What is stress?

Stress is seen as a blight to British industry, and while it is not a medical condition it can lead to all manner of health problems

Stress is often regarded as one of the major occupational diseases of the modern world. It annually accounts for millions of lost working days and costs the economy billions of pounds per year in lost productivity, sick pay and incapacity benefit.

But while stress is a word that’s bandied around from the boardroom to the shop floor, what exactly is it? The Health and Safety Executive’s definition of stress is a good starting point. It describes stress as “the adverse reaction people have towards excessive pressure, or other types of demand placed on them.”

Professor Iain Densten, professor of leadership and director of the Lancaster Leadership Centre at Lancaster University, explains that stress occurs as the result of being over-stimulated by external factors. “This can be positive and signal a need to grow but, if the stimuli become excessive, it can have very negative effects,” he adds.

It’s also a subjective condition as the same pressures won’t necessarily affect every employee in the same way. Dr Trevor Smith, clinical director at employee benefits consultants PMI Health Group, describes it as a breakdown in psychological coping mechanisms. “Two factors are at play; the amount of pressure and the individual’s susceptibility. Some people are mentally robust while others are quite fragile,” he explains.

And while stress itself isn’t a medical condition, it can lead to all manner of health problems. Physically it can cause headaches, sickness, insomnia, musculo-skeletal problems and palpitations. It is also connected to more serious conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and even cancer. Mentally it can lead to anxiety and depression.

A whole host of factors can contribute to stress (see box on page 10). These can be work-related, for example, a high workload or organisational politics, or result from personal problems such as the breakdown of a relationship, bereavement, moving house or financial worries.

Gill Weston, a psychobiologist and consultancy services manager from Bupa’s psychological services team, says that stress can also be caused by environmental pressures. “These can range from daily hassles such as the alarm clock not going off and problems with public transport through to someone’s physical health and life stage. For example, someone might find it harder to cope if they are unwell or if they are looking after a relative, perhaps a sick child or a parent going into nursing care,” she explains.

Our thought patterns can also determine the manner in which we deal with pressures. “How someone thinks about the pressure they’re under will be a contributory factor too,” adds Weston.

For example, high levels of debt are commonplace now but while some people will find it acceptable to be heavily indebted, others might feel there is a stigma attached to being in this state, which could cause them to become stressed.

However, it’s also important to recognise that the pressure that can lead to stress isn’t always a bad thing. Jacky Gould, training product manager at Employee Advisory Resource, says that employers must also be careful they don’t completely remove pressure from the workplace. She explains: “Pressure is what gives us a buzz and helps us achieve things. [But] recognising when pressure becomes excessive is key to safeguarding employees.”

Causes of work-related stress

Roffey Park’s annual survey of the issues facing managers, The management agenda, highlights the major causes of stress. The 2008 report found that two-thirds of managers experience stress as a result of work, with the following regarded as the most significant factors. In order of significance these are:

• Organisational politics†

• Increased workload†

• Management style†

• Poor communication†

• Lack of clarity concerning role†

• Length of working day†

• Lack of support†

• Pace and extent of change†

• Pressure to perform†

• Lack of control over how/when they work†

• Travel • Lack of challenge/boredom†

• Interpersonal relationships†

• Increased responsibility†

• Insecurity†

• Bullying

Symptoms of stress

Stress affects people in a variety of ways, with symptoms ranging from mild health problems through to life-threatening conditions. NHS Direct’s Health encyclopedia lists some of the ways stress can manifest itself:

• Nausea

• Indigestion

• Palpitations and chest pain

• Tiredness

• Dizziness and fainting

• Frequent crying

• Insomnia

• Excessive sweating

• High blood pressure

• Anxiety

• Depression

• Nervous twitches and muscle spasms

Back to ‘How to manage workplace stress’