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Increased Work-Related Stress; Declined Individual’s Mental Health

Stress can be invigorating or debilitating depending on when, where, how much and how pressure reaches us and how we receive the pressure.  Stress is the “wear and tear” our bodies experience as we adjust to our continually changing environment; it has physical and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings. 
Stress is defined as a persons physiological response to an external stimulus that triggers the fight-or-flight reaction.  Discovering and developing ways to better handle sources of stress is key to enabling you to reduce the stress itself.  The key to stress transformation is identifying strategies that will excite you as an individual.
Before we proceed further, do take a simple test below to assess your current stress level.  The Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (“DASS”) is a 21-item self-report instrument designed to measure an individual’s emotional well-being in three aspects, namely depression, anxiety and stress.  The Stress Scale is sensitive to levels of chronic non-specific arousal.  It assesses difficulty relaxing, nervous arousal, and being easily upset/agitated, irritable/over-reactive and impatient (Lovibond, & Lovibond, 1995). 
In this article, we will focus on just seven items measuring stress.
Please read each statement and mark the number (0, 1, 2 or 3) which indicates how much the statement applied to you over the past week.  There are no right or wrong answers.  Do not spend too much time on any statement.
  • 0 : Did not apply to me at all - NEVER
  • 1 : Applied to me to some degree, or some of the time - SOMETIMES
  • 2 : Applied to me to a considerable degree, or a good part of the time - OFTEN
  • 3 : Applied to me very much, or most of the time - ALMOST ALWAYS
No Item Never
Almost Always
I found it hard to wind down.        
I tended to overreact to situations.        
I felt that I was using a lot of nervous energy.        
I found myself getting agitated.        
I found it difficult to relax.        
I was intolerant of anything that kept me from getting on with what I was doing.        
I felt that I was rather touchy.        
Total scores of 7 items  
Score interpretation:
·      Scores of 0 to 7 indicated a normal stress level
·      Scores of 8 to 9 indicated a mild stress level
·      Scores of 10 to 13 indicated a moderate stress level
·      Scores of 14 to 17 indicated a severe stress level, and 
·      Scores of 18 and above indicated extremely severe stress levels. 
This simple assessment helps to determine the levels of stress you currently experience and if the scores are beyond seven, then it could be a concern you would like to manage before it escalates further. 
There are many stressors in life, especially after the world has been greatly affected by COVID-19.  Two main stressors are personal stressors (eg struggles with a loved one, financial difficulties, a lack of space supports, a newborn or ill family member) and work stressors (eg an excessive workload, unclear expectations, limited opportunities, lack of empowerment at work, insecurity at work).  Work plays a main role in our life and it often defines who we are.  Work-related stress often spreads to an individual’s personal life and may cause domestic family violence, breakout or divorce.  Perceived high work-related stress was also predictive of low job satisfaction (Reilly, Dhingra, & Boduszek, 2014).
Role overload, lifestyle changes, occupational discomfort, family distraction, occupational discomfort, and distress are significant in impacting job performance, with distress being the most significant (Kumar, Kumar, Aggarwal, & Yeap, 2021).  When one’s work-related stress becomes prolonged and chronic, it can be overwhelming and harmful to both the individual and the organization.  Employee work-related stress will affect both the individual’s physical and mental health and thus disturb the individual’s work-life balance as well as their work performance. 
Three out of ten Malaysians reported extreme stress in the 2015 Malaysia National Health and Morbidity Survey and the 2019 Malaysia National Health and Morbidity Survey revealed that one in three  Malaysians struggle with mental health conditions.  The latest statistic on Malaysians' mental health status living with the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to be published.  However, given that COVID-19 has caused economic havoc and socioeconomic distress followed by mass unemployment in the past few years, the number for the year 2022 may be way higher than in 2015 and 2019.   
Recognising stressors is the first step to maintaining our wellbeing.  In Malaysia, we often face a range of stressors and concerns, yet we were discouraged from seeking help for these mental health concerns.  These stressors are ignored or denied and eventually this leads to prolonged mental and physical illness and burnout and may result in high employee turnover in an organization.  Stress also often leads to poor mental health.  Individuals experience symptoms such as low productivity and low job satisfaction which lead to high absenteeism and high turnover rates.  Acknowledging that we are stressed and at the edge of burnout is a taboo topic in many cultures or communities, and thus the opportunity to openly discuss and admit to having mental health problems as well as seek professional help is insufficiently explored.  62% of Malaysians when interviewed said that “If I suffer from mental health problems, I would not want people to know.”  (Chua, 2020).  This stigma has dissuaded Malaysians from seeking professional services and assistance. 
Accepting the fact that you are stressed is not embarrassing.  It is honourable to know your limits and accept your current state of mind as it allows you to reach out for assistance.  The Counselling Services Programme (“CSP”) made available by the Members of the Malaysian Bar, and Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia (“LKM”) could be the go-to option for you.  The CSP allows any registered member of the Malaysian Bar to receive up to five professional counselling sessions offered by the legitimately registered counsellors from LKM at no cost. 
You may select and make an appointment — face to face or virtually — with any one of the 44 registered counsellors listed as panel counsellors from the Malaysian Bar directory.   
The process is relatively simple:
  1. Select and approach a registered counsellor under the Malaysian Bar directory;
  2. Email the identified registered counsellor and solicit an appointment;
  3. The session could be either face to face, online or mixed;
  4. Attend the session(s);
  5. Discuss the presenting issues or stressors; and  
  6. Work together with the registered counsellor – he/she is a partner in your journey of wellbeing.

The contents of the discussion is kept confidential between you and your registered counsellor.  However, if any one of the three circumstances listed below occur, then confidentiality may be breached. 
The registered counsellor may breach confidentiality if they have sufficient grounds to believe that: 
  1. a crime (criminal offence) has been committed or shall be committed; 
  2. your life is in danger; and/or 
  3. someone else's life is in danger.
Could I manage my stress without professional help?
Definitely!  A study by Pierson, Hamilton & Pepper (2017) among 530 law students revealed that although there are no demographic factors correlated to stress hardiness, three behaviours — maintaining a sense of control, a sense of purpose, and cognitive flexibility — show a significant correlation to stress hardiness.  In the context of Malaysia, the type of stress lawyers experience varies by practice area.  Unfortunately, we can't cover all the different types of stress.  However, as a general guideline, you may adopt the approach below when you are feeling stressed.
  1. Self-assessment — You can assess yourself by performing the DASS self test above occasionally.  Self-check for early detection.
  2. Listen – Listen to your body, your friends, and the family around you.  You may feel burnout, have difficulty focusing, and feel overwhelmed, and people around you may say this to you: “Slow down and take care of yourself”.  When you are feeling depressed, anxious or stressed, you may experience these physical symptoms: difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, headache, heartburn, stomach pains, gain or loss of weight, teeth grinding, addiction to alcohol or tobacco and feeling sleepy at all times.  If it is this severe, slow down.
  3. Take time to recharge — As old-fashioned as it may sound, having something you like or doing something you enjoy is a great stress reliever.  It could begin with 10 minutes of Me Time, 15 minutes of exercise or 20 mins of doing nothing but just breathing. 
  4. Manage your irrational thoughts — “I can’t be absent from work”, “I should appear fit as it indicates I am competent and capable at handling my jobs”, “My clients need me”.  Put behind the “can’t, should or ought to”.  You can only take care of others when you take care of yourself. 
Work-related stress affects all of us.  Listen to your body and all the internal alarm bells.  The resources are there.  You do not need to be alone in this journey.  Find a stress-related management programme or a person who you could partner with to regain control in your journey of well-being.
About Pei Boon, Ooi
Dr Ooi Pei Boon obtained her PhD in Guidance and Counselling from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM).  Being a registered practitioner counsellor with the Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia (LKM), Dr Ooi’s passion has been always about making a difference in individual lives.  Together with Malaysian Bar and LKM, Dr Ooi is one of the panel members providing counselling services to the community of Malaysian Bar with a focus on cyberbullying, mental health, liveable workplace and wellbeing.  

Chua, S.N. (2020). Workplace mental health: The business costs. Relate Mental Health Malaysia. 978-967-19054
Institute of Public Health, Ministry of Health Malaysia (2015). Malaysia National Health and Morbidity Survey. 
Institute of Public Health, Ministry of Health Malaysia (2019).  Malaysia National Health and Morbidity Survey. 
Kumar, P., Kumar, N., Aggarwal, P., & Yeap, J. A. (2021). Working in lockdown: the relationship between COVID-19 induced work stressors, job performance, distress, and life satisfaction. Current Psychology40(12), 6308-6323.
Lovibond, S.H. & Lovibond, P.F. (1995).  Manual for the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales(2nd. Ed.) Sydney: Psychology Foundation.  ISBN 7334-1423-0.
Reilly, E., Dhingra, K., & Boduszek, D. (2014). Teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs, self-esteem, and job stress as determinants of job satisfaction. International Journal of Educational Management.
Pierson, P. B., Hamilton, A., Pepper, M., & Root, M. (2017). Stress hardiness and lawyers. J. Legal Prof.42, 1.