Survival skills for stressed-out workers

Stress in the workplace costs businesses millions of dollars each year. Now research is casting light on why some people are better at dealing with it, and how we can train others to become more resilient.

Stress is taking its toll on the Australia’s workforce. According to recent survey from the Australian Psychological Society, 44% of people say work is a source of stress. Levels of job satisfaction and work-life balance have decreased significantly in the past three years. Employees are less interested in their job but are more worried about losing it.

Jemma King, a psychology expert and lecturer at UQ Business School, says the results reflect the economic climate: “As companies look to reduce costs and improve performance, employees inevitably come under pressure. Bosses who are themselves feeling the strain may resort to threats, public ridicule or angry outbursts to get staff to meet targets.

“Employees may suffer anxiety and depression, while sick leave and staff turnover may rise. Stress can have a serious impact on health and the cost to companies can also be huge. According to one study, stress at work costs US companies $23.8 billion per annum in healthcare bills, legal and HR costs and lost productivity.”

While eliminating stress at work altogether may be unrealistic, one step that companies can take is to train staff to become more resilient. Research led by Jemma in conjunction with Professor Neal Ashkanasy has helped to identify why some people are better than others at dealing with stress and bullying, and it seems that emotional intelligence plays a major part.

In one experiment 328 undergraduate volunteers were subject to threats and humiliation by a supervisor and then tested for their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Students with higher levels of emotional intelligence (EI) were less stressed.

“Evidence shows that training can help people improve their EI score and therefore cope better with stress,” says Jemma. “Training is ideal for staff at all levels. Companies sometimes only want to train higher-ranking staff but in fact those with low EI who are doing menial work are more at risk as they have fewer distractions and less opportunity to validate their self-worth. In the long run, training them will save money in terms of lost productivity and other costs.”

Jemma is currently working with Zingrow, an online platform that helps organisations to establish a health and wellbeing program, to incorporate her training techniques into their program.

She says companies should aim to create an emotionally healthly workplace – one where employees feel comfortable airing grievances and feel assured that their concerns will be given serious consideration.

“Everyone sees the world through different emotional lenses. We need to be aware of our own lenses and that other people have different lenses. Companies need to be more cognisant of the emotional climate in the workplace as emotions can spread like viruses. From an evolutionary point of view, our brains are designed to look for trouble.”

She also believes tests for stress hormones used in laboratory experiments could be usefully applied to the workplace. “Some people are reluctant to admit they are stressed, some don’t realise they are stressed while others may over-react. Cortisol tests circumvent these problems.

“They could be a great way for organisations to ascertain potential employees’ emotional regulation capabilities before they perform in high stress situations.
Taking cortisol samples before and after any major organisational change would reveal the effect on employees. Meanwhile the IgA test for burnout could be used as a preventative measure to identify those who are vulnerable.

“We will never eliminate stress or bullying altogether from the workplace, but by learning to address the negative effects we can safeguard our own health and that of our employees, and minimise the costs to the business.”


Jemma offers three tips to help workers at all levels to cope better under pressure:

    Tip 1: Take a third party perspective

If you feel angry at work, or have had an uncomfortable altercation, take five minutes to write out the scenario as if you were an observer relaying the events to another person. Make sure you identify the emotions felt by all parties. This is an effective method to create emotional objectivity. Typically feelings of anger dissipate if you see the situation from a distance.

    Tip 2: Be aware of your emotional triggers

We view the world through emotional lenses which are usually formulated in our early years, and which affect the way we interpret situations and react to them.

“If your mother was critical of your appearance as a child, a colleague’s joke about your outfit may set bells ringing,” says Jemma. “Emotional triggers like these can cloud your logic and cause a sudden, visceral reaction. Your response may seem disproportionate to others.

“In these cases is that our amygdala – a region in the brain that responds during times of danger – springs to our defence before our rational, pre-frontal cortex has time to assess the situation.”

Look out for such triggers and take a moment to reflect – why does this bother me so much? Is it real? When have I felt like this before and when was the first time? This insight will help you to reduce levels of emotional reactivity.

    Tip 3: Move the hunter gatherer body

Stress sets off a cascade of hormones that prepare our bodies for fight or flight. Although effective for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our response is not so well suited for modern day office settings.

A terse email from a boss, unkind gossip or a jammed photocopier can saturate our bodies with fight or flight hormones, increasing anxiety, affecting our cognitive functioning and memory, and our digestive and immune systems, which in the long run leads to poor health.

When you feel that angry rush, drop whatever you are doing and head for the stairwell. Run or briskly walk up three flights, stop at the top and take three breaths, then calmly walk back to your desk, and start planning what you will write in your perspective taking exercise (Tip 1).

This takes less than five minutes and tricks your body into thinking that you have responded appropriately to the threat and the danger is over. It can then reset back to a normal resting state.

Last updated:
27 February 2019