We often associate stress with the workplace, but researchers are discovering more often now we’re finding our stress levels rising at home instead. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research is studying why that is and how we can make home and work, a little more peaceful.Dr. Scott Schieman, a CIHR-funded researcher and University of Toronto sociology professor, is one of those working to bring clarity to the issue. He says, as we’ve heard before, that technology plays a major role in our struggle to de-stress.
“I think one main issue is that many of us bring work home or work contacts us outside regular work hours,” Schieman said. “This kind of role blurring is a major factor.”
Demands and responsibilities at home like caring for young children or elderly parents deepen the strain on our time, he noted. Being able to access your email on your phone means you can feel like you’re always on the clock, but how do you say no?
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“I think one way is to try to clearly communicate expectations about afterhours email,” Schieman said. “Work will reach in to home if you allow it. Unfortunately, the level of control over this process isn’t always there.”
In an article for The Globe and Mail last month, “It’s no catch-22: Here’s why you love (and hate) work,” Schieman discussed how stress levels rise at home versus work. He says he was surprised by a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, “Has Work Replaced Home as a Haven?”
The study found that “workers experienced higher hormone cortisol levels – a biological indicator of stress – when they were at home compared to when they were at work.”
He also quoted his 2011 Canadian Work Stress and Health study where approximately one-third of Canadian workers said “they feel overwhelmed by work or that the demands of their job exceed the time to do the work often or very often. Four in 10 report having to work on too many tasks at the same time often or very often.”
He says it’s important to be clear about the temporal and physical boundaries of work and home. Even thinking about work afterhours can increase stress if your workload has been taxing. He suggests we should have a clear sense of when and why you’re thinking about work, when you don’t need to be.
“The challenge is to understand the fallout and minimize it,” Schieman said. “Usually this involves open communication with the key people in both home and work roles.”
More access to technology means more people working remotely and higher expectations to be available 24/7. Ironically enough, Schieman was answering his emails while on vacation this week.
Despite the growing demands, he says it’s important to learn proper stress management, as stress can take a huge toll on our health and relationships.
Not all stress is bad though. A little bit of “healthy” or manageable stress is what can power you through a busy afternoon, without damaging your overall wellbeing.
“The threshold might vary for people, but most people describe heavy stress as a burden or load that exceeds some capacity to cope.”
Some of the symptoms of excessive stress include depression, anxiety, anger, irritability and difficulty sleeping.
Mary Wilhelm, executive director of the Woolwich Counselling Centre, says there are two types of stress: manageable and critical. Manageable stress comes from the everyday events like scheduling chores and driving kids to and from activities. Critical stress is often unexpected, like the death of a spouse, a job loss, or divorce.
“Most folks can handle one or two of those major stressors, but when you start tipping over into three or four in one year then you’ll need some help, problem-solving, coping, and probably coming in and talking to a professional,” Wilhelm said.
She preaches planning to her clients, to ease the stress. This includes planning the kids’ activities, when your spouse is out of town, and when you’ll have your down time. She advises planning time to yourself at least two or three times a week.
Carrying stress over from work to home can lead to worse problems when combined with critical stressors.
“If you let this go and you’re coping with the normal hum of stress and you get one or two of these critical types of events happen in your life, the main thing we find is people aren’t sleeping right,” Wilhelm said. “They’re either not getting enough sleep and they’re sleep deprived and you’re finding you’re more emotional, and it’s adding to the whirlwind of stress. And then you might not be eating right.”
This can spiral into anxiety disorders where people might need medication, cognitive behaviour work, and talk therapy. Wilhelm notes medication is often just used to help someone get sleeping again and feeling semi-normal so the talk therapy is useful.
“You know you’re managing it if you’re able to have days where you’re pretty on top of it and other days where you feel you’re sinking a bit and are overwhelmed, but nothing you can’t fix and work out and the next day feel like you’re on top of it again,” Wilhelm said.
She says she’s one of those people who’s worked right through her holidays, in large part because she didn’t want to be hit with a mass of emails when she returned.
“When you do come back is there anything critical you need to do right away? Do it. All the rest, take your time in doing it.”