Understanding Allostatic Load: Navigating the Impact of Chronic Stress on Health in the Workplace

Stress is a double-edged sword. We need stress. It motivates us to get out of bed, hold good relationships, go to the gym, work hard in our careers, invest in our relationships. Stress quite literally keeps us alive. The problem is what used to be a mechanism for survival has over the years became something that instead of ensuring we thrive, debilitates us and can even be deadly.

We are in the midst of uncertain and rapidly changing times. With so much going on, recovering from a global pandemic, political unrest, financial uncertainty and not to mention our own individual challenges, is it no surprise overwhelm and anxiety is at all-time highs.

A term gaining great prominence in the field of stress research is Allostatic Load (AL). AL help us understand the physiological toll stress takes on our bodies and understanding how it works, helps us to ensure we are controlling stress to use it to our advantage and not letting our stress control us.

AL refers to the cumulative effects that chronic stress has on mental and physical health (graph 2). More simply, it refers to the ‘wear and tear’ on the body that life events and environmental stressors create. When events occur that exceed an individual’s capacity to cope, AL will also occur.

While stress is a natural response designed to keep us safe in dangerous situations, constant stress without adequate recovery can lead to a range of health issues. This concept goes beyond the immediate “fight or flight” response and encompasses the long-term impacts of stress on our overall wellbeing. Our bodies react to stress by triggering the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, over prolonged periods of time this can lead to inflammation and result in all forms of mental and physical health problems. In fact medical research estimates as much as 90% of all human illness and disease is stress-related (Salleh, 2008) and it has now been estimated that 60-80% of all visits to GPs are for stress related problems (Nerurkar et al., 2013). When the latest findings are released it is likely these numbers will be even more concerning.

Common stress sources that contribute to an increase in an individuals AL are:

1. Work-Related Stress:

The modern workplace, with its dynamic challenges and relentless expectations, can be a breeding ground for stress. Striving for excellence and navigating high-pressure environments can lead to the accumulation of stress that affects both our mental and physical health.

2. Mental and Emotional Stress:

The battles waged within the mind are often the most concealed yet profound sources of stress. Pressing responsibilities, unresolved conflicts, and self-imposed pressures can generate a constant undercurrent of stress.

3. Physical Stress:

While exercise is a pillar of good health, excessive physical strain without adequate recovery can tip the balance toward stress. Striving for fitness goals is commendable, but overtraining can lead to fatigue, weakened immunity, and increased susceptibility to injuries. Remember, exercise is only effective if you are able to recover effectively!

4. Relationship Stress:

Interpersonal relationships, while enriching our lives, can also be sources of stress. Miscommunications, conflicts, and unmet expectations can contribute to huge amounts of emotional strain.

5. Spiritual Stress:

In the pursuit of a meaningful life, spiritual disconnection or a lack of purpose can evoke a unique form of stress. Feeling adrift or disconnected from our values and beliefs can lead to existential unease.

6. Environmental Stress:

The modern environment, rife with pollutants and chemicals, presents a distinct kind of stress on our bodies. Our biology evolved in a different world, and exposure to countless synthetic compounds can disrupt our natural equilibrium. With so many of us now living in big cities and with diets high in ultra-processed foods we are susceptible to more enviro-toxins than ever.

7. The General Stress of Life:

Simply trying to find time to do everything, to keep those you care about happy, to find time for yourself, to pay the bills, to stay healthy and everything else we try and fit in causes a continuous source of stress. Quite often we are so busy operating in auto-pilot now we don’t take time to tune in and give awareness to this stress, until it gives us no choice.

As graph 1 shows, if we want to be ensuring peak performance (both at individual and organisational level) we don’t want to be avoiding stress, we want to be under just enough stress we are motivated and moving forwards. In order for this to occur though we need to psychologically be in a state where we feel we can handle stress effectively. From an organisational stand point there is a balancing act that needs to be addressed. Organisations need to primarily ensure they are meeting the basic needs of their employees, which will then result in the employee being able to operate stress effectively and perform optimally. Improving the output both of the individual and the business.

It is a complex topic with many factors then need consideration but a few of our favourite are below:

  • Culture. A positive and supportive organisational culture is key to striking the correct stress balance. When employees feel a sense of belonging, trust, and support, they are more likely to cope effectively with stressors. They are more likely to communicate when things become overwhelming. They are are also more likely to feel confident to take on challenges and risks, using stress to their advantage. All of these areas are crucial for lower absenteeism / presenteeism issues and improved productivity.

  • Education. Introduce stress management programmes that encompass mindfulness training, meditation sessions, and stress reduction workshops. These initiatives equip employees with practical tools to manage stress in real-time and cultivate resilience over the long term. Did you know there are 5 stages of Burnout? Recognising the first 4 makes avoiding habitual burnout a lot easier. Individuals needs to be aware of these things.

  • Development. Provide opportunities for skills development and career growth. Empowered employees who see a future within the organisation are more likely to manage stress effectively.

  • Leadership Support, Role Modelling and Effective Management: Encourage leadership to embrace wellbeing practices and lead by example. When employees witness their leaders prioritising their health, it fosters a culture of wellbeing. Continuously evaluate the effectiveness of your wellbeing strategies through surveys, feedback, and metrics. Adapt the programmes based on the evolving needs of your employees.

  • Effective management. Poor management is one of the biggest contributors to high stress and turnover. Establish transparent communication channels between employees and management. Open dialogue allows employees to voice concerns, reducing uncertainties that often contribute to stress. Employees having trust and feeling safe is crucial for communication being effective.

  • Flexible Work. Promote work-life balance by offering flexible work arrangements, remote work options, and reasonable workload distribution. This empowers employees to better manage their responsibilities, reducing the strain that often contributes to AL. Offer workshops in time management and priority setting to help teams organise tasks and prevent the accumulation of stress due to excessive workloads.

  • Support & Initiatives. Provide easy access to mental health resources such as counselling services, therapy, and mental health awareness campaigns. Normalising conversations around mental health can begin alleviate the emotional burdens of stress. Integrate physical wellness programmes, including fitness challenges, on-site workout facilities, and ergonomic assessments. Encouraging regular exercise and promoting healthy habits can counteract the physiological effects of stress.

  • Promotion of Social Connections. Foster a sense of community within the workplace through team-building activities, social events, and mentorship programmes. Strong social connections serve as buffers against stress. This also ties into flexible working arrangements and encouraging people to spend time doing what they love, with those they love to they can recharge their batters and perform at their best.

  • Incentives for Wellbeing Practices. Implement incentive programmes or partner with providers that reward employees for participating in wellness activities, encouraging their active engagement to prioritise their health. Often we see organisations offering a range of wellbeing partnerships but they are not being used by their teams. Listen to your teams needs and partner with companies wisely.

At HumanOS we built our services based on all the above – we deliver solutions to our clients that are tailored to their requirements and meet the needs of all the people. A proactive and relevant wellbeing strategy not only allows organisations to create environments that reduces stress but also promotes a culture of resilience and optimal performance.

Bianca, Co-Founder @ HumanOS 🌅

References:

  1. Juster, R. P., & McEwen, B. S. (2010). Stress and allostatic load: a significant link to psychopathology. Psychiatric Clinics, 33(3), 537-554.
  2. Ganzel, B. L., Kim, P., Glover, G. H., & Temple, E. (2008). Resilience after 9/11: multimodal neuroimaging evidence for stress-related change in the healthy adult brain. NeuroImage, 40(2), 788-795.
  3. McEwen, B. S. (2000). Allostasis and allostatic load: implications for neuropsychopharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology, 22(2), 108-124.
  4. *Nerurkar, A., Bitton, A., Davis, R.B., Phillips, R.S. and Yeh, G. (2013). When Physicians Counsel About Stress: Results of a National Study. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(1), p.76. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.480.*
  5. Salleh, M.R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences : MJMS, [online] 15(4), pp.9–18. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/.
  6. Seeman, T., Singer, B., Rowe, J., Horwitz, R., & McEwen, B. (1997). Price of adaptation—allostatic load and its health consequences: MacArthur studies of successful aging. Archives of Internal Medicine, 157(19), 2259-2268.