about the job back home. Because stress is so common and the cause of much absenteeism and illness, there is much research being conducted here and abroad.

What contributes most to stress at work are the high demands of a job with little control over those demands. Good stress, however, is when the work demands are challenging, yet not overwhelming, and there is a high level of individual job control, leading to satisfaction and motivation.

There are many ways to add control to a job. For instance, controlling the pace of work, the tools used, the sequencing of the work day and flexible working hours whenever feasible add to worker satisfaction. Even in nursing homes, when residents were given a choice of menus, their mood and behavior improved.

Women are more likely than men to bring job stress home, according to Dr. Karen Messing, an ergonomist at the University of Quebec in Montreal. Women’s jobs tend to be lower-level and therefore more rigidly structured so they cannot take the time for doctor’s appointments or childcare when needed. As women deal with a combination of less job control and more at-home responsibilities, they are always worrying about home when at work and about work when at home.

Research shows that women with full-time clerical and customer service jobs and children at home have a higher level of cortisol, a stress hormone which is an indicator of increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Women come home from work to the “second shift”: laundry, cleaning, cooking, chauffeuring, tutoring. Consequently, women work 21 more hours per week than men.

So, what to do if you have no control over your stressful situation? Surprisingly enough, writing down your feelings or confiding in others helps.

One way to diminish stress is to create the opportunity for work groups to get together and discuss their sources of stress. In Germany such “health circles” have been very successful.

A series of studies also confirms this. One group was asked to write about a traumatic event in their lives, another group wrote about ordinary matters. Both wrote for 15 minutes a day for three to five consecutive days. The ones who wrote about their traumatic experiences had their immune function enhanced for at least six weeks after writing. This was especially true for those who expressed previously undisclosed painful feelings. The other group had no such effect. Also people who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about losing their job had twice the success in finding a new job than those who only wrote about their job seeking plans.

These are some guidelines for reducing stress by writing adapted from James Pennebaker’s book.

  1. Set a specific schedule for writing. For instance, write 15 minutes a day for four days or one day a week for four weeks.
  2. Don’t plan to share your writing. It could inhibit your honest expression.
  3. Put down your deepest thoughts and feelings including your negative feelings such as sadness, hurt, hate, anger, fear, guilt or resentment.
  4. Write without worrying about grammar, spelling or making sense. You can either save your writing or destroy it - the benefit comes from writing - even if it seems upsetting in the short run, it is well worth the effort in the long run.

The evidence is convincing. Even if you’re only dimly aware of it, your body will know. It will be less stressed, less prone to illness. You will have a more positive outlook and your mood will improve. This will also benefit those you live with.