Managing workplace stress in the clinical laboratory
Stress comes in many shades and affects all of us differently-in different ways, times and places. Stress in one environment could be different than it is in another. Workplace stress is typically approached more objectively than other stressors, where emotions are allowed to flow more freely. At work, we will try to control a stressor. If we cannot, we tend to think we need to be professional and objective, not emotional. Ironically, this can add to already present stress.
Stress at work can take on different faces. There are negative colleague interactions, tensions with the boss, additional workload due to the lab being reorganized and job security centers. Of course, there are also more potential situations that can fuel anxiety and lead to physical problems if not dealt with effectively.
Fight or Flight
From an evolutionary perspective, we were designed to deal with stressors and adverse situations in an efficient way-the fight or flight response. When there is a threat in our environment, our bodies have been designed to respond quickly. Adrenaline kicks in, and our circulatory system and nervous-muscular system respond in kind. Thus, we run (or remove our hand from a hot stove, etc.). The problem lies when we get hit with these stressors in a chronic fashion.
If our adrenaline is firing every day, our bodies are in constant attack mode and the rest our cells need is denied. Our cells cannot rebound with chronic stress, resulting in high blood pressure, high cortisol levels (stress hormone), headaches and muscle tension and even a drop in how well our immune system can function. There is even some research suggesting a possible link between chronic stress and diabetes, as well as infertility.1
Our ability to deal effectively with stress is important for our mental and physical health. This will foster a more manageable workplace environment, lead to more career satisfaction and, therefore, should help the overall success of a health system. Resilience is the key to dealing with stress of any kind. Resilience has been described in a variety of ways, including the ability to bounce back quickly from a disturbance (stress, adversity). It is often described in a reactive fashion.
I have come to appreciate that resilience is much more proactive in nature, however. In order to be successful in maneuvering through adversity and dealing effectively with stressors, a person needs to have the tools in place on the front-end. They must have a philosophy of resilience, making a potential stressor die out quickly. Resilience can be fostered by mindfully engaging in purposeful behavior.
Fill in the Blank
One easy and effective way to do this is to develop an attitude of gratitude. Look on something reflective at the end of the day and pull value from it. If you can, tell someone else or write it down in a notebook. The different modalities positively reinforce our neurons. It could be something small, if your day was a bad one, or it could be a larger note of thanks. Regardless, write it down and tell someone the story. The more you do this, the more you start to see life in a different frame.
So, when your laboratory supervisor dumps a whole bunch of work on you, it’s easier to focus on the positives instead of going down the stress and anxiety pathway. It makes all the difference. Perhaps it will be recognition at the end of the assignment. Perhaps it will allow you to work with some new people. Perhaps it will force you to learn something new related to an area that is not your specialty. Fill in the blank.
The point is that you can choose to look at an event however you like. You cannot change the event, nor can you change that stressor. You can either fuel it until it takes over or choose to see the stressor in a different way. By doing the latter, the power stays with you and you control your future.
Another way to foster resilience is to develop a broad global perspective. Rather than focusing on a specific moment (for example, “My colleague has it in for me. He is harassing me.”), consider the larger picture (“Most of my colleagues treat me well. I get along with everyone at work. This particular colleague is not the norm for me.”). When considering the big picture, you can put the stressor in its rightful place-out of the way and not negatively influencing your life overall. Focus on things that matter to you most and create that as your focal point. This, too, will make all the difference-both at work and at home
- Carlson, NR. 2004. Physiology of Behavior, 8th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon.