All stressed out?

We have never been more stressed. An increased focus on productivity and profitability has ensnared us in a spin cycle of overwork, exhaustion, fear and anxiety. Pressured to survive under heavy economic strain, the threat of job loss snaps at our heels. The whip is cracked. We steady ourselves and plod along, with no clear end in sight. Yet we remain aware that left unchecked, chronic stress can either kill us or irreparably damage our overall health. And still, we plod along . . . .

Hans Selye, the father of stress research, poignantly stated, “the only person without stress, is a dead person”. He draws attention to the fact that stress is indeed an unavoidable life event. However, we all experience and deal with it differently. One man might thrive under stress while another becomes distressed. The fact is that everyone is vulnerable to it at some point in their lives.

In a survey by the American Psychological Association, women were found to be more stressed than men. Not surprising considering their role of having to balance the demands of home and the workplace. It is in fact women’s entry into the workplace that highlighted the need for work-life balance. Society still has stereotypical expectations of them to balance unpaid work at home with paid work in the work place. As women end one shift at the office, they ready themselves for the second shift at home.

The current work climate unfairly forces us to shrewdly monetize our personal resources. This is a system that eulogizes the role of worker as all-important. It sadly means that sometimes our children and loved ones get left at the fringe. The order of the day is to make more money, only to spend more and more of it. As we heed the need to keep the machine running in exchange for access to material goods, we can see why the worker ’s role trumps all the others.

By being caught up in a constant state of consumerism and consumption, over-busyness, over commitment, while constantly being plugged in, we tune out to the neglect taking place in all other aspects of our lives. We not only spend an unreasonable amount of time at work, but also welcome the spillover, as we bring work home with us, and spend more time worrying about it instead of sleeping. There are many who find comfort and a false sense of purpose in the need to do too much and become addicted workaholics or its very close cousins: the rush-a-holic, the busy-a-holic and care-a-holic.

Spending more time at work often means that community, friends, leisure and spiritual pursuits are left to flounder. A worker who is exhausted and stressed out in actual fact does himself more harm by setting himself up for burn-out.

What is a burnt out worker? Well you meet them everywhere, employees so emotionally, psychologically and physically tapped out, exhausted and chronically stressed that they don’t even seem to be present. Burnout is a state of apathy, withdrawal and disinterest in everyday life.

Some common signs to look for are feelings of frustration, emotional outbursts or hostility, a why bother attitude, substandard performance and a general state of feeling rundown/ tired. It may manifest itself as a need to consume more alcohol/ coffee, eat more or less, and eat more sweets. Burn-out is common among nurses, teachers, policemen, social workers and persons who have a high customer interface.

Our present culture of making more and more money, distances us from the very things we need to sustain our ability to be fully engaged as workers. It separates us from our core relationships and the ties that help us feel a sense of belonging and well-being; it keeps us from taking the time we need to pause and replenish our bodies and our spirits, as well as connect with our natural environment. It seems like the more we do, the more is being expected of us and we lose sight of the whole picture.

In a world where we want the big house, the luxury vehicle and the expensive vacations, we work longer and harder. We use up more time and our precious energy to generate the money to consume more of everything including the earth’s resources. We live under the illusion that by having access to the “goods of life”, we somehow can fast-track ourselves to the “good life.” This cycle unfortunately, rather than granting us more happiness, in fact predisposes us to higher levels of stress and ill-health.

Living a stress-free life is an impossibility. Living a life of full awareness and balance is within the reach of all. Ruth Levitas ( University of Bristol) boldly maintains that “work is a greatly overrated pastime and a re-evaluation . . .  is long overdue”. Achieving work-life balance is a constant dance of energy and time. It is an acknowledgement that we are not just the employee, but the father, the lover, the church-goer, the gardener, the PTA member, the avid cricketer, the volunteer and much much more.

It is understanding that all our roles and activities are equally valuable in making up the whole, well- balanced and integrated person we bring to work everyday.

In the near future, we can only hope that employers and employees pay more attention to work-life balance and personal fulfillment beyond the present work-performance model.

Source: (Cherith Pedersen is a clinical mental health counsellor and expressive arts therapist)

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