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Stress in the workplace: what are the signs?

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    October 29, 2020

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    stress, stress management, workplace wellness, stress in the workplace

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Stress is a much discussed but often misunderstood word. We tend to think of it as something wholly negative; a word and an experience we should try to eliminate from our lives. It is generally talked about in conversation as a problem: we talk of feeling 'stressed' or 'stressed out', with a grimace or a frown. But stress is something that can be a positive in our lives and for those around us in the workplace. It can help us to perform at a high level, achieve our goals and be a source of motivation and success - if we accept it, embrace it, handle it and manage it.

The NHS describes stress as 'the body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure' and says 'it's very common, (and) can be motivating to help us achieve things in our daily life, and can help us meet the demands of home, work and family life.' 1

Like most things in life, moderation is the key. Stress can affect each of us in different ways, physically and emotionally, at home and at work. A little stress, in manageable amounts, with supportive structures and culture in place can make it just a normal part of working life. For employers and those who support employers, being on the look-out for signs of stress with their colleagues can help them to instigate actions or interventions and offer support before the stress turns into something less manageable and more serious.

In order to do that, it is probably helpful to make a distinction between low-level or 'good' stress and high-level, intense or 'bad' stress.


Good or low-level stress

Stress is something everyone feels at times and there are all kinds of stressful situations that can be a part of daily life. Low-level or normal, day to day, stress is a natural thing to feel and experience. It can be the result of a busy morning in the office, a cross word with a colleague or a loved one, or some difficulty in balancing home and work demands on any given day or over time. This kind of stress for most people will be episodic and will pass reasonably quickly, not having ongoing impact or hindering the individuals' ability to lead a full and effective life, whether at work or at home.

There are of course many sources of stress, including financial worries, and one person's low-level stress is someone's else high-level stress which can be debilitating. It is important therefore not to generalise about everyone's experiences but to be aware of the different triggers and signs of stress. National Stress Awareness Week provides all employers with an opportunity to raise the issue of stress at work and provide colleagues with a platform to discuss their own experiences and concerns and to access support available within their organisations and from partners.

Bad or high-level stress

In a 2018 survey, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation and conducted by YovGov of 4,619 people, 74% of UK adults felt so stressed at some point over the previous 12 months that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. At the time the survey was published, Mental Health Foundation Director, Isabella Goldie, said: "Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems." 2

Stress-workplaceThe survey went on to report that almost a third of people (32%) had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of stress and one sixth of respondents (16%) said they had self-harmed as a result of feelings of stress. 

These are alarming statistics and demonstrate the impact that 'bad' or intense stress can have on your workforce and colleagues. This is different from day-to-day, low-level stress and is likely to have more significant impact and be experienced for prolonged periods of time. This more intense stress is characterised, according the Mental Health Foundation, by:

  • feelings of constant worry or anxiety
  • feelings of being overwhelmed
  • difficulty concentrating
  • mood swings or changes in mood
  • irritability or having a short temper
  • difficulty relaxing
  • depression
  • low self-esteem
  • eating more or less than usual
  • changes in sleeping habits
  • using alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs to relax
  • aches and pains, particularly muscle tension
  • diarrhoea and constipation
  • feelings of nausea or dizziness
  • loss of sex drive. 3

During International Stress Awareness Week, employers may decide to give discussions about stress more airtime in meetings and around the office, asking colleagues to look out for these signs in the workplace, offering help to colleagues and encouraging them to ask questions and seek support. This sort of high-level stress will often lead to changes in people's behaviours, their demeanour, appearance and/or their level of engagement with discussions, work and conversations. The key red flag is to look out for significant changes in those with whom you work.

What impact has COVID had on our stress levels?

The 2018 survey tells a story which could apply in most years, but not of course in 2020, when we have experienced a new and terrifying source of stress in the form of the coronavirus. The Guardian recently reported on several pieces of research which pointed to a sharp uptick in levels of stress being reported in the UK, including in a major study, led by academics at the University of Nottingham. They looked at the mental health impact of the pandemic and found that in the early stages of lockdown 57% of those who took part reported symptoms of anxiety, with 64% recording common signs of depression. 4

The coronavirus pandemic has caused huge upheaval on society and in workplaces up and down the length and breadth of the country. It has also left many people feeling anxious, stressed, worried, sad, helpless, overwhelmed, confused or angry. It is a whole new source of stress for employers and those who support employers to be aware of and ready to help address within their organisations.

What you can do next?

If you want to hear more about the impact of stress in the workplace, especially in the age of COVID, and what you and your colleagues can do to support each other, look out for the second blog post on the subject next week which we have timed to mark the start of International Stress Awareness Week, in which we set out some tips, hints and strategies that could help.

You can also sign up to our Zoom webinar on Tuesday 3 November: Building a proactive wellbeing programme across the continuum – from wellbeing to treatment.

Register for the Webinar


1 - https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/stress/ 

2 - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/stressed-nation-74-uk-overwhelmed-or-unable-cope-some-point-past-year#:~:text=the%20past%20year-,Stressed%20nation%3A%2074%25%20of%20UK%20'overwhelmed%20or%20unable%20to,point%20in%20the%20past%20year&text=74%25%20of%20UK%20adults%20have,to%2067%20percent%20of%20men 

3 - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-manage-and-reduce-stress 

4 - https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/sep/16/stress-anxiety-and-depression-levels-soar-under-uk-covid-19-restrictions#:~:text=Stress%2C%20anxiety%20and%20depression%20levels%20soar%20under%20UK%20Covid%2D19%20restrictions,-This%20article%20is&text=Restrictions%20to%20curb%20the%20spread,re%2Dimposed%2C%20researchers%20say 

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