In the world of work and organizations, not everything has to do with achieving productivity results and getting paid for it. Between the two phenomena there is something that we must take into account and that is in fact primordial: health.
There are many ways in which a work dynamic can wear down the quality of life of workers: through an organizational climate that is too competitive, through the demand for too much effort, through monotony and boredom… All this has as a common denominator one of the most common problems in any company. This is work-related stress .
It is therefore important to learn about this psychological phenomenon from the experts who are dedicated to dealing with this source of unease in organizations. In this sense, psychology has been researching the subject for decades.
Interview with psychologist Fernando Callejo: the challenge of stress at work
On this occasion we spoke with Fernando Callejo , co-founder of the psychology centre in Madrid UPAD Psychology and Coaching, so that he could talk to us about the characteristics of stress at work and how this problem is dealt with through psychological intervention in companies.
Research suggests that job stress is on the rise. Do you think it’s a problem that has to do with the person or the conditions they may encounter in a company?
I personally believe that, as is usual in psychology, it is a problem of adaptation between a person to that environment or situation.
Therefore, there would be situations with certain characteristics, which would favour the appearance of stress responses (objectives, tight deadlines, limited resources, etc), but at the end of the day, situations do not affect anyone who faces them in the same way, so I prefer to put the emphasis here, on people.
In the end, stress is nothing more than a person’s interpretation of whether their resources or capabilities will be sufficient to meet their goals or challenges.
In your experience, what do you think are the most common causes of stress at work?
In my experience, the people who may be most vulnerable to stress are those who have high levels of self-demanding or perfectionism, oriented towards achieving high results in their jobs; those who attach great importance to their work environments and whose self-concept and self-esteem are largely based on their professional results or successes.
Are the consequences of stress only psychological or also physical?
Stress has an important psychosomatic component, that is, it affects both the mental and physiological levels.
This is because when stress responses are activated, the body experiences a rise in its activation level and the parasympathetic nervous system gives way to the sympathetic nervous system, which predisposes the body to make great efforts to keep itself safe or to face a certain threat by producing hormones, enervation of large muscle groups and alteration of the physiological systems of the body’s functioning (cardiac, respiratory, circulatory, digestive, etc).
This is why stress symptoms can be made visible in each and every one of these systems. Stress, both in psychological and physical terms, is a great drain on the organism of those who experience it, and it is not uncommon to find people who are subjected to high levels of stress and who age prematurely, have alterations in the above-mentioned physiological systems, or even develop certain psychological disorders.
In other areas of the natural sciences such as biology or chemistry, the word stress is used as a synonym for the resistance of a natural agent to another external stress agent. The positive aspect of this whole issue is that in psychology we can intervene on the stressed agent to develop a more adaptive response to stress, which mitigates the consequences of its experimentation.
There is much talk about the importance of the work climate in preventing stress at work and reducing its effects. But… what exactly is the work climate?
The work climate has to do with several factors, among which we could highlight the culture of the organization, the style of leadership exercised by those in charge, the adequate delimitation of functions, communication and interpersonal relations of a formal and informal nature that take place among the workers, and even the motivational conditions of these workers, protected by an adequate human resources policy that favors the perception of equity in the organization as a whole.
There is also a lot of talk about good relationships between peers, and how these are able not only to prevent stress but also to reduce its intensity. In fact, peer problems are a stressor that should always be considered. Why do you think this is so important?
Well, in the end we are still a social species, for which it is vitally important to be able to develop support networks in which we can turn to in complicated moments, such as situations that usually generate stress.
If relationships in the workplace lack a solid foundation of interpersonal trust and stand out for their competitive nature, in sensitive times they will pose an additional threat that is likely to result in the worker experiencing higher levels of stress.
Here is the importance of creating a good team culture, which supports and knows how to deal with the different conflicts that may arise in high-pressure situations.
One of the most studied causes of stress at work in recent years is the relationship between employees and supervisors. How important is emotional leadership today?
Let’s see, one change we are currently going through as a generation is the shift from the industrial age or “old school” style of interprofessional relations to a “new age” style. The debate on this is not new, but the nature of jobs is constantly changing, and with it inevitably the way we relate to each other has to change as well.
More was better before, better doesn’t have to be more now. I mean, there’s been a qualitative change.
Where production used to be based on just that, getting more products in less time, we now find other sectors where greater care for people and attention to detail are needed.
Jobs that are more specific to the service sector or the knowledge sector, where human relations make the difference between companies and require greater delicacy and emotional management.
As tycoon Richard Branson says, “if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers”, and here the important thing is to know what precisely it is to take care of your employees.
At UPAD you are experts in personnel selection. Do you think that stress at work can be prevented by making a good selection process and choosing the most suitable candidate for the job and not just by taking into account the variables related to the tasks to be performed by the candidate?
Logically, selecting candidates who not only possess great professional skills, but also have an attitudinal component that is favourable to the development of teamwork or to a positive approach to this type of situation that can generate stress, can contribute to reducing its occurrence.
But it is very complex, due to our dynamic nature and the very dynamic nature of business challenges, to ensure that stress is prevented, as at any time objectives can change and become impossible. Or we ourselves may go through difficult moments on an emotional level because of other situations that may occur in our lives.
You often work with companies to improve the working climate within them. What strategies do you employ for your clients?
Fundamentally, the first thing to do in an organization that may require a change in that sense, as in any other area of psychology at the end of the day, is to begin by evaluating what are those factors that are currently having a negative impact on the perception of the working environment by the various workers who make up the organization.
It would be essential to start by applying some kind of questionnaire in that direction. Once those factors involved have been identified, we would need to make them aware, set some desirable objectives to be achieved and count on the collaboration and commitment of the workers and managers of the company to improve those aspects involved.
The interventions can be multiple, including the application of different techniques such as coaching (individual or team), group dynamics, training in certain key aspects, such as adequate interpersonal communication or, in more general terms, the creation of a new organizational culture in which the bases to be followed are identified, values with which to identify, and interrelationship policies that are adequate and publicly and positively recognized at the organizational level.