Photo credit (above): Martin Fisch | Flickr
On this important topic of overwork, stress, and death, I reached out to a remarkable woman I used to work with, Dr Laura Cordisco Tsai. She is currently an assistant professor at George Mason University, the United States, has studied in the illustrious Brown University and Columbia University, and has worked in several countries in Asia.
1. Thank you for your time, Laura. From your own personal experience and from your area of expertise, do you have advice on how to manage stress at the workplace?
An important first step is realising that everyone faces, and will always face, stress at work. There is no job in the world that is free from stress.
It is important to cultivate self-awareness, i.e. look for signs of stress within ourselves. Are we having difficulty sleeping or concentrating? Are we more irritable than usual?
Even though a person may be facing high demands in the workplace, it is nonetheless important to take time to care for oneself.
When your own needs are taken care of, you feel better, stronger and more resilient. You are also better equipped to cope with stress without becoming overwhelmed or doing something that you might later regret.
Emotional intelligence is another critical component of managing stress. When we’re stressed, we may send negative verbal or non-verbal messages to our colleagues that can come across the wrong way – possibly creating more stress, confusion and mistrust with others.
Learning how to manage our own emotions in the workplace and making sure that they do not spill over onto other people is an important step in ensuring a healthy work environment.
Conflict resolution, constructive communication, empathy for others, and remaining focused on the big picture are all important parts of making sure our stress doesn’t negatively affect others.
While there are many steps we can take to cope with stress, it is important to note that in some extreme cases, we may need to leave a job because the stress is excessive and is taking a toll on our health.
In these times, it is vital to listen to the input of our loved ones, as they may be able to see the toll a job is taking on us better than we can ourselves.
2. What is ‘compassion fatigue’? How can people identify it, and manage it?
Compassion fatigue refers to physical, emotional, and even spiritual exhaustion that impedes a person’s ability to experience joy and care for others.
It occurs when someone is regularly exposed to trauma in other people and/or when someone extends compassion and support to others for an extended period of time, but does not receive enough personal or professional support themselves to cope with it.
This results in a gradual breakdown of the person’s worldview and trust in other people. Exposure to trauma changes a person’s mindset and feelings about safety, intimacy, hope for the future, and the use of power.
Compassion fatigue has many symptoms which includes, but is not limited to:
- Physical health problems
- Feeling depleted
Such exhaustion is very common for people in helping professions, like medical professionals, social workers, clergies, and others.
It is very important to recognise that it is normal for these people. It is nothing to be ashamed of, or to blame oneself for, or to hide. You are not the only one feeling this way.
Coping with compassion fatigue is a two-way street – it includes the people who are experiencing it and their employers.
It is helpful for people who are at risk to compassion fatigue to educate themselves about its symptoms and monitor themselves.
This can be done by enlisting a support community, since it can be difficult to see these things within yourself. Regular self-care is also a critical component of coping with compassion fatigue.
However, at the same time, organisations/employers also have the responsibility to structure work in such a way as to minimise traumatic exposure to individuals and ensure that support systems are in place for people at risk to compassion fatigue.
3. How can we deal with grief at the workplace? As an example, I have spoken to associates who lost their entire US headquarters when the World Trade Center came down years ago. And more recently, we heard of colleagues of other companies lost in the downed Malaysia Airlines plane.
Although each person experiences loss and grief in different ways, there are some common symptoms of grief – sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, irritability, guilt, and depression.
Many people often develop physical symptoms as well, like insomnia, abdominal pains, headaches, increased alcohol use and poor concentration, among others.
All of these symptoms can interfere with a person’s ability to function at the workplace.
The grieving process can be prolonged if the person does not receive proper support.
When grief affects the entire workplace, it is important to give bereaved workers the opportunity to process their grief – ideally with the support of a trained grief counselor.
It can also be helpful to give the group collective ways to cope with their grief, such as creating a memorial board, paying tributes to those whose lives were lost, or collecting money for charitable donations.
Sometimes we encounter co-workers who have experienced a personal loss, but we do not know what to say or what to do. It is important to acknowledge the co-worker’s grief and express heartfelt sympathy.
Let the person grieve in his or her own way and avoid being judgmental of how the co-worker grieves, as each person copes differently.
Furthermore, make yourself available to listen to your grieving colleague repeatedly if he or she wants to share with you, but do not pressure someone to talk if they do not want to do so.
As important as it is to support them by offering a listening ear, try to refrain from offering advice or comforting words.
Also, refrain from sharing stories of your own losses, even if you have been impacted by the grief as well. The emphasis should simply be on listening to and showing compassion to the person who is closest to the loss.
It can be helpful to offer assistance with meals and other errands while also respecting your co-worker’s personal space if he or she desires privacy.
It is also crucial to be patient and realise that the healing process will take time. When someone experiences a trauma, he or she will never be exactly the same person again.
It’s not helpful to expect the person to return to being exactly how they were before. Instead, accept that they may be different moving forward as their life is different now as well.