Stress awareness

Stress awareness

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as: ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. Essentially it is when the demands put upon a person outweigh the level of control they feel to complete such demands.

This lack of control and uncertainty can sometimes become overwhelming and the impact of such excessive mental and emotional pressures, otherwise known as stress, on many people is becoming more prevalent and particularly so in the workplace.

In 2021 over 800,000 people suffered work-related stress, depression or anxiety and many of them reported their symptoms were either caused by or made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Symptoms of stress
Some amount of stress can be useful to aid productivity and motivation, giving us that extra nudge to complete an upcoming deadline. However, too much can create a huge strain on both the mind and body and it can manifest itself in a number of ways, causing more problems mentally and physically.

Common signs and symptoms of stress include headaches, muscle tension and stomach problems, as well as changes to behaviour such as becoming more irritable, sleeping less and eating more or less.

How to manage and reduce stress

Whether you are experiencing these symptoms or recognise them in someone you know it is important such thoughts and feelings are acknowledged in order to recognise when stress is causing us problems. At this point, identifying the root cause(s) can help provide clarity about what changes can be made to lessen some or all of the stress.

Feelings of a lack of control are understandable, particularly in the context of ongoing world events. Therefore it is really important to focus on what can be controlled by means of practical solutions.

There are also several, small lifestyle changes that can help protect you from stress: eating well, exercising regularly and adopting a healthy lifestyle are all proven practises to help overall wellbeing, but they can also help to protect against feelings of pressure and overwhelm.

It is also vital to make time for relaxation and create a restful environment for good-quality sleep.

Healthier workplaces can help
Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, mental ill health cost the UK economy over £34 billion each year, with the largest part of the cost caused by presenteeism – those who are working but are unwell, significantly reducing their ability to do their job effectively and creating potential physical health problems in the long term.

Although it may not be work-related stress causing people difficulties, workplaces can be a significant source of mental and emotional pressures.

Employers that commit to investing in workplace wellbeing, including mental health, are more likely to benefit from a healthier, happier and more present workforce as their employees feel more valued, motivated and productive.
Supporting line managers is essential
In a recent survey*, only half of employees across private and public sectors believe their organisation has been effective in tackling workplace stress or in identifying and managing the mental health risks arising from COVID-19. Less than a third believe that managers are confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.

However line managers are often the best people to notice when an employee is experiencing stress as they work closely with them and are aware of their usual patterns of behaviour and the way they work.

It is important line managers understand particular signs of stress and particularly what to do if they then suspect an employee is in need of support as it impacts the individual, the wider team and the line manager themselves.

Talking to reduce stigma
Often it is small but impactful changes that can help. For example, encouraging workers to talk to each other on a team and company-wide basis can help build relationships and inspire people to share their experiences and concerns. This can help to relieve some feelings of stigma around mental ill health, alleviate feelings of stress and increase self-confidence and overall job satisfaction.

Another way of ensuring people feel valued is to use the ‘Ask twice’ technique; ask a colleague how they are and more often than not you will be met with “I’m fine.” Asking the same question again can help to provoke meaningful conversations about how someone is truly feeling at that time.

Be kind to yourself
Being kind to ourselves and others is crucial in preserving mental health. Feeling worried and stressed is an entirely appropriate reaction to many life situations, including an ongoing pandemic. It is important to remember that having a bad day is a universal experience and there is no failure in feeling this way.

Being accepting and kind to ourselves can go a long way in alleviating some of the mental and emotional toll.


(*Health and Wellbeing at Work, 2021, CIPD and Simply Health)

Sources: Health and Safety Executive (2022); Office for National Statistics (2021); CIPD (2021); Mental Health Foundation (2022)