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It's official: Most of us are feeling stressed at work these days. Worse, we're having trouble coping.

More than half of workers polled by The Globe and Mail in an extensive, year-long-running online survey said they felt overwhelmed trying to balance the heavy demands of work with their personal lives, a situation many respondents said had caused them to feel ill and miss work.

Fifty-nine per cent of the 7,300 respondents to the Your Life at Work survey, launched last February by Globe Careers and Howatt HR Consulting, reported feeling stressed and on edge, and said they felt unable to manage the pressures of their work and private lives.

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Of the respondents, 67 per cent said their current job expectations are too demanding, 60 per cent reported little trust between employees and management at their workplace, and 56 per cent said their workplace culture isn't positive.

The survey, comprising more than 80 questions, found that those who said they felt the most stressed also indicated they did not have strong coping skills to help them manage such pressure. Stressed workers said they were less engaged at work, and that they put in less effort, hurting their productivity. They also called in sick more often, or went to work feeling ill.

Stressed staff were also more likely to deal with the pressure in harmful ways, such as overeating, drinking alcohol, gambling or using illegal drugs. They reported more health problems and were more likely to be overweight.

On the flip side, those who felt their stress was under control showed they had stronger coping skills, were more engaged in their work, felt more fulfilled, were more productive, and had fewer health issues.

Bill Howatt, president of Howatt HR Consulting in Kentville, N.S., said he was surprised by the sheer number of people who felt stressed and "were clearly struggling and were looking for answers.

"People are looking for help to improve their coping skills," he said in an interview.

While society emphasizes being physically fit and healthy, "we have not spent any time teaching people how to make decisions and solve problems," he said. "We've not taught psychological fitness."

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Those who took the Your Life at Work survey were given a Quality of Work Life (QWL) score that placed them in one of five categories: Those with the least amount of stress fell into the Calm category, followed by Okay; Frustrated; On the Edge; and Losing It – those who reported the highest stress levels.

In the Calm category, there were 744 respondents, and this is what their profile looked like:

  • 26 per cent were senior managers or executives,
  • 85 per cent had a university degree
  • 52 per cent had an annual income of $79,000 or more
  • 96 per cent said they put 80 per cent or more effort into their job each day
  • 7 per cent said they had no job flexibility
  • 2 per cent reported they suffered from a mental health issue
  • 16 per cent said they called in sick more than four days a year
  • 27 per cent said they would come to work even when feeling ill more than twice a year.

In comparison, the Losing It group – the most highly stressed workers – had 1,794 respondents, and this is what their profile looked like:

  • 9 per cent were senior managers or executives
  • 75 per cent had a university degree or higher
  • 40 per cent made $79,000 or more annually
  • 52 per cent said they put in 80 per cent or more effort into their job each day
  • 24 per cent said they had no job flexibility
  • 4 per cent reported they suffered from a mental health issue
  • 48 per cent said they called in sick more than four days a year
  • 80 per cent said they would come to work even when feeling ill more than twice a year.

This group found their work stressful, said the expectations of their employers were too demanding, that they didn't have the tools to do their job, that they weren't a good fit for their role, and their work culture wasn't positive.

They were also more likely to say that work was having a negative impact on their family life and their health, that they had trouble leaving work at work, had difficulty sleeping and suffered from headaches. They were also more likely to say they worried a lot, and weren't able to bounce back after a tough day at work. The majority of this group said they'd leave their organization if they could and felt they did not get adequate feedback on their performance.

It's not surprising that an individual's coping skills are a major factor in their happiness and productivity, said Dr. Matthew Burnstein, a Toronto-based family physician and occupational health consultant who previously worked with Bell Aliant in Atlantic Canada.

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Relentless stress wears on people, and over time can lead to an array of physical and mental health problems including obesity, diabetes, anxiety and depression, which can mean higher health costs for companies, he said.

Many employers don't want to acknowledge an individual's health problems, and often wait for an employee to have a crisis before offering services through employee assistance plans. But progressive companies and health insurers are teaching managers to recognize when an employee is struggling and to get them help, such as training employees to develop coping skills, before a problem becomes unmanageable.

"There's a movement in that direction," he said. "But at the end of the day, an individual needs to want to change their behaviour and needs to recognize that part of the responsibility falls on their shoulders to improve their coping skills."

Read Tavia Grant's story on the issue of work, stress and mental health, sparked by our survey. Take The Globe's Your Life at Work survey, find the full results of the 2014 survey and look at all our resources online at tgam.ca/yourlifeatwork.

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