Taking back control: how feeling powerless can cause job stress

Taking back control: how feeling powerless can cause job stress

For more than a year now, work schedules have been turned upside down. We spoke to Lavinia Ionita, a medical practitioner and the CEO of Akesio. She has spent the past three years helping her patients and developing this application for stress management. She gives us the inside story on the key issues—from overwork and chronic stress to physical and psychological risks—and explains why they should always be taken seriously.

What impact do working hours and schedules have on job stress?

They both influence each other. Work schedules can affect stress levels and vice versa. To avoid the vicious circle of harmful working hours and increased stress, it’s important to determine the pace of work that’s most natural to you. Although every individual is different—some people are more efficient in the morning, others in the evening—the ideal schedule should follow a pattern of sleep and waking based on circadian rhythms. A number of studies in chronobiology have demonstrated that working at night raises cortisol levels—that’s the stress hormone—and increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes, various types of cancer and depression. The human body needs rhythms. The best work schedule includes moments of relaxation, which help you recharge after a stressful day. It’s equally important to understand what upsets your daily rhythms. For instance, working too much for too long can increase your stress levels and disturb your sleep patterns.

What are the main causes of job stress?

Overwork is the main cause of job stress, but it’s not the only one. For example, a boring job where you don’t feel challenged can be just as stressful. Employees in this situation may feel they’re stagnating or not achieving enough. Feeling helpless is another major stress factor. Today’s managers can’t afford to ignore it, with so many things—linked to health, society and politics— feeling out of our control. If this feeling of helplessness or loss of control goes unchecked, it can lead to negative emotions and increased stress. As a result, cortisol secretions become unbalanced. For example, levels may start out elevated and then lower to the point where the cortisol deficiency causes burnout. With chronic stress and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction—the HPA axis controls stress responses—you can have both physical and psychological consequences. You may experience extreme fatigue or sleep disruption. Thus, someone who is experiencing, or close to experiencing, burnout can be more fearful, distrustful and depressed. Also, when biology is disrupted by chronic stress, our ability to think and make decisions is diminished.

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What are the main symptoms of stress, and how can you spot them in someone else?

A good manager knows their team well and relies on their powers of observation. Although video calls can make it harder, a manager may notice changes in behavior, such as an unexpectedly negative attitude. You may also notice changes in someone’s physical appearance, such as sudden weight gain or loss. The way someone communicates can also be indicative of stress. For example, they may not interact with co-workers as much or seem less responsive than usual. It’s also important to pay attention to employees who mention physical complaints such as backache, stomach ache, high blood pressure, heart palpitations or insomnia. These symptoms can be indicative of chronic stress. For managers with remote teams, online surveys can be a useful way to spot signs of stress. Managers also need training on how stress works, how to spot the physical symptoms and how to respond appropriately. You don’t have to be a doctor or a psychologist, you just need a basic understanding of the issue. It’s recommended that you bring in external experts to train managers and help them coach their teams. People are more likely to speak freely with those they don’t work with.

How can medical tests be used to prevent stress?

People perceive stress in very different ways, depending on their personality and lived experience. Sometimes, managers or directors have become so used to constant pressure that they can’t feel stress anymore. The problem is, there’s no direct correlation between how stressed you feel and your biological response to stress. If the stress is prolonged or intense, the body will secrete too much cortisol, and even the most mentally tough person will experience burnout. Medical tests can help prevent this from happening. By measuring cortisol levels in the blood, you can determine if someone is getting perilously close to burnout. By objectively evaluating chronic stress—for instance, by measuring stress hormones—you can catch the warning signs of burnout early. Burnout can cause a range of health issues, some of them serious. For example, it increases the risk of depression and suicide in sufferers.

“Feeling powerless is a major cause of job stress, and today’s managers can’t afford to ignore it.”

What is good stress? How is it different from bad stress?

Good stress comes when you feel engaged, stimulated and passionate about what you’re doing. In other words, positive stress gives you a boost. The more you feel that you’re developing skills, learning new things and making a difference, the more likely it is you’ll experience good stress. The physical signs are the same as those with bad stress. You may have dilated pupils, sweaty hands or a racing heart—it’s just like being in love. But it’s different from bad stress in that it feels good, and the body recovers faster. Once the stress of a deadline or presentation is over, your body’s physiology returns to normal, and everything falls back into place.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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