at work

Patrick Légeron is a psychiatrist and specialist in work-related stress. The founder of Stimulus, a consulting firm in the field of psychosocial risk at work, he is also the author of a book about stress at work.

Patrick Légeron

Agent Majeur: What is stress?

Patrick Légeron: This is a buzzword which is not always well understood. Stress was first highlighted by scientists who were studying the behavior of mice in the 1930’s. It appeared as a natural phenomenon, comparable for all mammals, including human beings. In fact, stress is the reaction of the organism to a situation we call constraint in psychology. For animals, danger is embodied by the predators. Stress causes them to attack or escape the source of stress.

Stress can not nor should be removed. It’s an innate reaction which allows us to adapt to the difficult situations we face. From an experimental viewpoint, researchers succeeded in creating stress-free mice. But they no longer have any sort of reaction when facing predators and are eaten up by any cat that shows up. Stress is useful but should be consumed in moderation.

Has stress changed in nature?

Yes, because there has been a discrepancy between the way the man has been programmed and the nature of stress factors. The cave man, like animals, was stressed by predators, natural disasters. Today, physical stress still exists but to a lower extent. For example, at work, physical stress has dramatically reduced and has even disappeared in many professions.

For the contemporary man, danger will mainly be psychological or social. Will I be up to the challenge? How will I be considered? Will I keep my job? Physical stress has made way for psychological stress. And stress has become chronic. For a long time, stress was occasional, it would come up and disappear. Nowadays, it has settled permanently, even at night time, especially in urban environments. The human being was not ready to face such regularity of it. Stress is no longer a useful function, it has become a problematic one as well- in particular stress at work.

How big is the phenomenon?

Our firm has assessed the stress level of 40,000 employees in France over the past three years: 2010, 2011 and 2012. 28 % of them have a level of stress that is too high. It is a matter of public health as these people are at risk for their health: stress related diseases, suicide.

What are the origins of stress at work?

The first stress factor is pressure. Work is constraining as it is based on performance and results. Things must be done fast as the workload is important. This pressure is increased by the feeling of not having all the material and intellectual resources to face it.

Individualism is the second stress factor. The world of work has become extremely competitive for individuals. It’s a world where everyone’s out for themselves. However, the collective was a key element to feeling good at work. Man has almost become a wolf to the man. Not only within the company. We have worked a lot with bus drivers. According to them, the first stressor is not traffic jams but passengers.

If stress was limited to those two factors, it could still be manageable. But then a third factor comes in: permanent change. The world of work is unsteady, both at macroscopic (restructurations, reorganizations, merges) and technical levels (tools, software). This incessant confrontation to novelty generates a feeling of a lack of control. This generates concerns on one’s own capabilities in their profession. Finally, the work environment must be taken into account. And especially the new technologies that have broken the work-life balance.

Individually, what can we do to protect ourselves from stress at work?

Each of us is partly responsible for the stress we face. The same source of stress will lead to very different levels of stress according to the individual. Here is some advice to protect yourself from stress:

– Stress is originally a body reaction. Taking care of your body is essential: leading a healthy lifestyle, caring for your diet, your sleep. And the false friends of stress – tobacco and alcohol, which relieve on the spot but are harmful in the long run, must be used carefully. In addition, physical activity is good.

– Taking a break to recover is also a way to fight permanent stress. For example, before a meeting, two minutes of relaxation helps you calm your body and mind. For this purpose, you just need to breathe slowly and deeply, then visualise pleasant images.

– Stress usually generates negative feelings and concerns. In order to counterbalance them, it is important to develop positive feelings. The sun shines? I go out to have my cup of coffee. I am in a queue? I read a magazine I like. The idea is to treat yourself to enjoyable moments, to allow yourself to exit the eat/work/sleep cycle.

– Finally, you mustn’t remain isolated. Lonely people, who have no confidence and no social support break down more brutally when facing stress-related problems. Having people you can talk to, like colleagues or relatives, enables you to receive empathy and to feel understood.

Stress is not the end of the world. Individually, we can do something to reduce it. But companies also have a role to play, especially by training their managers. Reducing occupational stress is in their own economic interest. Working with employees who feel good reduces absenteeism, increases performance.

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