How does stress look at the physiological level?

Work can be stressful. 

In fact, several studies have found that work is a major source of stress for adults in the US, and trending on the upward curve (which, isn’t a good thing).

According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 40 percent of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful, with 25 percent viewing their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. 

Then, a study published on found that 25 percent have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress; 10 percent were concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent; 9 percent were aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace and 18 percent had experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year; and 14 percent of respondents said that they had felt like striking a coworker in the past year, but didn’t.

How does stress look at the physiological level? 1

But as you may already know, stress is not just a word or even an emotion we talk about. It isn’t always manifested by a feeling to assault someone either. Stress can also wreak havoc on your body. It is linked to things like headache, back pain, fatigue and even gastrointestinal issues. It is also related to problems with the heart including, but not limited to, increased rates of heart attack and hypertension.  

In fact, stress and its effect on the heart is so highly recognized in New York, Los Angeles and many municipalities, that any police officer or firefighter who suffers a coronary event on or off the job gets compensation because it is considered a work related injury. The state of California has even made it a law under Labor Code 3212.

To add insult to injury, an article published in Corporate Wellness Magazine found that an estimated 1 million workers are absent every day due to stress, and 60 percent of employee absences could be traced to psychological problems that were due to job stress.

But why?

Are we all working jobs we don’t like? Are certain jobs more stressful than others? Are people just so darn hard to work with? 

The answer to all those questions is a resounding yes and no.

Many people find themselves in dead end jobs that aren’t necessarily hard, but not fulfilling.  Not being able to reach one’s potential can cause a great deal of stress.  And while jobs like police work carry with them a high level of stress as indicated above, the National Institute of Justice Journal noted that paperwork, public disrespect, shift work, death notifications, domestic violence calls, or frustration with the courts were often more stressful than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals.

And, yes, you could work the most boring job and have some awesome people to work with, while on the flip side, have landed your dream job working alongside some real punks.

The real question you’re here for: 

Can stress in the workplace be tracked with biometrics?

Sure, when you’re stressed, you feel it in your blood. You’re heart races; your blood pressure increases almost as if it’s ready to burst out of you; you may even feel as if the temperature of the blood flowing through your very veins is rising almost to a boiling point. Your engine is revved and you’ve gotta fight or run away.

Two stress experts, Dr Stacey Parker & Karly Head from the School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Australia, measured what is happening when work causes stress by tracking heart rate variability (HRV) in stressed-out workers.

HRV was calculated for morning and afternoons every day of the week. What was found was that morning HRV was lower than afternoon, and that HRV decreased midweek, then rose towards the weekend. These findings indicated that the key times of pressure and stress were mornings and midweek, whereas the afternoons and weekends were times for leisure and recovery. 

So, what next?

Parker and Head didn’t end with their findings, but searched for solutions to minimize stress in the workplace. 

When conducting their research, they had their subjects do internal coping strategies like positive talk, redirecting their focus, and suppressing their emotions rather than letting them out or acting on them. The external coping strategies included planning the workday/week, seeking outside support from coworkers, exercise and watching TV after work — something they referred to as “passive recovery.”

The researchers found that when the subjects engaged in planning, positive talk, and physical exercise, they had a more positive work experience and achieved more goals. This also resulted in higher HRV readings, meaning that people felt more relaxed.

Conversely, when the subjects used emotional suppression and passive recovery like watching TV as coping strategies, HRV levels went down, indicating more stress and physiological fatigue. 

A few more tips:

To help ease the stress load at work a bit more, the American Psychological Association says you should:

  • Track your stressors
  • Develop healthy responses
  • Establish boundaries
  • Take time to recharge
  • Learn how to relax 
  • Talk to your supervisor
  • Get some support 

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