Stress in the Workplace

See also: Workplace Bullying

In many countries, employers have a legal responsibility to recognise and deal with stress in the workplace so that employees do not become physically or mentally ill.

It is important to tackle the causes of stress in the workplace as stress at work can lead to problems for the individual, working relationships and the overall working environment.  These issues may include lowered self-esteem and poor concentration skills for the employee. The employer may suffer from increasing customer complaints, staff turnover and days lost to sickness.

Managing stress in the workplace is therefore an essential part of both individual and corporate responsibility.

High levels of stress in the workplace can lead to:

  • Poor decision-making.
  • An increase in mistakes which in turn may lead to more customer or client complaints. This in turn is likely to produce more stress.
  • Increased sickness and absence.
  • High staff turnover.
  • Poor employee/work place relations.

In the UK, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has issued a guide entitled Tackling stress: The Management Standards Approach (2005) which outlines six key areas of the workplace that should be monitored in order to assess levels of stress.

These key areas are:

  • Demands - Including such issues as workload, work patterns and work environment. (See our page, Work, Life Balance for more information).
  • Control - How much say the person has in the way they do their work.
  • Support - Includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues (Our pages on Coaching and Mentoring provide more ideas here).
  • Relationships - Includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour. (See our pages on Mediation Skills and Workplace Bullying for more.)
  • Role - Whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles.
  • Change - How organisational change is managed and communicated within the organisation. (Our pages on Change Management explain organisational change in more detail.)

As a employee (in the UK), you are entitled to support for work place stress; therefore it would be useful for you to check your own working environment to see if any of the above areas is a cause for concern.  You can find more detailed information about the HSE guidelines on stress on their website.

Not All Stress is Harmful

Stress affects people differently.  Some people seem to thrive on extremely stressful lifestyles, while others struggle to cope with everyday life.

Everyone has an optimum level of stress.  Too little excitement and too few challenges may lead to an extremely dull life, yet too much stress can lead to health problems.  Nevertheless, a certain amount of stress can actually prove to be good for individuals. 

Positive stress can act as a spur to achieve better results than would otherwise be attained, and no-one would wish to avoid such potentially stressful but enjoyable events as the birth of a child, forming new relationships or undertaking new challenges.

Stress is also extremely useful in acting as an enabler to avoid problems and dangers.  It is a motivator to solve problems and is an important warning signal that something is wrong with an individual’s life, thereby allowing him or her to take some action.

Panic Attacks

In cases of extreme or continual stress, people can suffer what is known as a panic attack. 

A panic attack is a brief but extremely frightening spell of severe anxiety.  Lasting only a few minutes, the symptoms can include:

  • Feeling faint.
  • Trembling.
  • Dizziness.
  • Pounding, fast heart rate.
  • Feeling hot and sweaty.
  • Legs turning to jelly.
  • Butterflies (a 'fluttery' feeling) in the stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Dry mouth.

Panic attacks often occur when the person is unaware of being particularly anxious.  Recognising panic attacks for what they are, learning how to cope with them, and dealing with the underlying problems of stress are essential to the sufferer.  Anyone who experiences such an attack should seek medical advice.

Short-Term Behaviours for Coping with Stress

When stressed, individuals often indulge in behaviours which may relieve the immediate feelings of anxiety in the short-term, but which only add to their problems in the longer term.

For example, alcohol, drugs, smoking and/or over-eating are often used to cope with immediate problems of stress.  Avoiding, ignoring or failing to recognise underlying problems is also a common occurrence.

When too many work demands are placed upon someone, he or she may work harder for longer hours and attempt to keep up with an impossible schedule instead of trying to reduce such demands.  In the long term, such behaviours will only serve to increase the physiological symptoms of tension and deplete physical energy reserves. It's important to maintain a healthy and appropriate Work, Life Balance.

The UK Government, through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has introduced management standards for stress in work-related situations.

Further information on these standards, and other issues related to stress and how to manage it, can be found on their website at