We often refer to feeling stressed, nervous or anxious, but it is important to differentiate between normal feelings – dealing with the everyday challenges of work and home life and the inevitable busy periods – and times when these become overwhelming and we start to find it difficult to cope.
Recognising the difference between pressure and stress and identifying key ‘stressors’, can improve wellbeing, helping staff to better enjoy their work and be more effective.
Everyone regularly experiences pressure at work. Accountability, with specific tasks needing to be delivered within a timeframe, together with external scrutiny, all play their part.
Pressure can be a positive, motivating factor, and is often essential for completing tasks – especially ones that need to be done quickly. It can help achieve goals and improve performance. A lack of pressure can lead to apathy, procrastination and decreased efficiency.
However, if that pressure continues and increases, it can become overwhelming, leading to stress.
Stress triggers a natural reaction within our bodies, referred to as the ‘fight, flight and freeze’ response. It is an innate reaction by the autonomic nervous system. The brain signals the release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase the heart rate making more oxygen available, heightening our senses and equipping us to act quickly and decisively.
Once the perceived ‘threat’ has passed, the body produces hormones that counterbalance the adrenaline and cortisol, bringing us back to a more relaxed state. It is a natural process over which we have little physiological control – in normal situations, stress is not an illness but a state.
Levels of stress increase if we are faced with a challenging situation or when we are significantly outside our comfort zone – job interviews, exams, public speaking. This state is usually short lived, once the interview, the exams or the speech is over, we can relax.
However, if this heightened state remains, the body does not return to normal and the stress can become chronic. This can lead to both physical and mental symptoms of distress – anxiety, irritability, inability to ‘switch off’, a constant sense of dread, depression, increase or loss of appetite – and mental and physical illness can also develop.
It’s important to identify the stressors and ways to reduce their impact. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards, identify six factors that can be primary stressors. Take steps to deal with them.