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As the stress symptoms soar, now’s the time for a strategic response

Posted by on in Stress

Stress. It’s as much a part of our modern day office vernacular as paperclips, coffee rounds and conference calls. More than that, it’s also the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK – two out of every three days off are stress-related – and a catalyst for longer term physical and mental illness. So, how do we start to tackle a problem that has so much sway over our wellbeing, and the health of the British economy?

Recently, Dame Sally Davies – Chief Medical Officer of the NHS – revealed that the cost of these lost working days adds up to £100bn over the past five years. The numbers are getting bigger, which has prompted many public and private sector businesses to look at their wellbeing strategies. The fact remains, though, that even in the most supportive working structures, mental health can be an intimidating subject to broach with colleagues and senior to top management.

We have to remember that stress is a part of life, and that pressure, in the right dosage, is actually good for you. We all rely on a level of pressure to perform to the best of our ability, manage workloads and stay alert. It’s the tap on the shoulder that reminds us to get things done. Acute stress is also a completely natural reaction to a traumatic or crucially important event, whether it’s a creeping exam date or a major project at work.

Consider this. Stress itself is not located solely within the individual or the environment; instead, it always emerges in the relationship between the two. When we talk about sources of workplace stress, people are often troubled by similar intrinsic aspects of their job that crop up time and time again: relationships with colleagues, available resources, career development, job security and control. All of these factors contribute to our experience at work, and to whether or not we feel stressed-out.

This is where, in part, employer responsibility lies, to ensure that their staff are resilient enough to cope with the successive pressures they face at work. This is about mainstreaming an approach throughout an organisations processes. It should start from the interview stage, explaining the lay of the land so that the new recruit can align their expectations of the role with the culture of the organisation. An open, trusting business culture is the foundation for social support, so that employees know exactly where they can turn when the pressure is getting on top of them.

That’s where individual responsibility comes in. People need to recognise when they need support, and to proactively use it as they need to! As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  This has traditionally been a huge problem, with some working cultures based on long hours and high performance, where any honesty on the topic of personal mental pressures may unfortunately be seen as a sign of weakness.

In the wellbeing field, it’s often thought that we’ve moved on from a simplistic idea of stress to a fuller view of wellbeing and what it means to thrive. That much is true, but stress is still most readily understandably and commonly felt amongst employees – the access point for thinking about their wellbeing and work-life balance. If we’re to start cutting that £100bn cost of lost days, we need organisations to use stress in the same way too. Not just as a prompt to tackle a single symptom, but to look at their entire wellbeing strategy. Whether that’s fit for purpose will shape the thriving organisations of the future.



  • Guest
    Steve Scott Friday, 03 October 2014

    Thanks for a great article Cary. Is it not also true that an individual has responsibility for how they perceive pressure and stress and that they have choices as to what perspective they take and to develop a habit of resilience rather than the habit of stress, the latter is what seems to happen all too often? However, to become truly resilient one needs to have experienced both pressure and stress but the individual also needs to take personal responsibility for being the catalyst that changes these experiences into positive actions, thoughts and feelings. In your view, what role does assertiveness (internal and external) have on the stress/resilience relationship and what would the outcomes be if employees exercised this more?
    Keep up the great work.

  • Guest
    Samantha Culshaw-Robinson Friday, 03 October 2014

    I totally agree; it is a holistic whole person approach that is needed, using primary interventions that help to prevent or reduce the stress in the first place, together with secondary interventions to help manage the stress to tertiary interventions which are more along the "after the horse has bolted" variety. I am a workplace wellbeing consultant, but entered the wellbeing arena as a hypnotherapist and I truly believe that all these measures used in a complementary way, together with acupuncture and hypnotherapy can keep our body/mind "servicing" up to date. We organise the care of our cars like this, why not our mind and bodies?

  • Guest
    http://Trivedi Effect Friday, 02 January 2015

    Some of the simplest ways to reduce stress is by listening to soothing music, pursuing other passions, or by just drinking a nice cup of tea or coffee. Or a regular physical workout will also help.

    Tips for stress prevention:

      Good forward planning often prevents stressful situations occurring. Have realistic long and short-term goals. Plan rest and relaxation into your life. Plan and Prepare. Think about your day before it begins. Remember we can’t keep everyone happy all the time. Learn to delegate. Learn to say ‘No.’ Ask others for help. Identify your own particular stressors. Find out how to relieve it. Organise your life to minimise stress. Remember stress is different for every individual. Lack of control can cause the greatest stress, think about what you CAN control. Stress can be physically debilitating. Stress is a negative physical reaction to a threatening situation.

  • Guest
    Mahendra Trivedi Reviews Tuesday, 10 February 2015

    Behavioral symptoms of stress include:

    Changes in appetite -- either not eating or eating too much
    Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
    Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
    Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing.

    If you or a loved one is feeling overwhelmed by stress, talk to your doctor. Many symptoms of stress can also be signs of other health problems. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms and rule out other conditions. If stress is to blame, your doctor can recommend a therapist or counselor to help you better handle your stress.

  • Guest
    Tom Sunday, 03 April 2016

    Can stress cause tinnitus? I have it so bad I can hardly study.

  • Guest
    Søren Thursday, 28 April 2016

    Thank you for this article. An individual response is definitely needed!
    As a way of combating stress in the workplace, I recommend developing a good system to free up brain power. I have written what works for me here:

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Guest Monday, 22 January 2018

Cary CooperGood Day at Work®

The new wellbeing resources hub founded by @profcarycooper and Roberston Cooper. Join for FREE and access blogs, videos, downloads, podcasts and more.

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MD of Cary Cooper's business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper - for all things wellbeing, engagement and resilience at work.

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Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School.

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