How many friends and colleagues have you heard say they’re experiencing stress at work? How often do you hear yourself saying the same? According to a recent study by the University of Cambridge, around half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill, and up to 5 million people said they feel highly stressed in their jobs. In the UK, 40% of all work related illnesses are caused by stress, which highlights just how much this is affecting us.
As you read the word “stress”, you no doubt completely understand what I mean by it, and when we repeatedly hear the word in conversation, again it’s always understood. Yet in reality we actually use it to convey such a variety of emotions; sadness, a sense of being overwhelmed, anger, frustration, fear, loneliness, the list goes on. So what are we really saying? What it seems to boil down to is the sense that there are greater demands being made of us than we have the capacity to cope with.
It’s not hard to see how stress at work can create that feeling. Most of us have work more to do than hours to do it in, so we work long hours to keep on top, usually have some difficult colleagues to deal with and there might not be anyone to ask for support. That’s alongside the fact that we all collectively feel the lack of job security hanging in the air and the sense we really need to focus on our “career development”. The result is a perfect storm of external stressors that in turn leads to a variety of internal stressors.
It’s useful to clarify those two terms – internal and external stressors. An external stressor is something that creates a demand on you in the outside world, such as another person or some other element in your environment. An internal stressor is a mental object in your mind, for example your thoughts about your stress at work, or even just chewing over a comment that hurt your ego.
However, our brains react in the same way to both. By fixating on internal stressors, you release the same stress hormones as you would if you were encountering them again as external stressors. What’s needed to break this cycle and be able to relax and contextualise your experience is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is especially powerful at remedying the negative effects of stress at work because it helps us to create space between ourselves as the subject of our experience, and the mental objects that might cause use further stress if we engage with them in an unhealthy way. That’s why countless companies are now offering mindfulness in the workplace and realising how important it is for employees to take control of their own wellbeing.
Humans will probably always experience a degree of stress. In fact, you could argue that it is one of the things that keeps life interesting. The problem comes when we fixate on our stress, and aren’t educated in how to deal with it properly. Mindfulness, whether you’re practicing it to reduce stress at work or simply to improve your concentration and happiness, is the missing piece of the puzzle.