Pressure Gauge: Managing Stress at Work

Melissa Harries, Principal Psychologist, Mindset Abilities

Stress at work
Stress can get a bad wrap. It’s often seen as only a bad thing however we need a certain amount of stress to perform to our optimum. Lets face it, when do you get the most done? When you are under the pump for time or when you have ages and ages to get a task done? Some stress aids performance but too much stress and performance as well as health suffers. Excessive and long lasting stress can lead to mental and physical ill health. It also has a dramatic impact on effectiveness at work, attendance and turnover.

But what is stress?
Stress is a primal survival system that has evolved to respond to physical threats. Think caveman versus sabre tooth tiger and all the changes that happened to the caveman to help him survive. It starts with a release of adrenalin and cortisol that gets the blood pumping to the major muscle groups, ready to fight the threat or to run away. His attention narrows to target the threat and he becomes sensitive to any other indicators of danger (noise, movement, etc). Emotions have kicked in at this point to help the caveman to act NOW! He doesn’t brainstorm, calculate and chose a course of action. He feels fear and he runs. Or anger and fights. Stress is a call to action in order to survive that involves physiological, cognitive and emotional responses.

Even though we are not physically threatened (very often) we have the identical responses patterns to any demand we face, just on a much lower intensity. Deadlines at work, conflict with a coworker, the alarming number of unactioned emails in your inbox; every demand activates the stress response.

In the short term stress is not problematic and there are simple ways to treat stress (see below). The stress response is designed for a short term burst of energy. Fight the threat then rest for a few days. But workers can feel stressed for days, weeks, months and even years. It’s this chronic and unrelenting exposure that drains an individual’s coping resources. This in turn can lead to developing a mental health concern like depression or anxiety.
Who is responsible?
Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) legislation considers stress to be a potential workplace hazard. Organisations are advised to do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise risks to worker health and safety including the minimizing exposure to excessive stress.

In addition to restricting harmful exposure, workplaces can assist employees to enhance their ability to cope with stress through resilience training, supportive management and implementing healthy worker initiatives.

Psychologists have worked hard to identify particular aspects of the workplace that are likely lead to stress. The following factors are known to increase mental stress for employees:

• High work demands
• Low control
• Poor support
• Lack of role clarity
• Poorly managed relationships
• Low levels of recognition and reward
• Poorly managed change
• Organisational injustice

Reducing stress in your workplace
Firstly, identify the hazards. Just like you would recognise and mitigate threats to physical safety at work, identify what mental health threats your workplace faces. Think about this like a diagnosis – gather information about the “symptoms” from staff and pinpoint what factors might be causing this. How you intervene will depend on what the problem is. An organisational psychologist or your employee assistance program (EAP) can help with this.

Implement healthy worker initiatives that address the effects of stress. Exercise is the quickest and easiest way to treat the stress response as it addresses each way that stress operates. It metabolises the hormones that are released (physiological), creates a distraction from the stress (cognitive) and is a goal directed activity that feels good (emotional). Every dollar a business spends on physical activity (e.g. gym membership, on site yoga classes, subsidised FitBits) leads to a $6 return on investment due to improvements to employee performance and reduction in time off work.

Have supportive management practices. Which starts with leading by example regarding work life balance. For example, don’t email or text staff outside of agreed business hours. Monitor staff mental health, know what signs and symptoms of poor mental health are and be comfortable having a confidential conversation with employees you are concerned about. Give regular performance feedback and address bullying/conflict quickly. Invest in training your managers so they are proficient at the “soft skills” too.

Enhance resilience through evidence-based training. There are a variety of individual skills that can be taught though group training that enhance an individual’s resilience to stress.

Link employees in to your EAP counseling or coaching services. Employees may not actively seek out psychological support for stress however the recovery from a stress response can be dramatically improved with counseling. Nip these issues in the bud by addressing concerns with employees before they become emergencies.

And finally, Lily Tomlin suggests, “For fast-acting relief, try slowing down”. Sage advice.

For further information on how to reduce stress in your workplace or enhancing employee resilience contact Mindset Abilities on (02) 9687 9776 or

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