Workplace stress: how it affects men and how to manage it?

All jobs – from entry level positions and those on the front line right through to senior management and leadership roles – come with some degree of stress. But while moderate stress is reasonable (and even beneficial), it becomes a problem when it’s excessive or ongoing. Especially for men.

How workplace stress specifically affects men

Statistically, men account for 75% of Australian suicides and are far less likely to seek help for their mental health. This puts them at greater risk of developing chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, anxiety, alcoholism and depression. These conditions can lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue, high blood pressure, chest pains, muscle aches and weight loss or gain.

Many of these health issues are exacerbated by workplace stress – when left un-checked for long periods of time for example, stress accounts for 13% of depression cases among working men. Even more concerning, a whopping 73% of men who meet the clinical criteria for depression or anxiety don’t even realise they have a problem.

So what can be done to help men better manage the extreme pressures of their workplace?

How to recognise if you’re under extreme stress?

The first step to controlling stress is recognising its symptoms, and doing so before reaching breaking point.

For CVCheck CEO, Rod Sherwood, the demands of his role are often extreme and lead to regular periods of prolonged stress. He says there are two indicators he’s under greater than normal pressure.

“The first is muscle tension and the other is interruption rate, which means I get distracted from the task at hand and as a consequence, I’m not able to achieve objectives and if I don’t achieve an objective, I feel stressed.”

For Murray Francis, CVCheck IT Manager, feeling stressed comes in two different forms.

“There’s that intense, instant kinds of stress where you’re trying to juggle a heap of balls and you’ve got really short deadlines. It’s almost like an adrenalin hit,” he explains. “You certainly feel pressure, intensity and heightens focus, so as long as you’re aware of that, and aren’t in that situation for extended periods, it can be helpful.

“The other kind of stress is the long-term stress and that’s the one I find more worrying. The way I’m aware of that is when I can’t sleep. I’ll be fine during the evening but as soon as I go to bed, ‘bang!’, your mind kicks in and starts going through all the things you haven’t done, or decisions you need to make. When this becomes prolonged, it becomes a real challenge.”

Having come dangerously close to clinical depression some years ago, Paul Yu, CVCheck Team Leader (Operations NZ), is very conscious of his mental wellbeing. For him, headaches and feelings of anxiety are indicators he’s under greater than normal pressure.

“Personally, I know I’m feeling stress at work when I start experiencing physical pain such as headaches, however emotionally I do get quite anxious, especially when I believe there’s not enough time left in order for me to complete everything that I wanted to during the day, and this also leads me to the unhealthy habit of skipping meals.”

In addition to chronic pain, headaches, and insomnia, other tell-tale signs you’re suffering from extreme stress include digestive issues, changes in appetite, decreased libido, excessive perspiration, skin irritations and rapid heartbeat.

What are the main causes of workplace stress?

Naturally, different roles within different industries come with their own set of pressures, but there are a number of common factors that contribute to job stress including high work demands, excessive workload, working long hours, poor communication, inadequate resources and lack of control over your environment.

For Darren Williams, CVCheck’s Team Leader (Operations AU), it’s when the demands of managing a team (mostly remotely right now thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic) interfere with his own workload that he feels additional stress.

“Trying to juggle the wellbeing of your team whilst trying to get your own work done, some days can be quite a challenge, especially towards the end of the week when you haven’t got to things you’ve been trying to since Monday.”

As a father with young children, Brendan Peel, CVCheck Enterprise Manager, believes leaving work and its associated stresses to then switch straight into ‘dad mode’ – particularly while working from home during COVID-19 – is particularly stressful.

“I’m a father of two, so I’ve found that as I close in towards the end of a work day where there’s a lot on, and still a lot to get done, and then have to step straight into Dad mode – in particular now that I’m working from home – has been tough,” he says, adding that balancing the two can at times cause him high levels of anxiety and unease.

How organisations can help employees manage workplace stress?

Stressed-out employees are not only causing themselves harm, they’re also damaging your business.

According to Safe Work Australia, mental stress claims are the most expensive type of workers’ compensation claim, absenteeism costs Australia over $10.11 billion per year, and the cost of lost productivity due to staff turnover is an estimated $3.8 billion annually.

To help staff better manage workplace stress organisations can consider the following:

  • Ensure employees are getting a good work-life balance: “Organisations really need to respect the work-life balance of their staff,” says Francis. “If they’re putting either direct or implied pressure on staff to work over and above what they’re actually paid to do, and if that becomes common practice, that will result in increased stress levels because you won’t have the opportunity to switch off, step away and recuperate before taking on the next challenge.”

For some employees achieving work-life balance may mean working flexible hours and/or the ability to work remotely. This instils a culture of trust and shows employees their job isn’t defined by the number of hours they clock but rather, by the quality of their work.

  • Encourage workplace wellness: This can be as little as encouraging staff to take a walk on their lunch break, through to subsidising health club memberships, holding office fitness competitions and providing healthy snacks in the lunch room. Exercise releases endorphins, which improves mood, and allows employees to switch off from the stresses of their roles.
  • Get to know the person beyond the role: “I think employee engagement is underrated in today’s society – there’s a lot of talk about it, but I’m not sure there’s enough of it,” says Peel. “I think it’s important organisations actually check in with the person, not with just their role and expectations.”

Williams adds that managers who take the time to really get to know their team members are better able to recognise when something’s not right.

“I’m lucky – my manager is very supportive and is always conscious of how much work we have to do, so I think it’s important to have very good managers and leaders in place who can recognise in their staff when things are getting a bit much. I think that’s key,” he says. “I think CVCheck does very well in that respect.”

  • Show empathy: Peel acknowledges not everyone’s battles are the same and organisations that show empathy and vulnerability give employees the support and confidence to do the same.
  • Be open and encourage communication: “I believe the important thing is to have a good, open line of communication with staff. Not only does this build trust, but also, it allows them to voice their concerns, whether that’s about their stress levels, about work in general, or anything other than that,” says Yu.
  • Switch off: Encourage staff to disconnect from work during downtime by removing emails and other work-related apps from their personal computers, tablets and phones.
  • Help staff build resilience: “I think a big part of what stress is, is how you perceive it in your head, how you respond to it, and how you assume control over it mentally. I think that’s a big aspect as to whether stress is detrimental to you, or not,” says Sherwood who believes building resilience is key to managing workplace stress.

Resilient people are often more flexible, are better able to adapt to new situations, learn from new experiences and be optimistic. Better still, resilience can be learned –resilient employees are born from effective leadership, cohesive teamwork, open and honest conversation and mutual support.

  • Absolve your employees from feelings of guilt: “Company performance is relative to the industry you are in. It may be that you’ve set yourself high benchmarks of company performance, which relative to your industry are not able to be achieved,” Sherwood explains.

“At a management level – at a board level – sometimes you have to sit back and ask, ‘are we demanding too much in terms of growth, and is that causing stress in our organisation?’.

“As a leader, you need to own that and go back and talk to your people and say, ‘look, actually we’re doing very well. We would like higher growth, but we’re doing really well in our sector. Letting people acknowledge that and then absolve themselves of any guilt around that, allows them to move onto unleashing the potential that’s in them so they can outperform the rest of the sector.”

The importance of communication: Where to go for help?

Regardless of the source of your stress, Peel emphasises the importance of asking for help.

“I guess the message for me would be: always remember to speak up and don’t be afraid to talk and reach out to friends or colleagues, because it’s not easy doing it on your own,” says Peel.

Rod Sherwood agrees having trusted confidantes is important, but goes further to recommend those working through mental health issues seek professional help.

“I talk to a psych and I also have a couple of mentors to talk to,” he says. “I have taken that path because there’s a relationship with my wife and loved ones that is not founded on work – they are relationships that are founded on love.”

It’s for this reason CVCheck is a member of employee assistance program Benestar. While the organisation always encourages open dialogue between management and staff, and between peers, where additional or professional help is needed Benestar provides impartial, confidential counselling and advice to staff in need.

Mensline Australia, Health Direct and Beyond Blue also offer 24-7 help lines, plus a wealth of resources designed to support men’s mental health, including the management of extreme workplace stress.

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