Dealing with stress at work

Do you have enough time in the day to get things done? Probably not. Too little time to complete tasks means you will be stressed, and when you’re stressed you can’t work efficiently. Obviously, stress and time are linked and it can become a vicious circle.

The most commonly accepted definition of stress is that stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise.”

The Stress Management Society recognises that there is an intertwined instinctive stress response to unexpected events. The stress response inside us is therefore part instinct and part to do with the way we think. 
Some of the early research on stress (conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932) established the existence of the well-known ‘fight-or-flight’ response. His work showed that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles.

They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. As well as this, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening events, but its not just life‑threatening events that can trigger this reaction. We experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected, or something that frustrates our goals. 
When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation.

Survival Mode
Unfortunately, this mobilisation of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This actually reduces our ability to work effectively with other people. With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. The intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments by drawing information from many sources. 
We find ourselves more accident‑prone and less able to make good decisions.

There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach. In the short term, we need to keep this fight‑or‑flight response  under control to be effective in our jobs. In the long term, we need to keep it under control to avoid problems of poor health and burnout.

Learning to de-stress
It is vital that individuals take some time out to avoid situations like these. So what’s our goal? To learn how to De-stress. To get there, you have to start thinking about how you spend your day, and as you can’t buy time, it has to be used wisely. In the meantime, here’s a guide,  followed by some relaxation techniques that can be done in as little as five minutes.

With the economy taking a battering, how are employees and entrepreneurs holding up? Not too well, according to Neil Shah from The Stress Management Society: “Workplace stress is on the increase during the credit crunch as people are decidedly nervous about their jobs in the foreseeable future.

‘At the Stress Management Society the last six months have been our busiest ever in terms of the number of enquiries we’ve had, both from individuals needing help and companies wanting to find support for their stressed staff.”

The current financial climate means that ‘luxuries’ like holidays or meals out are being cut from people’s budgets. Ironically these are often the very things that help us unwind and alleviate stress, thus compounding the problem. But is this a real cause for concern? Isn’t pressure just part of the job? Within reasonable boundaries pressure is actually a positive driving force that ensures we keep pushing to be the best we can be. However too much, and pressure turns to stress which leads to poor decision making in the short term, and poor health in the longer term.

Stress effects
Under stress, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode and in response it releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals to prepare the body for physical action.

This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions like digestion.

When a bridge is carrying too much weight, what is likely to happen? Common answers are: “It’s going to collapse”. Surely you would see the warning signs before this happens, wouldn’t you? The answer could go either way. Similarly, we as humans could be the bridge, with many tasks and stresses placed upon us.

Workplace stresses are solved using sophisticated mental and social skills. Having a body pumped full of adrenaline won’t help you if you’re worried about profits, office politics or a frozen PC. It will only make it more complicated to form a measured and appropriate response.  Workplace stress is a major problem for business. Not only does it affect productivity and morale, it’s the second biggest occupational health problem in the UK after back problems. It’s also something organisations should be tackling with urgency because as well as reducing productivity, it can lead to legal action.

Workplace triggers
In current market conditions, a big cause of stress is the threat of redundancy. In turn, this creates more pressure as people try to perform at top levels all the time. Yet at the very time they feel insecure about the future, they can’t discuss it easily because they don’t want to appear weak.

Other factors are unrealistic deadlines, heavy workloads, poor working conditions, unsupportive management or colleagues, and where people feel powerless over their working lives. This can lead to a whole host of symptoms, from feelings of anxiety or depression, loss of interest in work, tense muscles, disturbed sleep, tiredness or poor concentration to loss of sex drive.

At work, some might become more aggressive and confrontational and lack patience with colleagues or detailed tasks. Others might become withdrawn and non-communicative. However work habits almost certainly change, with people skipping breaks, working later or taking work home.

Further information
Launched in 2003, the Stress Management Society is a 
not‑for-profit organisation dedicated to help people tackle
stress at work and home. For more information on its
workshops, products and services visit