Dr Adelbert Scholtz is a Counselling Psychologist in Belville in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. Click here to see his profile.
Reactions to stress
Any person is prone to stress and burnout and this may influence happiness and life satisfaction negatively. Certain people are more prone to stress and burnout while others withstand it much better. There can be more than one reason for that.
It is important to remember that people do not react directly to stimuli from the external environment. They react rather to their subjective perceptions of those stimuli. What one person perceives as a threat another person may perceive as an opportunity or a challenge. One person may experience a situation as meaningless and overwhelming while another may experience it as meaningful or within his or her ability to handle.
When a certain state of affairs is perceived as threatening, dangerous, overwhelming and meaningless or out of control, it causes tension and eventually feelings of helplessness and despair. In other words, stress may cause distress – especially when that stress becomes excessive.
It was found in the USA that more than 80% of the adult population suffer from stress-related problems. The average employee takes 15 working days off per year for personal reasons and of those eleven days are used to handle stressful situations. The situation in South Africa may not be very different.
Causes of stress and burnout
Investigations revealed that working conditions are the greatest source of stress in the lives of working people. The second biggest source of stress is domestic problems.
The following aspects of a situation may cause stress:
- A status which is not commensurate with the person’s abilities and self-concept – which means either that such a person is appointed to a position for which he/she doesn't have the required training, aptitudes or self-confidence or that that person has the perception that he/she has the necessary qualifications for a higher position while promotion is not forthcoming;
- Overloading of tasks and responsibilities – with the result that that person is always late with the completion of projects and tasks, is always rushed and always unsure of how to handle a given situation;
- Bad relationships between people who have to work together or live together;
- Role conflict and role overload – which means that somebody has to fulfil conflicting roles or too many roles to handle comfortably;
- Lack of control over the situation – which means that the employee has little or no means of influencing the outcome of his/her efforts and that leads to frustration and feelings of powerlessness;
- Repetitious and boring work – that is work that poses no challenge, is dull and does nothing to bolster a person's feelings of self-worth;
- Dangerous work – which means that the worker is always uncertain whether he/she won't be injured in some or other way and this uncertainty creates tension;
- Bad physical working conditions – e g noise, pollution, uncomfortable equipment and furniture, over-crowded or cramped spaces and extreme temperatures, which may impair a worker's ability to perform optimally; and
- Responsibility for the welfare of others – which means that the burden of responsibilities may become too large to bear.
Apart from this, many factors from outside the work situation may increase the stress that a worker experiences. Marital problems, problems with children or other family members, housing problems, illness, financial worries and accidents may also contribute to the experience of stress by a worker.
Reactions to stress
An overdose of stress may cause many adverse reactions. Among these are –
- Decreased perceptual ability since senses and receptors are overloaded;
- Decreased ability to concentrate;
- Decreased ability to reach creative solutions for problems;
- Regression to infantile behaviour;
- Destructive behaviour such as aggression and alcohol abuse;
- An inability to handle interpersonal relationships;
- Tiredness and an increased need for rest and sleep;
- Depression; and
- Reduced immunity from illness and various resulting ailments.
Burnout is the result of an overdose of stress. People whose work consists of the handling or care for other people, such as managers, teachers, social workers, nurses, pastors and police officers are especially prone to this syndrome. Somebody who experiences burnout may have all the above symptoms together with an emotional shut-down and a destruction of beliefs and value systems.
A couple turned to me for counselling. Although their marriage was a happy one, the man was depressed, slept badly, did not enjoy his life and work and quarrelled with his wife. It turned out that he was the owner and manager of a small engineering firm and that his only daughter, who had helped him to run the business, was on the point of emigrating to Britain. He worked seven days a week, got no exercise and had no interests besides his work. After I prescribed a holiday, daily exercise and a better diet this man's depression lifted. When he learned to handle his stress more effectively, the symptoms of burn-out disappeared.
Another client of mine, the managing director of a factory, had marital problems, problems with his hyperactive and demanding step-daughter and a running battle with his ex-wife over the supervision over their children. All this stress spilled over into his factory with the result that he was unable to deal effectively with conflict between him and certain staff members. To defuse this conflict and assist him to deal with his domestic problems he needed expert help.
Strategies to deal with stress
It is clear that a stressed or burnt-out worker cannot perform as required. You may do much to lessen the effects of stress or to prevent the negative effects thereof. Help can be divided into two categories:
- Manipulation of the working environment to prevent unnecessary stress; and
- Teaching individuals to withstand stress more effectively.
The following may be done to manipulate the working environment:
- Provide counselling facilities for stressed people – refer stressed people to an outside agency, such as the practice of a clinical or counselling psychologist;
- Restructure the person's job or role and give him/her the opportunity to learn something new and acquire new skills;
- Eliminate adverse working conditions by reducing noise, pollution, extreme temperatures and cramped working quarters; and
- Provide social support systems.
People should be taught the following to prevent stress and burnout:
- A healthy life style with enough exercise, a nutritious diet and enough rest and relaxation;
- Effective time management;
- The building up of a social support system consisting of colleagues, friends and family members;
- Participation in activities that are meaningful;
- Increasing self-knowledge in order to accept personal limitations;
- Spend more time in prayer and meditation; and
- Realistic goals in order to lessen disappointments and failures.
Organisations that implements these strategies and programmes will create more healthy and productive members. Individuals may also use these strategies to great effect.