STRESS hype or reality?

Rosemary Andersonin Consultancy

STRESS hype or reality?

By Dr Rosemary Anderson

Should we be taking it seriously?

Although stress has become a buzzword of the 20th Century and most people think they know what stress is, the whole concept of stress is actually very poorly understood. People confuse every day pressures and worries with stress, and many think stress is "only for wimps." As employers often believe it is an excuse for malingerers to take time off work many genuine sufferers dare not take time off in case they are put in that category and their job prospects are affected. Part of the problem here is also that people confuse stress with mental illness and because of this the whole concept carries a similar stigma.

However, in reality all these beliefs are incorrect. The truth is that given a combination of circumstances and an accumulation of pressure, stress can actually happen to anybody. It can happen to men or women, young or old, the managing director or tea boy.

It can happen as a result of personal issues or it can be caused by work. Although large organisations do create many types of work related stress, contrary to popular belief you do not need to work in a large organisation to suffer stress. It only takes one difficult manager or a bully in a small organisation and hey presto! We have the stress. Stress is in also extremely common in people working in isolation. Farmers have very high stress levels as do home workers such as salesmen. The self employed also experience their own types of problems.

Unfortunately the fact that people really do not understand the concept of stress means that both individuals and organisations are taking the matter less seriously than they should and stress is costing employers and the country as a whole dearly.

Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) commissioned surveys over the last 3 years show that approximately 500,000 people are currently believed to be suffering from work related stress in the UK. This alone is responsible for around 13 million working days lost. Add the expense of these 13 million working days to the expense of poor performance on those remaining and the costs soon mount up. Those still at work are less productive make mistakes become angry with customers or sit at the desk in cloud cuckoo land. There is also an increased likelihood of litigation. A successful stress claim in court is often in the region of £200,000 without costs.

Because stress is now such a problem there is now a legal duty for employers to ensure staff are not harmed by work related stress and they must risk assess to ensure that stress related problems are minimal. To help with this the HSE have produced guidelines for organisations to follow. However it should also be noted that employees themselves also have a legal duty to ensure they themselves are not harmed by stress and they do not harm others.

This article is the first of 2 to help readers understand the concept of stress. The aim of this one is to dispel some of the myths about stress and explain what stress actually is. Once this is understood the second article will explain all aspects of work related stress. It will cover how managers can add to or reduce the amount of stress for their staff and will look at the legal issues. As part of this it will also explain how to carry out a stress risk assessment to meet these legal requirements .

So what is true stress?

According to the HSE stress is "An adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them."
Here, pressure is seen as positive. We all need a certain amount of pressure to perform well, - ask any athlete, actor or actress however; the problem arises when sources of pressure become too great. This may be due to one major event such as bereavement. Or an accumulation of many smaller hassles one after the other without enabling time to recover. We then reach a peak in our performance, beyond which we start to show adverse reactions.

At first we may just be irritable, snappy, make silly mistakes and be unable think clearly. However, if the pressure continues this becomes worse and we can start to exhibit a variety of physical symptoms. We can also show mental symptoms such as anxiety and eventually depression. Stress is not an illness but if not checked can give rise to such.

So why does too much pressure turn to stress?

Human function curve.gif
To answer this question it is necessary to understand the stress response. This is an adaptive response, which evolved to help our ancestors cope with physical threats such as being chased by a woolly mammoth. This response, often termed the fight or flight response, comprises physiological changes in our body that results in both mental and physical alertness. As such we are able to run and fight more effectively and hence chances of survival are increased. The stress response is mainly caused by the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin, which alongside many other changes result in the common symptoms of dry mouth, sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, and butterflies in the tummy. The major changes during the stress response are outlined in the table.

Major effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline on the body:- Increase in sensitivity of nervous system - increases speed which we may react to a threat.

  • Muscles tense ready for action.
  • Breathing rate increases- to take in more oxygen into the lungs. This is then carried by the blood to the muscles where it combines with glucose to make energy.
  • Breathing rate increases- to take in more oxygen into the lungs. This is then carried by the blood to the muscles where it combines with glucose to make energy.
  • More glucose is released from the liver and in to the blood stream - used for increased energy.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase. - Blood carrying oxygen and sugar is pumped to the muscles to make energy.
  • Sweating increases - to cool body down during running or fighting.
  • Digestive system slows down. - If you are fighting for survival you don't need to be digesting food, energy is therefore conserved.
  • Reproductive system slows down - not necessary if you are fighting for survival!!!! So energy is also conserved here.

Cortisol is released.

One of the main functions of cortisol is to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. During stress it enables the body to produce more glucose to keep it going longer. A by-product of this is the production of fatty acids, which can result in increased production of cholesterol. Cortisol also dampens down the immune system so over time we become more susceptible to infections.

While the stress response is still useful for moderns day physical threats, egg being chased by an attacker, most of our modern day pressures are not physical and therefore do not merit a physical response. Many are also generated from work. For example the difficult boss, too much work, e-mails, angry customers.

We cannot respond to these by running away or fighting so we sit and bottle it up. We therefore do not do what the stress response is gearing us up to do. Added to this is the fact that one pressure comes immediately after another. We therefore do not even get time to get the physiological changes out of our system before the next pressure comes along.

We even cause our own stress by our thoughts and fears. We are afraid of not being good enough or looking stupid. Fear of job security is now also very common. Pressures like these never really go away, but are constantly generating the response. Instead of being helpful, the changes taking place in our body start to work against us and we start to suffer from stress symptoms.

Stress is therefore not a weakness. It is actually just a build up of the effects of too much pressure. Everybody will react differently to different events but given a certain combination of events stress can happen to anybody. If you start to experience stress the key is to take action to reduce it before it gets too serious. The longer you wait the more serious it becomes and the harder you have to work to reduce it. Managing stress is therefore about taking responsibility for yourself.

So what can I do?

Be prepared by adopting a healthy lifestyle:-If we eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and ensure we get adequate rest our body is better able to cope with stress should it occur.

Know your limitations and do not take on too much:- We cause ourselves a great deal of stress because we do not like to say no to people. We like people to like us and do not want to let people down. We then end up doing more than we should. Learn to be assertive and how to say no without upsetting or offending people.

Avoid unnecessary conflict:- Don't be too argumentative. Is it really worth the effect it will have on your body and possibly your health? Look for win - win situations. Look for a solution to a dispute where both parties can achieve a positive outcome.

Learn to manage your time more effectively:-We waste a lot of time doing unimportant tasks. Prioritise your day and do the important jobs first. The unimportant ones can wait, and often they will disappear completely leaving you time to do other things. Also do not put off the unpleasant tasks. Every time we think about them we cause ourselves stress. Give an unpleasant task a high priority and do it first.

Take time out to relax and recharge your batteries
:-You will perform much better after a break and easily make up the time you used relaxing. You may think you are working well by missing lunch and working all night but in reality you are slower and make more mistakes You often cannot see the wood for the trees.

Accept the things you cannot change:-When things cause us stress, try to change the situation. Sometimes however, this is not possible. If this proves to be the case recognise this and accept things as they are.

Try to see things differently:-If something is bothering you try to see it differently. Talk over your problem with somebody before it gets out of proportion. Often, talking to somebody else will help you see things from a different and less stressful perspective. Try to see the funny side of a situation. Laughter is a great stress reducer.

As we sometimes create stress by faulty thoughts question them and look for evidence that they are correct. For example you may be afraid of speaking in public in case you make a mistake dry up or fall of the stage. As yourself when has this happened, how likely is it? What is the worst that can happen? Prepare yourself to cope with the worst if you can cope you have nothing to fear and less stress.

Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine as coping mechanisms:-Long term, these faulty coping mechanisms will just add to the problem. For example, caffeine is a stimulant and our body reacts to this with the stress response. This is therefore adding to our stress rather than reducing it.

Find time to meet friends:-Friends help us see things in a different way. The activities we engage in with friends usually help us relax and we will often have a good laugh. Laughter is a great stress reducer. It boosts the immune system, which is often depleted during stress.

If you do become stressed engage in some form of physical activity and relaxation technique. Physical activity will work off the biochemical and physical changes that occur within your body due to stress. Relaxation helps your body return to its normal healthy state. Good relaxation techniques include breathing exercises, massage and a variety of complimentary therapies. Contrary to popular belief these activities are not just for women many men are now starting to try out different techniques. Not only do they find them beneficial they actually enjoy them.


Rosemary Anderson has a B.Sc and Ph.D. in Biochemistry a BA in Psychology and is a chartered Psychologist. She is a member of The British Psychological Society, The European Academy of Occupational Health, and a Fellow of Royal Society for the Promotion of Health.

Initially a research biochemist Rosemary spent a number of years in education and various management positions before setting up her own Consultancy - Anderson Peak Performance (ApP) in 1996. ApP provides advice and training in all aspects of personal and organisational effectiveness from individual health and well being to change management and corporate risk assessment. ApP also specialises in all aspects of tackling stress. Clients to date have included Axa, Heinz,The Post Office, HBos, Laura Ashley, John Lewis, BP, Shelter, Canary Wharf, Princes Trust, Wolverhampton University, local councils and 4 police forces. In addition to this Rosemary has been a part time OU lecturer for 9 years lecturing in Human Biology and Health and Biology Brain and Behaviour.

Until recently Rosemary was the chair of the International Stress Management Association heavily committed to improving and regulating standards in stress management . Representing ISMA, Rosemary has worked with the HSE for 3 years helping them develop and publicise their stress management standards.

She has written 3 HSE sponsored workshop for tackling organisational stress which have been delivered nationally and has written 2 HSE/ISMA information leaflets endorsed by ACAS CIPD and TUC.

She is a prolific writer on the subject of stress and an experienced speaker having taken part in a number of live TV and radio debates. She has also been called on a number of times by the HSE to speak with them or on their behalf.

For more information about personal stress or dealing with stress in your organisation contact:- Dr Rosemary Anderson

Anderson peak Performance

Tudor House, Whichert Close,
Knotty Green,
Beaconsfield HP9 2TP


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