Although it’s common to hear people say they are stressed as a way of saying “I’m busy”, the real effects of work related stress are frightening. Organisations need to be aware of the symptoms of workplace stress if they want staff to stay healthy and productive. Knowing what really happens to our bodies when we are truly stressed is the first step…

Work related stress is more than being busy

The first thing to know is that for staff who are truly stressed, there’s is more going on than them just being busy. Stress is a biological and psychological response to threats and extreme demands on the mind and body. It is the same ‘fight or flight’ process as the anxiety response.

The fight or flight response

If you are not familiar with the ‘fight or flight’ response, it is an inbuilt survival mechanism that humans and other animals have evolved. When faced with danger, our bodies automatically prepare to fight it, or run away from it (flight). We might also freeze and be unable to move. To get our bodies ready, certain biological changes happen almost instantaneously. We breathe faster, our heart rate increases and blood is transferred away from our digestive system to be part to better use in muscles we need to fight or escape.

All this has been very useful to us in evolutionary terms and is one of the reasons I am alive in 2018 writing this and you are alive reading it. Without fight or flight, our ancestors would probably have been gobbled up by some predator long ago.

The perception of danger

Useful as the fight or flight response has been (and continues to be), it does have a problem. It relies on what we perceive as a dangerous. Not what is really a physical threat to us. And there are many things in modern life that we perceive as dangerous.

Think about your emails. Chances are that you receive one every now and then that causes the stress response. Why? They can hardly leap out of the screen and physically harm you. Yet our minds are very quick to perceive an email reminding us we haven’t completed a task that’s due tomorrow as a danger. Or an email scheduling a meeting you know you’re not prepared for. Or an email with yet another thing you need to do.

None of these emails can physically harm us, but they elicit the stress response nonetheless. We can’t help it. The stress response kicks in well before we can think rationally.

Emails are just one example, but I’m sure you can think of many other things that trigger the stress response unnecessarily where you work. Perhaps having to give a presentation or meet with a challenging client.

Remember, it’s a perfectly natural reaction and you shouldn’t feel bad if it happens. Responding to work related stress in this way is not a weakness, it’s just a survival mechanism functioning normally. But that’s not to say it isn’t harmful. Although it’s not an illness in itself, it can lead to illness.

How stress affects your body

Rather than thinking of stress as a vague concept, let’s pin down some specific biological effects. To really appreciate the effects of work related stress, managers should understand a little about the biology. Managers don’t have to be experts, but knowing a bit of the science doesn’t hurt. Let’s look at what happens during the stress response…

The stress response

  1. The brain perceives a ‘danger’ (real or not) through information received by the senses
  2. A tiny part of the brain called the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone)
  3. This hormone stimulates the adrenal glands sat on top of your kidneys to produce adrenaline and cortisol
  4. Adrenaline and cortisol prepare your body to fight or flight by increasing breathing rate, increasing blood pressure and releasing glucose that has been stored in the liver
  5. Your body is now ready to do its best to fight the danger or run from it

You don’t need to remember the specific terms, just that there is a real, physical response occurring in the body.

Short term, this is not particularly bad for us. It feels unpleasant, but isn’t doing us physical harm. The problem occurs when the stress response is triggered continually or a perceived danger doesn’t go away. Then we’re open to the long term negative effects of work related stress.

Physical long term effects of work related stress

There are several long term mental and physical effects that can result from experiencing stress long term.

Physical effects include raised blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular diseases. As well as these issues, a person might experience immunosuppression where their immune system no longer functions normally. This is because cortisol (one of the hormones released by the adrenal gland) shuts off the immune system. In the short term, that’s fine. Over a long period of time however, we become more susceptible to illness and struggle to fight off disease.

So whilst stress is not an illness itself, it can lead to severe and debilitating conditions.

Mental long term effects of work related stress

Stress also affects mental health. A person already living with a mental health condition may find it harder to cope with stress than other people. They also might find their condition is exacerbated by work related stress and severe episodes might be triggered.

Stress can also cause a mental healthy person to become mentally unwell. The biological response to stress is the same as the anxiety response and anxiety disorders may form due to prolonged exposure to high levels of stress. Panic disorder could be a consequence and depression could also result from long term stress.

Signs of a stressed employee

Managers  should be cautious about diagnosing stress or mental health conditions. However, being able to spot the signs of stress might mean that managers can stop issues escalating, keep staff healthy and maintain high levels of productivity. Things to look out for include:

Emotional signs
  1. Anxiety, worry or panic
  2. Loss of confidence
  3. Sensitivity
  4. Irritability and anger
  5. Low motivation and lack work
Physical signs
  1. Rapid breathing
  2. Sweating
  3. Complaints about aches and pains
  4. Complaining they can’t sleep
  5. Complaints about feeling tired
Behavioural signs
  1. Changes in eating habits
  2. Weight gain or loss
  3. Conflict with others
  4. Being withdrawn
  5. Changes in attendance and punctuality
  6. Changes in performance such as working slowly or working too hard

Effect of stress on performance at work

To see more detail on the link between stress and work performance, you should check out our blog dedicated to exactly that topic. We explore the famous stress curve and its relevance to managers. It’s a simple concept well worth knowing if you want to keep staff healthy and productive.

Learn more

Given that employees perform best when the level of pressure is just right, it makes sense to train managers so they know how to manage pressure in the right way.

Delphis offers face-to-face workshops and online courses delivered and developed by highly educated business managers, academics and teachers. We are committed to guiding companies along the path to creating healthy, productive and rewarding working environments for their staff. The financial argument is compelling and caring for your employees is the right thing to do.

One major multi-national client has taken the right step by getting involved in our workshops:

“Very relevant and informative… engaging and inclusive style. Worth spending a whole day on… need to roll out to whole company… loved the takeaway workbook… pretty much perfect.”

Please get in touch to discuss how we can provide customised mental health training for your organisation that fits your needs.