Workplace stress – a myth or reality

‘Workplace stress’ is a phrase frequently used to described the negative elements that can make our places of work unpleasant and difficult environments.

It may surprise many people to know that ‘stress’ is not a recognised psychological condition. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual or DSM as it’s referred to by psychologists and psychiatrists lists over 200 psychological conditions but ‘stress’ isn’t one of them!

Despite this, the words ‘work-related stress’ appear on countless GP’s sick notes every year.

The Labour Force Survey of 2013/14 recorded 11.3m days sickness absence from stress, anxiety and depression at an average of 23 days per case.

Stress is simply the body’s response to a threat or challenge, with the main psychological response being anxiety.

So does this mean that ‘anxiety’ is the condition causing all this sickness absence? The answer to that question is actually ‘no’; mild to moderate anxiety is a perfectly normal and healthy response to a threat or a challenge. Why? Because anxiety helps us to take action to avoid a negative consequence, and consequently can even improve our performance at work.

Imagine you have been asked to give a presentation to a group of senior people at work tomorrow. For many of us that would be perceived as stressful with images of us standing in front of senior work colleagues struggling to answer their questions, giving incorrect information and possibly freezing completely – thus causing us to feel anxious.

This is actually a very helpful response because it’s the anxiety that makes us prepare thoroughly, practise our delivery, get to the location early and do anything else deemed necessary to avoid the negative outcome we have imagined as a result of our anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t a problem; anxiety disorders are the problem and these fall into two categories:

  1. Chronic anxiety – we feel low-level constant anxiety that never seems to go away.
  2. Acute anxiety – we have high-level surges of anxiety such as a panic attack as a result of a specific trigger, for example a phobic reaction or post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are however three main sources of anxiety at work that could result in an anxiety disorder: work-load, changes at work and interpersonal relationship (THOR GP Report 2013). If employers made an effort to focus on these three areas then the number of sick days would reduce quite significantly.

Let’s take a balanced approach about stress in the workplace; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided we give our employees the support to become more resilient at dealing with it.

This article was written by Dr Rick Norris, chartered psychologist on behalf of MOHS and author of ‘Think Yourself Happy – The Simple 6-step Programme to Change your Life from Within.