“Stress is never our own responsibility – let’s create a working environment where we can actually breathe”
It is not okay to expect the person experiencing stress to solve the situation. It is a joint responsibility between the individual, colleagues, and management, believes Pernille Steen Pedersen, a CBS-researcher in the field. She hopes that CBS can create a better working environment where all employees can thrive and voice their concerns.
Sweaty palms, a rapid heartbeat and Sunday blues before a new week at work begins. Maybe you are familiar with feelings of stress or discomfort associated with your work. If so, you are not alone, as 25% of people in Denmark experience high levels of stress, according to the latest report by Sundhedsstyrelsen in 2017.
At CBS, many different groups of staff experience problems with stress, for instance 60% of PhDs have experienced feeling stressed.
“Being a researcher at a university involves very special circumstances, as PhDs, assistant professors and postdocs constantly have to apply for funding and grants to continue their work. That means they often feel inadequate when performing their core tasks such as teaching and conducting research. This can cause stress,” explains Pernille Steen Pedersen, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy and a researcher in the field of stress prevention.
The feeling of inadequacy is a core aspect of stress – regardless of your line of work, she elaborates.
“One crucial source of stress is the feeling of being unable to live up to your own or other’s expectations concerning your work. Another source is the feeling that you should be able to solve your tasks more efficiently. Typically people blame themselves for being unable to teach or whatever at the appropriately high standard and they end up feeling as if the problem cannot be solved,” she says.
Many people do not speak up about what they are experiencing because the workplace is not sufficiently accommodating, according to Pernille Steen Pedersen.
“This might lead to a sense of hopelessness so people push on, telling themselves that if they just finish the next task, everything will calm down and improve. But often the problems continue and can ultimately lead to sick leave.”
No go: ‘stop being a perfectionist’ phrase
Mistake number one when dealing with stress in the workplace is to blame the individual for being unable to cope with their workload or work fast enough, Pernille Steen Pedersen explains:
“Handling stress should never be up to the individual alone. Often stress is a structural problem caused by many factors such as cutbacks, colleagues’ unrealistic expectations, etc. Managers have an important task in keeping track of how their staff are doing and creating a working environment where people can actually breathe and have the courage to speak openly about what is bothering them,” she says.
Other than that, it is important not to belittle the individuals’ need to perform their working tasks in a way that meets their professional standards.
“One of the worst things a manager can say to an employee who feels inadequate or too rushed to properly solve a task is that they should simply stop being so perfectionistic,” Pernille Steen Pedersen says and adds:
“Because this actually assigns the blame to the employee, who may not be able to follow the advice. It also allows no room for criticizing or changing the structures around the person’s work. There must be a level of respect for the employee’s desire to perform tasks in a way that makes sense to them.”
How to fix stress…
Instead, dialogue is required between the person feeling stressed and the manager, says Pernille Steen Pedersen.
“Together they must find a compromise where the tasks are solved but without completely disregarding the employee’s professional pride,” she says, and underlines that a one-hour mindfulness course with a psychologist is unlikely to fix workplace problems.
It is also vital to voice your feelings to your colleagues, Pernille Steen Pedersen advises.
“Perhaps some of them share your feelings and can help you. You don’t have to convene a formal meeting – just try asking how your colleagues normally deal with the aspect that is causing you trouble and take it from there,” she says.
Another piece of useful advice is to regularly discuss employee wellbeing, Pernille Steen Pedersen continues.
“A weekly staff meeting where the manager takes the temperature of the work climate would be a very good idea. It might feel awkward at first, but eventually it feels natural. And I believe having a safe space where employees can share their workplace experiences could make a big difference,” she says and concludes:
“Working is a huge part of our lives and identities. It encompasses both our homes and specific workplaces and thereby affects many spheres of life. We must therefore take stress in work environments seriously and change the structures to fit actual lives rather than trying to push people to change who they are to fit a business strategy.”