What is Stress?

Stress has been defined as ‘your response to an inappropriate level of pressure’. This is a significant definition in two respects. First, it refers to your response rather than the actual pressure itself. This means that stress has a subjective dimension to it. It will be different for different people. Second, it refers to an inappropriate level of pressure rather than simply too much pressure. This is because, at times, too little pressure or stimulation in our lives can also lead to stress. Some people use the term stress very loosely to refer to any form of pressure. However, this can be misleading as it fails to recognise that stress can do enormous harm to people, while pressure is a neutral term in the sense that it can do good (as a source of stimulation, motivation and interest). It can also be very negative (leading to physical and mental health difficulties, problems in relationships or work quality, and so on). We, therefore, prefer to reserve the term stress for harmful forms of pressure and people’s reactions to them. It is also important to be clear that stress is not necessarily the sign of an inadequate or incompetent individual. Stress is a very complex psychological, social and organisational matter and not simply an issue of personal pathology. If we do not recognise this, we can create a vicious circle in which persons experiencing stress can be reluctant to raise the issue and seek help for fear of being labelled. This, in turn, can lead to a situation of increased pressure, but with little or no support, thus making the experience of stress worse. Organisations have responsibility under health and safety legislation to ensure that their staff are protected from undue hazards – and this includes stress. As with other health and safety matters, both employer and employee share responsibility to ensure that the risk of harm is kept to a minimum. It is therefore important that:

• individual employees manage their pressures as effectively as possible and seek help whenever this is needed; and

• employers do not give their staff unreasonable workloads or subject them to other stress hazards such as bullying and harassment.

While pressures are inevitably part and parcel of the working environment, stress as a harmful phenomenon can be avoided. However, it is unfortunately the case that stress is far more prevalent than it needs to be, because either individuals do not take the necessary steps to protect themselves from harm, or employers fail to treat their staff appropriately (or both). An important factor in relation to stress is the ‘culture’ of the organisation concerned, the taken-for-granted assumptions and unwritten rules that act as a powerful influence on the organisation and the people within it. Some organisations have a macho, ‘be tough’ culture which discourages support and the open expression of feelings. Stress, then, is not simply an individual matter – it also has a significant organisational dimension.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at www.neilthompson.info

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