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What is stress?

Definition of stress
Stress can hit anyone at any level of the business and recent research shows that work related stress is widespread and is not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries. HSE’s formal definition of work related stress is:

“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”

Stress is not an illness – it is a state. However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop.

Well-designed, organised and managed work is generally good for us but when insufficient attention to job design, work organisation and management has taken place, it can result in Work related stress. Work related stress develops because a person is unable to cope with the demands being placed on them. Stress, including work related stress, can be a significant cause of illness and is known to be linked with high levels of sickness absence, staff turnover and other issues such as more errors.

There is a difference between pressure and stress. Pressure can be positive and a motivating factor, and is often essential in a job. It can help us achieve our goals and perform better. Stress occurs when this pressure becomes excessive. Stress is a natural reaction to too much pressure.

Balancing demands and pressures with skills and knowledge
A person experiences stress when they perceive that the demands of their work are greater than their ability to cope. Coping means balancing the demands and pressures placed on you (i.e. the job requirements) with your skills and knowledge (i.e. your capabilities). For example, if you give a member of your team a tight deadline on a project they feel they have neither the skills nor ability to do well, they may begin to feel undue pressure which could result in work related stress.

Stress can also result from having too few demands, as people will become bored, feel undervalued and lack recognition. If they feel they have little or no say over the work they do or how they do it, this may cause them stress.

Factors in stress
Stress affects people in different ways and what one person finds stressful can be normal to another. With each new situation a person will decide what the challenge is and whether they have the resources to cope. If they decide they don’t have the resources, they will begin to feel stressed. How they appraise the situation will depend on various factors, including:

  • their background and culture;
  • their skills and experience;
  • their personality;
  • their personal circumstances;
  • their individual characteristics;
  • their health status;
  • their ethnicity, gender, age or disability; and
  • other demands both in and outside work.

As a manager you have a duty to ensure that work does not make your team ill. Understanding how to spot the signs of stress in your team, and then know what to do to reduce stress, will help you achieve this.

“For me it was a new boss. I found myself crying ‘cos I couldn’t keep up suddenly. Stress is where you can’t cope, there’s too much and you don’t know what to focus on any more.” (Employee, London)

Causes of stress

What about stress at home?
HSE has identified six factors that can lead to work related stress if they are not managed properly.

Employees indicate that they are able to cope with the demands of their jobs.
Employees indicate that they are able to have a say about the way they do their work.
Employees indicate that they receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors.
Employees indicate that they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviours, e.g. bullying at work.
Employees indicate that they understand their role and responsibilities.
Employees indicate that the organisation engages them frequently when undergoing an organisational change.

It is important to understand each of the six factors and how they are related to each other, as this can influence the amount of stress an individual experiences:

  • A person can reduce the impact of high demands if they have high control over their work.
  • The impact of high demands and low control can be reduced by having high levels of support, either from colleagues or from you as a manager.
  • Relationships can be one of the biggest sources of stress, especially where there are problems like bullying and harassment.
  • Problems with role are probably the easier problems to solve.
  • Change does not have to be at an organisational level to have an impact on individuals or teams, for example, changes in team members, line managers or the type of work or technology used by the team can be just as stressful.

Understanding that these six factors can cause stress for employees can help employers and managers answer the questions:

  • Does my organisation or team have a problem with stress?
  • If ‘yes’, what do I need to do or change to reduce that stress?
  • If ‘no’ what do I need to do to prevent stress becoming a problem in the future?

In the Management Standards section of this website, we have identified good practice guidance for each of these factors which should encourage a proactive approach to preventing and managing stress in the workplace.


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