Erasmus University is a place where ambition plays a large role, as told by Roos Schelvis, policy advisor for Healthy and Safe work. “The bar is set quite high and that attracts people to whom this is appealing. Ambitious professionals who want to deliver high quality work.” We ask a lot of employees. There is a thin line between the moment that workload challenges us in a positive way and through which we experience a kind of ‘flow’ and the moment that it exhausts us. “It is about finding a balance between what is being asked and what the possibilities are to meet these expectations”, as explained by OpenUp work and organizational psychologist Myrthe.
When the balance between demand and capacity is disturbed, workload comes in. In the long term, workload will come at the expense of the quality of your work. This can also impact your private life. Therefore, dealing with workload and disbalance is important. “In the end, you want to prevent workload, especially because it can lead to work stress. Precisely because of that reason, it is important to keep an eye on how you are feeling in your current circumstances”, as Myrthe explains. “Having an insight in causes and symptoms, will help prevent it in the future”.
Different forms of workload
Workload comes in many forms. Too many tasks and responsibilities, a high degree of complexity in your work or unclear expectations. Workload does not always have to be related to the content of your work, but could also be related to the context, like reorganisations, insecurities, conflicts or demanding clients. Insufficient time to recover, like not having enough breaks or holidays, can also influence your workload. Societal and social pressure can play a role as well. “I often hear people say that they are ‘busy busy busy’, something to which others respond positively. As if being busy is equal to being ‘good’ or ‘successful’. This might be so, but it is important to realize that this is different for every individual”, as Myrthe explains.
Problems and signals that could indicate workload can be divided into four groups. “You can experience physical complaints, like fatigue, a lower functioning immune system, trouble falling asleep, or headaches or neck pain. Psychological complaints can cause you to feel anxious, become irritable, ruminate, and be triggered emotionally more easily. Your behaviour can also change, you can for example become quickly angry, find it difficult to take decisions, or feel restless. Fourth, your thoughts can cause you to have trouble concentrating, become forgetful and experience a kind of haze in your head.
How do I actually feel?
Work stress often does not only express itself physically, it is a combination of factors as explained by Myrthe. “To prevent stress or reduce it, it is important to take a moment to realize how you are doing; how you are feeling. What is happening in my body? Am I able to think straight? Do I feel fit?” The difficult part of this is that workload and work stress come with a feeling that you are lagging behind. Feeling you are not able to meet the requirements or goals. “In such a situation it is difficult to take a step back, to see from a distance how you are doing and to think about what this situation is asking from you. A conversation with an
OpenUp psychologist can help you with this.”
We are living in a society in which a lot of attention goes to efficiency and speed, doing more work in a shorter period of time. “But after a period of effort and speeding up, a phase of relaxation and slowing down is needed”, according to Myrthe. “The truth is that we need recovery time. If we ignore this, symptoms of workload and work stress can get worse.”
Preferably, you want to prevent work stress. That is why it is important to tackle the causes of it, like workload; an opinion shared by Roos. “And not only on an individual level, but also in different contexts. In teams and per faculty. We aim for a layered approach, and aim to start with a process to map out which solutions are needed at which levels. The organisation as a whole needs to change things, that recognition has arrived.” At the same time we need to make sure that people who have already developed mental health complaints are being helped, Roos explains. “A conversation with OpenUp can help with this.”
Reflecting and evaluating
A moment of reflection with an OpenUp psychologist can be very helpful. A psychologist looks at your situation from an independent perspective. Many people relate a psychologist to complex mental health problems, but this does not have to be the case, according to Myrthe. “A psychologist can help you to take a look at the balance in your life. Which things or activities cost energy and which bring you energy? Are you doing things that you find important? Do all your tasks belong to your position? Or are you allowed to say ‘no’ more often, when you receive a request?”
A psychologist can also help you to gain insight into things that you lost grip on and can help you see your blind spots. “If you know what helps you charge your battery, like going for a walk, this can further help you to deal with stress”, according to Myrthe. Roos also believes that being able to reflect is an important skill of a modern professional. “Doing this together with a psychologist is like a MOT inspection for your mind.” Myrthe fully agrees with this. “The sessions can be coach-like and work preventively. And besides, it is sometimes nice to get that little push from someone, for example when a difficult situation arises. You can look at it as a sparring partner.”
Noticing and preventing
If you want to prevent work stress, it is helpful to know yourself. To know what you need. “Where one person likes unpredictability, another likes overview and control. In the end you need to ask yourself: does this strategy work for me within this context, or do I need to tweak something? Continuously asking yourself: am I doing this the right way?”
Myrthe has a few tips about how to go at this. “Look for a balance between effort and relaxation. Stress is not bad per se, it helps you to perform. Thus whenever you recover well from it, it can be valuable. However, when stress is there too long and too often, moments of recovery will be lacking and it will pile up. Look for things that make you feel relaxed, that help charge your battery.” Besides, try to get a grasp of where your stress is coming from. Is it a situation at work, a colleague or something in your private life? “When you know where it is coming from, it is easier to determine how you can do something about it.”
Finally, the well known advice of sleeping well, healthy nutrition and exercise need to be mentioned: this is of interest to everyone. However, as Myrthe emphasizes, the experience of workload and work stress is different for every individual. “Therefore, it is important to look at your personal situation and style with a psychologist. In the end, you don’t want to only be applying plasters, you want to tackle the cause.”