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Managing Stress at Work

Keep cool and carry onstress at work

There is a Hollywood stereotype ingrained in our consciousness.  You’ve seen it portrayed by Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.  What we are talking about here is the ability to stay cool under pressure. Typically, each cinematic hero faces pressures, confrontations and challenging situations but their resilience, their coolness under fire, saves the day every time.

Most of our lives aren’t as exciting as the fictional movie ones, but we are all subject to external forces in our lives that put pressure on us.  Pressure that sometimes leads to stress.  And stress is one of the main causes of people taking time off work sick. In fact, stress is second only to muscular-skeletal injuries, which usually means a bad back.

According to the latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), there were a staggering 428,000 reported cases of stress in the year to 30 April 2012. That is 40% of the total of 1, 073,000 cases of work-related illnesses during the year.

It can happen to any of us, although the LFS shows that the 45-54 age group has the highest incidence rate and larger workplaces (with more than 250 employees) are most likely to be affected.

Stress-related sick leave is, by its nature, longer than the leave required for other work-related illnesses.  It has been calculated that workplace stress costs Great Britain more than £530m a year.

Stress is not imaginary, nor is it a sign of weakness. It has real causes and real physical symptoms. It can, however, be managed, both by individuals and by organisations.

Stress can be defined as physical, mental or emotional pressure. The UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”  The Labour Force Survey suggests that the main work activities causing or exacerbating work-related stress were:

  • Workload (such as tight deadlines or too much work or responsibility) with an estimated prevalence of 186,000 cases;
  • Lack of managerial support, with an estimated prevalence of 61,000 cases; and
  • Violence, threats and bullying with an estimated prevalence of 54,000 cases.

It is evident, therefore, that managers have a key role in preventing stress affecting their team members. More than this, managers have a legal duty to ensure that work does not make their team ill.

Pressure itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be extremely beneficial. Pressure can help individuals, teams and organisations learn, improve and develop. Many of us perform at our best when under an appropriate degree of pressure. Too much pressure, however, can induce stress.

It is important, therefore, to recognise the optimum level of pressure, for both individuals and teams. Every individual and every team responds to stimuli in different ways.

Having too little work can also create stress. We all like to feel needed, valued and useful. Work helps to validates us.

We should not solely rely on our managers to keep us free from stress.  We have a personal responsibility to manage ourselves too.   There are myriad techniques and strategies available to all of us to help us cope with the typical pressures we find in the modern workplace.  We just need to fine the ones that work for us.

At work it’s useful to make sure you are performing as effectively as you can, managing your time properly, prioritising your tasks, and using the right tools and technology to their best effect.

Get a handle on office politics and avoid workplace war. Recognise the team dynamics. Try to understand the position and see the point of view of colleagues with whom you may find yourself in conflict. Seek a win/win resolution when conflict does arise, at it naturally will from time to time.

And look after yourself. Take screen breaks, take holidays, try to avoid taking work home. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking long hours mean more productivity. Managing pressure is about working smarter, not harder.

The HSE gives useful hints to help you to identify stress including:

Emotional: Negative feelings; disappointment in yourself; increased reactions – more tearful, more aggressive; loss of motivation

Internal: Confusion; indecision; difficulty in concentrating; poor memory

Behavioural: Changes in eating habits; increased smoking, drinking or drug taking ‘to cope’; changes in sleep patterns; twitchy, nervous behaviour

And one final thought, just because Indiana Jones rarely asked for help, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.  Conforming to that age-old stereotype is a pressure all itself.

Jacqui Bishop 



*Source: HSE (

Further guidance is also available on the HSE website.