Stress Awareness Month: What is Stress?

Post 1 of 3 for Stress Awareness Month. Work-related stress and poor mental health accounts for over half of work absences – and costs British businesses up to £45 billion every year in 2020 according to Deloitte . We’re going to take this month to look at the different sides of workplace stress. In our first post we explore specifically what stress is and the main causes in the workplace.

I’m approaching it from a work perspective and from the point of view of many of my mentees, which is of those in the early stages of their career or those who are going through a transition stage in their career; either changing career or moving up to a more senior level.  

woman sitting in front of MacBook. Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

Everyone can feel stress and we all have similar reactions to it, however what triggers each person and the levels that we can cope with vary enormously.

Stress can go from an occasional annoyance that pops onto your radar to a debilitating physical reaction that appears to change your personality completely and every level in between.  It’s a term that is thrown around a great deal and can feel quite vague.

Part of the challenge of stress is that although everyone can feel it and we all have similar reactions to it, however what triggers each person and the levels that we can cope with vary enormously. This can leave a stressed person to feel very isolated and alone.   

There are 3 posts through the month which will explore a different area of workplace stress:

  1. What is stress and what are the common causes
  2. How to take control and manage it
  3. Stress-Less tips for anyone suffering at the moment.

In this first post we’ll look at what stress actually is and why we feel it.

What is stress?

According to the NHS, stress is the body’s reaction to feeling under pressure or threatened.   When we perceive a threat, our body releases adrenaline and cortisol to help us cope with it.

Stress forces our body to prioritise the parts that would help in a fight or flight situation and de-prioritises all the other part of the body that aren’t essential.

Adrenaline increases our heart rate, elevates our blood pressure and boosts energy supplies (allowing us to get away from the threat). Cortisol increases sugars in the bloodstream which improve our ability to think quickly and and gives easy access to the substances that repair tissues – should we need it. This means that stress forces our body to prioritise the parts that would help in a fight or flight situation and de-prioritises all the other part of the body that aren’t essential.

anonymous fighters bumping fists before boxing

For a short term response, it is perfect. And in small doses, these hormones can be easily managed because when the stress is removed and our body quickly re-sets, but very high levels of these hormones or extended periods of time in a stressful state have a more damaging effect on us.

Where does it come from?

In my scenario of a person entering a new career or new role at work, hopefully they won’t feel threatened, as a work environment should feel ‘safe’ as an absolute minimum. So thinking back to the NHS definition, that leaves ‘pressure’ as the culprit for stress.  In my experience, this usually comes from 2 main sources:

1. Steep Learning Curve

The steep learning curve we have when starting a new role is a clear source of stress.  That need to take on and process a lot of new information and then make decisions and take action off the back of what you’ve learnt.  

The stress comes from the intensity of having to constantly be alert to new information, in ‘absorbing’ mode.  There is also an underlying fear that there is so much you don’t know that making a mistake is very easy to do. The unknown is the source of all our fears, precisely because we can’t predict or practise how to avoid or respond to it.  So you have to try to do your job with imperfect information.

That’s stressful, no matter your job, however when it’s your first management position and you suddenly have others looking to you for support, direction and authorisation, it can ramp up.

2. The Pressure to Make an Impact

The pressure to make an impact.. and make the right impact is the other core source of stress in the workplace. New people, new environment, new demands.. they all trigger the stress response in our body and the build up of hormones can start.  

The business has hired you for a reason and the real or imagined pressure to start delivering can become stressful. This is linked to the point above because you’re trying to make a good impression with only a fraction of the information that you’d ideally like.

What does it look like?

It looks like feeling:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Like your mind is racing
  • Irritable
  • Anxious
  • Low self-confidence
  • Tired because of poor sleep
  • The need to ‘escape’ into alcohol, food, drugs, smoking… whatever your personal crutch is.

photo of a woman thinking

Not all stress is bad.

It’s important to recognise that not all stress is bad. Low level stress can be motivational and energising. It’s the long term, intense stress that is so bad for us. 

When we’re looking at work; low levels of stress can:

  • Force us to make progress with something
  • Help us to get ‘in the zone’ and increase short term productivity
  • Give us new ideas or a new level of creativity
  • Make us take a calculated risk or push us outside of our comfort zone in a positive way
  • Encourage us to look wider, at different options and seek other solutions

When stress becomes too intense or long-term we basically can’t do our jobs. We lose all our confidence, our energy, our creativity and our patience.  This is why awareness and action are so important.  As part of our mentoring programmes we look how to understand stress and manage it effectively.

We’ll look in the next post about how to manage stress. If you’d like some support or advice on how to understand your own stress response and how to become more resilient, please contact us.

Published by Kelly Whalley

Co-Founder of Find Your Wings. Mentor, digital marketing expert, H.E.A.L.T.H.Y career creator and consultant, on the side of being a mum of two.

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