What is work-related Stress?

The HSE defines stress as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them".

Pressure is part and parcel of all work and helps to keep workers and managers motivated. It is excessive or uncontrolled pressure which can lead to stress which undermines performance, is costly to employers and above all can make people ill. Stress is therefore a response to pressure. To some degree pressure can be beneficial, when it inspires motivation and commitment, but excessive pressure becomes stress which is harmful and can lead to major illness, even death. There is no such thing as 'good' stress.

The effects of stress can lead to physical symptoms of ill health, such as heart disease, as well as longer term psychological damage. Many of the early outward signs will be noticeable to managers and work colleagues and should alert those with significant control and responsibility for workplaces to problems within the organisation. They include:

  • Changes in behaviour
  • Unusual tearfulness, irritability or aggression
  • Indecisiveness
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Reduced performance, e.g. inability to concentrate
  • Overworking or failure to delegate
  • Erosion of self-confidence
  • Relationship problems, e.g. becoming withdrawn or argumentative
  • Increased unwillingness to co-operate or accept advice
  • Excessive smoking or drinking
  • Drug abuse 

The victim may also complain of or demonstrate symptoms of:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Headaches
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Indigestion
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased heart rate

Work-related stress is the result of a conflict between the role and needs of an individual employee and the demands of the workplace. Physiologically we are programmed to deal with threatening situations by producing more adrenaline which increases heart-rate and puts our bodies into a state of arousal, 'the fight or flight' reaction. This response is only intended to be short-term. The effect of excessive pressure is to keep the body constantly in such a state, which leads to the harmful signs and symptoms including those listed above.

Research has shown that feeling stressed at work is not confined to particular occupations or levels within organisations. Workers with management responsibilities also show stress symptoms. Different individuals may react differently to stress and the same person may react differently to stress at different times. A survey undertaken by the HSE in 1995 suggested that over half a million people believed they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, or some physical illness resulting from stress, caused or made worse by their work.

Personal Life

The impact of pressures within personal life cannot be ignored. Whilst the employer cannot be held directly responsible for them, these factors play an integral part in work performance.

Work-stresses go home with the worker. Home-stresses come to work with the worker.

Grieving, divorce, family upset, moving home, serious family illnesses, pregnancy, miscarriage and other very personal factors all affect a person's ability to perform to expectation.

Good employers and managers will recognise this and take appropriate supportive action.

Next: The Causes of Work-Related Stress