Stress: Understanding It, Standing Up to It

Posted on November 4th, 2015 by

The Stress Management Society sent me a reminder yesterday that Wednesday, November 4th is National Stress Awareness Day, an activity run by The International Stress Management Association.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them.” They did some research into workplace stress based on responses from almost 700 senior HR practitioners and almost 2,000 employees. The findings were that:

  • 83% thought stress is harming workplace productivity
  • 60% said stress is damaging staff retention
  • 52% of respondents reported stress increasing
  • 11% of absences from work were attributed to stress

The NHS has also suggested that the cost of stress-related absenteeism is around £425 million a year, so stress is clearly having a negative impact. But what is it? Isn’t it all a bit subjective?

Other definitions of stress include “a mental and/or physical response, by an individual, to an inappropriate level of pressure, whether real or perceived” and “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that the demands placed on them exceed the resources the individual has available.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) points out that stress is derived from the Latin ‘stringere’: “to draw tight,” and suggest that stress begins at “the point at which an individual perceives that the pressure they are experiencing has exceeded their ability to cope.”

Pressure, meanwhile, is “what most people mean when they say they are feeling stressed, that is, when faced with a difficult or challenging situation, we experience some tension or arousal.”

Egg Stress

Various other authorities can be found on the topic and they all tend to emphasise the different degrees and types of stress (workplace, domestic, sporting – where the pressure is often seen as positive and called “eustress”).

Business sites dwell on the costs to individual companies and the economy at large, frequently offering audits, coaching and so on that address both the benefits to be gained from de-stressing employees and, of course, complying with the large amount of legislation there is on the subject for companies with 5 or more employees.

There are basically lots of people with “skin” in the “stress game”: and it can actually be quite, er, stressful navigating it all. So I’ve trawled through a lot of material in order to come up with a logistically efficient presentation of key facts, hints and recommendations for you. That is what I do at SpringTide, after all.

So – first of all: unlike pressure, stress is never good for you and never a positive thing. Don’t bother looking for an upside: stress creates unhealthy biological reactions, and prolonged stress can lead to both physical and mental health breakdown. Which translates for me as: “Never, ever let anyone try to tell you that it ‘goes with the territory’!”

Stress in itself is not an illness, but a response to excessive or prolonged pressure. It is a reaction to circumstances that most definitely can cause mental and/or physical ill health. So you need to fix both the situation that is making you poorly – the stressor – and be mindful of your own responses to it.

Consider the stressor: the physical, mental or emotional cause of the stress you are feeling. Just learning to identify them can start your de-stressing process. Also examine the symptoms of your reactions to the stressor(s), because, even if you experience only one of these, the effects can cause serious problems to your health:-

  • Cognitive symptoms: forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, loss of focus, anxiety, racing and/or “loud” thoughts, poor judgement and negative thinking
  • Physical symptoms: racing pulse, breathlessness, muscle tension, shakiness, heartburn, indigestion, fidgeting and sleep difficulties, nervousness, a dry mouth, tiredness, rashes, loss of appetite
  • Emotional symptoms: feeling tense, angry and impatient; suffering panic attacks, fear or guilt; feeling overwhelmed, addictions and depression
  • Behavioural symptoms: loss of sense of humour, social withdrawal, insomnia, boredom, irritability, worry, moodiness, memory lapses, work absences

It has been shown that the majority of the stress we feel tends to come from just a small number of stressors (the 80/20 rule). Then again, if just one symptom of stress can seriously damage your health, it makes sense to deal with it. Pioneering endocrinologist János Hugo Bruno “Hans” Selye, CC, conducted important scientific research into the responses of organisms to stressors and found that: “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”

stress fire

The key calculation is to work out your 80/20 stressors. I recommend writing down your answers to the following questions:

  1. Make a list of your personal stressors and say exactly what makes you stressed
  2. Next to your list of stressors, write down the causes of each of them (e.g. lack of knowledge, another person, poor organisation, your own beliefs)
  3. Rate each of your stressors from 1 – 10, with 1 being “easy to cope with” and 10 being “unable to cope with”
  4. Looking at the causes you wrote down for question 2, put each stressor into groupings that make sense for you, based on, for example, Conflict, Attitude, Workload, Organisation (for example, more than 1 of your stressors could be caused by poor time management)
  5. Add up the 1 – 10 scores in each group you’ve created. The group with the highest score is the most stressful – the 20 in your 80/20

Now, here’s the good news. In spending some time on the above exercise, you’ve not only worked out the stressor it will be best to fix – you’ve also started to take some responsibility for your own de-stressing. That turns out to be the commonest advice in all the literature I’ve looked at, in fact.

You will also probably have noticed how much “workplace best practice” suggests itself to be involved in stress management. Conflict Resolution will come high on the list, no doubt – with its useful subsets, from Communication and Negotiation styles, to Active Listening, Body Language, Breathing and Walking Away.

Meanwhile, on Time Management: it would be a surprise if SpringTide blog visitors weren’t au fait with all the key disciplines – but for the sake of completion:

  • Prioritise
  • Delegate
  • Plan for Punctuality
  • Get Up Earlier
  • Motivate yourself

Actually, one of the more productive sessions I’ve personally experienced with regard to stress management was a few months ago, when I attended a conference convened by Women in Logistics UK. One of the workshops was “Supply Chain risks: Health” and it dealt with employees who spend a disproportionate amount of their time sitting.

As I said, I trawled through a lot of stress-related material. Probably the most consistent advice on the “well-being” front was the sense that physical fitness can have profound mental benefits. The Romans, naturally, recognised that a long time ago: “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind needs a healthy body to live in, basically.

So, given the amount of health damage stress can do to the body, most people agree that physical activity in itself can make a significant contribution to the fight against stress. The Supply Chain Health workshop was run by a researcher working with PepsiCo on a study of their transport workers, with a view to improving their long term health prospects. It was primarily focused on Lorry Drivers with a whopping 88% of their day spent sitting (according to statistics from the workshop).

However (and here I’m talking very specifically to anyone reading this at a computer), we office workers are not much better: apparently on average we spend 9.3 hours a day sitting down, as opposed to 6.5 hours standing or walking. Add in sleep and the average person moves vigorously or moderately less than 1 hour per day – just minutes per day on average.

Person at Desk

A few more scary stats for your consideration… According to the workshop, and supported by the Daily Health Post, sitting for more than 6 hours a day increases risk of death in the next fifteen years by 40% more than a person who only sits for 3 hours a day, in part because

  1. As soon as you sit down, the electrical impulses in your leg muscles stop
  2. Calorie burn-rate drops to 1 calorie per minute
  3. Enzymes that break down fat drop by 90%

As a result, people with sedentary jobs have twice the risk of cardiovascular disease than people doing non-sitting jobs, and the recommended minimum of 30 minutes moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day is not enough to counteract the risk from sitting for this long: so we have to break from sitting as much as possible, as often as possible. So, when you’re working out your 80/20 stressors, do it standing up at a flip-chart!

The bottom line is that we need to get healthier, both mentally and physically. We can’t fully de-stress without taking care of our bodies – and vice versa. We need to follow best practice at work when it comes to organisation, interpersonal skills, communication and the rest. But we also need to sit down less, eat well and be more active.

The common thread is about taking personal responsibility. Often the excuse we all give – I have done the same – is to say that I haven’t got enough time to exercise. Or I have to sit at my screen and get the job done. But you have to start somewhere.

Nowadays I wear a pedometer, and my usual office daily average, excluding dog walks, is between 5-6000 steps per day. If I sling in a dog walk then I can get my step count well over the target of 10,000 comparatively easily. On a weekend when I am at home I nail 10,000+ every time. You can walk 2,000 steps – by putting a bit of pace into it – in 15 minutes.

It wouldn’t be too hard to up your exercise levels by chunks of 15 minutes would it? The improvement on your health would be easy! Taking a phone call? Take it outside! Having a desk meeting with a colleague? Go for a walking meeting instead. Stand up often: if you can do something standing up instead of sitting, do so – indeed, “standing desks” have become popular in some companies.

Anyway, Happy National Stress Awareness Day! Remember: feeling better about stress is very much part of being more professional at work, paying attention to what your mind, your body and your colleagues are telling you – and getting out of your chair more often. Stress? Together we can stand up to it!

Do you have any stress busting tips? Why not get in touch and share them with us?