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In this module, we will take a closer look at how workplace stress is manifested. Specifically, we will look at the signs and symptoms of stress typically suffered by those in the workplace.

Broadly speaking, stress related symptoms can be divided into two categories – physical and mental.

Physical signs of stress
These symptoms may be present on a short-term or long-term basis. Stress can - and does - affect all the major systems of the body. Put simply, when we are under stress, our bodies release amounts of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones, in greater quantities than is usual. These hormones, together with general over-activity of the nervous system, contribute to many of the signs below.

Poor quality sleep – Under stress, we feel tenser. This makes regular, healthy sleep difficult. In addition, many stressed people have too many thoughts running through their minds to “switch off” and sleep. Early waking is common in stressed individuals.

High blood pressure – Hormones released whilst under stress cause blood vessels to contract and the heart to beat faster. This raises your blood pressure in the short term. There is no definitive proof that stress is linked with high blood pressure – researchers are still investigating this possible connection. However, taking appropriate measures to reduce stress, such as exercising and eating healthier, will result in lower blood pressure - a positive outcome in itself!

Compromised immune system - Research in humans and animals indicates that prolonged stress over days and weeks is sufficient to reduce immunity to infectious diseases. This means that if you are stressed over a long period of time, you are more likely to become ill. This, in turn, may add to your stress levels, because you may be forced to take time off work - and fall behind as a result.

Panic attacks – A panic attack is a short-term manifestation of extreme worry or stress. A sufferer will feel a strong sense of impending doom, or intense anxiety, which is typically accompanied by a range of physical symptoms, including the following: Nausea, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, flushing or blushing, dizziness, a sense of “going crazy” and an urgent need to go to the bathroom. A panic attack can be sufficiently traumatic, that an individual develops a phobia of experiencing further incidents. This can develop into a serious mental health problem if untreated.

Worsening of auto-immune problems - Stress can cause existing auto-immune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and asthma, to worsen.

General aches and pains – When under chronic stress, many people report experiencing “random” aches and pains in major muscle groups. This is the result of literally holding in tension.

Fatigue – Prolonged stress contributes to tiredness and fatigue, for several reasons. Feeling stressed or upset about certain issues or work conditions can be mentally tiring, especially if the individual concerned has the habit of ruminating on their problems. Physical fatigue can also set in, as sleep patterns are disrupted and muscles are kept in a state of tension.

Worsening of stomach conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome - Stress can, in the short-term, induce nausea and diarrhoea, as the adrenaline released by the body stimulates the digestive system. However, prolonged stress can cause a range of chronic stomach and digestive complaints, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and heartburn, to worsen.

Reduced sex drive and fertility – Stressful situations can be sufficiently distracting that they lower libido, which may impact on an individual’s relationships. The hormones released by a body under stress may interfere with normal reproductive functioning, resulting in fertility problems in both sexes.

Mental signs of stress
Along with physical symptoms, stress often manifests in the form of mental and psychological signs.

Feeling sad, down, or hopeless – If the issues causing an individual stress are perceived to be too serious or broad to tackle, this can result in feelings of sadness or hopelessness. As time goes on, this can develop into a vicious cycle, whereby a person fails to make progress in conquering their stress, feels worse as a result, becomes further mired in stressful feelings - and so on.

Depression – Depression is now recognised as one of the leading causes of disability and absenteeism worldwide. Symptoms include overwhelming feelings of sadness, a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, changes in weight or appetite, changes in sleeping patterns, anger or irritability, behavioural changes such as an increase in ill-advised or reckless behaviour, feelings of low self-worth and thoughts of death or suicide.

Anxiety – Stress and feelings of being overwhelmed greatly increase the likelihood that an individual will develop an anxiety disorder. Symptoms include panic attacks, restlessness, problems sleeping, feelings of dread and various physical symptoms between panic attacks, including fluctuations in temperature and digestive issues.

Confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed – If you feel as though you have too many demands on your time, this can cause cognitive overload. You may feel as though your brain is literally “shutting down”, which can cause you to become even more stressed.

Difficulties retaining information – Chronic stress impairs concentration, which makes it hard to absorb and apply new information. This means that work performance becomes impaired.

Mood swings – The psychological burden exerted by chronic stress can impair an individual’s ability to control their temper. When under chronic stress, it is not unusual to feel as though your moods are out of control, or that you are moments away from “snapping”.

Drug or alcohol abuse – Some people self-medicate with alcohol, cigarettes or illegal drugs, when under stress. Whilst these substances can offer short-term relief from stress, they can lead to long-term problems, such as addiction.

Stress can occur at both an individual and group level
In a work setting, it is important to remember that stress rarely occurs in isolation – if one employee feels stressed, chances are that those around them do as well. During times of high pressure or exceptionally tough circumstances, it is possible for a whole team or working group to become stressed.

Signs of stress in a group

Increased conflict – Stress increases the chances of group tension and arguments. When people feel “on edge” or under pressure, they are less likely to be patient with their colleagues - and issues that would usually be minor points of contention, can easily become triggers for large arguments.

Drop in performance – A stressed team will often underperform, missing deadlines or turning out low quality work.

High absenteeism – Employees do not enjoy working in stressed teams - and this pressure may translate into increased absenteeism.

High turnover of staff - If a few core members of a team are chronically stressed, turnover may increase, because few people will stay around to work with those who always appear to feel the effects of pressure.

What are your personal “stress signals”? Are you currently experiencing any of these on a regular basis, as a result of workplace stress? If so, what can you do to address the problem?

4. Individual Perceptions of Stress

So far, we have discussed pressure and stress in general terms. In this module, we will look at the factors influencing the way in which any particular individual experiences stress. Understanding these factors will help you to feel a greater degree of understanding and sympathy towards those around you who may be stressed, as well as enhance your own self-awareness. As you read through the list below, take a moment to ascertain whether any of these factors may apply to you. These factors explain – at least in part – why one person may feel overwhelmed in a situation their colleague is handling with ease.

Remember, although the list of factors below may be useful, every situation is unique. It is important that every employee is treated as an individual. However, there are certain factors and patterns to bear in mind, when dealing with someone who is suffering with workplace stress.

Factors influencing individual perceptions of stress:

Sex – As a rule, women are more likely than men to be taught (implicitly or explicitly) that it is acceptable to talk about personal problems. It is considered more appropriate for a woman to admit that she cannot cope and feels overwhelmed by work - and for this reason, women may be more likely than men to acknowledge and admit to feelings of workplace stress. Macho stereotypes mean that many men have been raised with a “stiff upper lip” attitude, which can prevent them from seeking the help they need, before the point of burnout. Men may feel more comfortable complaining about physical side effects of stress, rather than broach the underlying problem in a direct manner.

Age/Generational Differences – Young, middle-aged and older people often differ in their ability to handle stress. Young people facing a stressful work situation for the first time may not have the experience or emotional maturity to handle their difficulties alone, whereas an older individual may be able to draw on their tried and tested coping strategies and, as a result, seem relatively unfazed. On the other hand, older workers may feel as though they lack the mental and physical energy they used to have - and are therefore less well equipped to deal with stressful situations.

Health – A person who is otherwise in good mental and physical health should be able to withstand short-term stress, without incurring lasting harm. However, for individuals with pre-existing health conditions, stress that would be considered mild by many, may take on greater significance. For instance, those who already suffer from anxiety or depression might feel more readily overwhelmed by challenging situations than those with no mental health problems. This is not to say that people suffering with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions cannot handle the normal demands of most jobs, simply that their pre-existing condition may leave them more vulnerable to workplace stress.

Personality type – One of the best known concepts in modern personality psychology is of “Type A” and “Type B” personalities. Most people can readily identify with one or the other. Type As are driven, competitive and ambitious. They are often enthusiastic about taking on challenging projects and have a perfectionist streak that ensures they pay attention to even the smallest of details. This can result in unnecessary stress, as many Type As stress themselves by trying to live up to what some may argue are impossibly high standards. Type As tend to be reactive and impatient, meaning that they have a tendency to over-react to stressful situations.

By contrast, Type B personalities are more laid back. This is not to say they are lazy or less productive than Type As – rather, they are better at pacing themselves and keeping events in perspectives. They tend to be less vulnerable to stress compared with Type As, although being less proactive by nature, may be slower to admit it when they do experience high levels of pressure!

Thinking style – As one of the ancient Greek philosophers pointed out, it isn’t always events themselves that cause us to suffer, but our reactions to these events. In other words, our thinking style dictates the meaning we attach to events. For example, one person might approach a tight deadline with the thought, “It’ll be over soon and meeting this deadline will be a great chance to demonstrate my capabilities. It might even mean I’m more likely to get promoted!” Another employee in the same situation might think, “Great, another impossible task. I don’t really think I’m up to this job. I’m so stressed!” Which of these attitudes do you think is more conducive to a positive outcome - and which is more likely to generate feelings of intense stress?

An individual’s thinking style is dictated by both nature and nurture. Studies with identical twins reared apart and together demonstrate that personality is certainly influenced by genetics, but this doesn’t mean the effects of the environment can be discarded. It is entirely possible to change one’s thinking style, through the application of conscious and sustained effort - for instance, in psychotherapy, or even just by reading and implementing the advice found in one of the many books available on positive thinking.

Seniority/Experience – As a species, humans have the remarkable ability to adapt to difficult circumstances. This means that the more senior you are in an organisation – or perhaps more accurately, the longer you have been exposed to a particular organization, culture or working style – the more likely you are to regard ongoing stress as “normal”, or “the way things are done around here”. This can be a dangerous position to be in, as it can result in a reluctance to seek help until the stress has reached critical level.

Culture – A comprehensive outline of the many ways in which people of different cultures experience or talk about stress is far beyond the scope of this course, but it is important to be aware that cultural differences go some way in explaining why two people in identical situations will experience stress in different ways. It is not appropriate to ask someone directly about their ethnic or cultural background, but remaining aware of the potential for differences is still useful in fostering tolerance and understanding.

Imagine that you are leading a team of five on a large, high stake project, with a tight deadline. After a progress meeting, a middle-aged male member of the team approaches you and says that he has “been feeling a lot of pressure lately”. How might your approach to him be shaped by his age and sex?