What you need to know about workplace stress

TORONTO – John Tory was officially presented as mayor of Toronto Tuesday during an afternoon ceremony at city hall.

The job is no doubt stressful:  it’s at least four years long, 24 hours a day, includes no scheduled vacation time and puts every decision into the media spotlight.

So what is stress? Physiologically, we think of stress as the brain’s response to any demand.  And different types of stress have different effects – you can have stress from a sudden event like losing a job, or a traumatic event like an accident, or just routine stress related to the everyday pressures of life – which politicians feel a lot of because of the scrutiny they’re under.

The commonly referred to fight or flight response is the body’s response to stress. It is a mechanism that evolved thousands of years ago to respond to situations like being attacked by an animal.

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The body releases hormones called catecholamines and cortisol, which optimize our ability to deal with that acute physical threat, by doing things like increasing pulse and blood pressure, and opening up our airways, while diverting energy from non-essential functions like digestion.

But modern life poses a different problem: people are in a constant low-grade fight or flight state, and these hormones have been shown to be higher chronically in individuals under chronic stress.  And although the effects have been hard to prove, chronic stress might predispose people to high blood pressure, heart attacks, poor sleep, and even reduced immunity.

Five facts about stress

Certain diseases can be triggered by stress

There’s something called broken heart syndrome (also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy), which is a sudden drop in heart function in response to a major physical or emotional stress, and mimics the effect of a heart attack.  Most patients recover fully within 14 weeks.  Also, stress is a well-described trigger for asthma, and stress can even worsen skin conditions like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.

More job stress is associated with more missed work

Among others, a study in Stress and Health in 2003 showed a relationship between employees’ perception of their job stress, and their likelihood of missing work.  This may be why so many employers spend money on stress reduction – because it improves productivity.

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Coping resources reduce the effects of stress

Stress researchers have also identified factors that buffer the mental and physical effects of stress.  Because we rely on our personal qualities and social assets in times of stress, high self-esteem (the perception of oneself as a valuable and competent person), good social support (in the form of family members, friends, and/or co-workers), and a sense of control over one’s life (believing that most circumstances in one’s life are under one’s personal control) have all been shown to mitigate the effects of stress.

Meditation helps

A study in Stress and Health in 2005 demonstrated that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program significantly reduced stress levels as measured by questionnaires about mood and emotional exhaustion among health care practitioners; similar results were shown in cancer sufferers,

Exercise helps (especially Yoga)

A 2011 review of eight randomized and controlled trials in Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine  suggested that Yoga significantly reduced symptoms of stress, and other studies have shown similar effects with exercises as diverse as swimming, body conditioning, and fencing.


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