Personal stress and the workplace

It might come as a surprise that for some people work is a refuge from the worries, stresses and conflicts of their personal lives. And trust me there are a huge number of ‘refugees’ at work on any given day of the week. This is no new phenomenon and for some of you it might even ring true on a personal level. So what’s the big deal if this is nothing new? It becomes a big deal, a huge concern even, when work is no longer a refuge and becomes a part of the problem for the ‘refugee’.

The refugee phenomenon

In my line of work, I see many people that use work as a refuge from the rest of their lives. I first came across this ‘work refugee’ phenomenon when working as a Human Resources Manager in a large government agency. Quite often most people do not inform their manager or even their work colleagues that they are in terrible home situations. If they do tell someone at work they usually swear the other person to absolute secrecy. They may come to work early with a smile on their face, work hard, either laugh a lot or keep to themselves and stay back to always finish that last piece of work.

Still no problem here, right? Who wouldn’t want a hard working employee that comes to work early and leaves a little late because they love their job so much?

No excuses for bad behaviour

As a coach I am in a very privileged position. I get to hear the terrible situations that people are in and offer ways to guide them through these situations. As a Human Resource Manager, one that was trusted very much, I got to hear the stories of people’s lives outside of work. Unfortunately, I usually got to hear these very important stories when there was a reason to go questioning the behaviour of the individual. Now some people may think that I am about to offer excuses for people’s behaviour and you couldn’t be further from the truth.

What I am offering is a way to reduce workplace conflict. To raise the awareness that for some people coming to work is a means of safety. Take for example the lady who disclosed to me that she was in a highly abusive home situation, living with her brother and sister-in-law. The brother worked away and each time that he left, the sister-in-law would throw all this ladies clothes out the house and on one occasion threatened her with a knife. Coming to work everyday for her was a blessing as the sister-in-law didn’t work, didn’t need to work and was never going to work.

Now the obvious question that begs asking is, “Why didn’t the lady just leave and go and live somewhere else?”

Life’s no easy journey

Well, to say ‘it’s complicated’ is an understatement and really no need to go into here. What’s important to note here, is that no-one at work knew this about this young lady. Work was her refuge. Time and time again I come across situations where people are living in situations that are not productive to positive human relationships or are simply going through very difficult situations.

Take for example the man I found using my office phone. I walked into my office and an employee that I knew well, was using my phone with the door closed. Not wanting to be rude, I backed out of my office and waited for him to be finished. He then called me in, shut the door and explained with tears in his eyes, that he was asked to call his mother’s doctor and was informed by the doctor that his mother was dying of cancer and only had a few months to live. He asked me not to tell anyone as he didn’t want people feeling sorry for him. He explained that he had been under an enormous amount of stress lately due to the failing health of his mother. Work, he said, was a place he could come to get away from it all and have some normality in his day.

Change: the only constant

Still no problem here right? Now, let’s throw in something completely normal for the workplace. Change. Sometimes change can be a good thing and depending upon who you are, what you’re going through and where you are in your life’s journey, change can cause great distress!

Imagine the two previous mentioned people coming to work and being informed that there is going to be a restructure, for example. What kind of reaction do you think this news would invoke in a person who saw work as a refuge? In some people, and I would argue that in most people, change produces a fear reaction in the brain because change is an unknown. This is why during periods of organisational change you see increases in conflict, resistance to the change process, under-mining of authority and all the usual suspects of negative behaviour in organisations.

Imagine if life is already hard, stressful or downright terrible and your only place of safety or normality is about to change into something unknown. How would you react? What would you need from those in charge to help you journey through the change? In most instances what people need is reassurance and the way to reassure people is to speak to them and find out what their fears are and address them as best as possible and as early as possible.

Written by Allan. Posted in Workplace & Personal Relationships

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Hi, I'm Allan, the Director of Beyond IQ Pty Ltd. My goal is to provide you with insightful and thought provoking material. I hope to inspire you to start or join the discussion below and to keep coming back. I believe that conversation will inevitably lead to a greater truth, and I want you to be a part of it. Get to know me a little better. Find me on Facebook, add me to your circle on Google+ or join my professional network on LinkedIn

Comments (2)

  • Deb Faulkner
    December 9, 2010 at 8:22 am |

    I agree about change producing a fear reaction in the brain. People will of course react differently, depending on their individual backgrounds, situations, and the way the news is delivered, but in general, uncertainty is associated with increased activity in the amygdala (part of the network of brain regions implicated in the fear response; for a review see Davis & Whalen, 2001). And of course, emotional responses affect not only a person’s behaviour, but also their cognition, for example, it’s difficult to “put the brakes on” when you are feeling highly emotional (maybe a topic for a future blog?). So delivering any emotional news can elicit a range of responses from people. I think what I’d need in that situation is a very sensitive and responsive ear.

    I do think we could all do with being more sensitive to the people we work with. How well do we know really our colleagues? How often do we stop to take the time to listen?

    Davis, M and Whalen, PJ (2001). The amygdala: vigilance and emotion. Molecular Psychiatry, 6, 13-34.

  • Allan Adams
    December 15, 2010 at 9:19 am |

    In our Beyond IQ seminars we get people to realise how little they know their work colleagues. It’s amazing to see the difference in how people relate to each other when they see how ‘human’ others are.

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