Can some stress at work be good for you?

It’s inevitable; the workplace can be a breeding ground for stress.

It’s important businesses take this into consideration if they want to recruit and retain today’s top talent.

HSE research states factors like stress, anxiety and depression contribute to 15.4 million days of absenteeism a year. A survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation also found 74 percent of adults felt stressed ‘to the point they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope’. 

workplace stress

Brendan Street discusses how some stress can be beneficial at work and the best ways to boost emotional resilience when circumstances become unmanageable for staff.

Good vs. bad stress

When we view the demands placed upon us as close to/exceeding the resources we have to cope, a sense of stress occurs. The situation is seen as threatening. The body then releases a cocktail of chemicals to prepare us to cope. This is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response.

The first question you may be asking yourself might be ‘Is there really such a thing as ‘good’ stress’?

Well according to medical research, there is a type known as ‘eustress’ – literally translated from the Greek term ‘good stress’ – which has both emotional and physical health benefits.

It differs from distress with the following characteristics:

  • It only lasts in the short term.
  • It energises and motivates.
  • It is perceived as something within our coping ability.
  • It increases focus and performance.

These reactions differ from negatively stressful situations, which can be longer-term, feel unpleasant and are perceived as outside our coping abilities. Prolonged feelings like this are what leads to ‘chronic stress’.

Recognising chronic stress

Working in an environment where employees constantly experience chronically elevated stress can lead to, or exacerbate, conditions like anxiety, obesity, insomnia, autoimmune disease, high blood pressure and depression.

Not only can chronic stress affect physical and mental health, but it can also result in a decline in work performance too. Some common signs someone is struggling to manage stress in the workplace include:

  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Mood changes (e.g. irritability, tearfulness, agitation).
  • Procrastination and inefficiency when completing tasks.
  • Increased absenteeism due to recurring physical symptoms (for example, upset stomach, headaches).

If you think an employee may be experiencing difficulties, it is important managers know how to discreetly have sensitive conversations with the person concerned and how to encourage them to seek expert help.

Before entering any conversations, read-up on your organisation’s wellbeing and mental health programmes, to make sure you’re aware of your workplace policies and the support options available.

Another way to encourage staff to speak about stress at work is to create an open culture, where employees feel comfortable sharing their difficulties with line managers and HR.

The more staff are open about their reasons for taking leave and signing off sick, the easier it is to monitor and achieve an accurate picture of your workplace’s stress levels.

Emotional literacy training – ensuring staff have a common language to discuss distress – can improve managers’ abilities to support their employees, equipping them with knowledge, self-awareness and empathy, making them better listeners.

At Nuffield Health, over 12,000 employees have successfully completed emotional literacy training. 94 percent of these state they’d feel confident supporting a colleague showing signs of emotional distress.

As a company, we’ve also developed our network of Mental Health Champions who, in combination with line managers, are empowered to raise understanding around mental wellbeing and to help others access the right support at the right time.

Boosting emotional resilience

Everybody responds to stressful situations differently. This is known as your emotional resilience. When we are feeling resilient, we can adapt to change and stress, but sometimes we all struggle and have a harder time dealing with stress.

Resilience is not a fixed trait within a person, it is a combination of attitudes, skills and behaviours that can be learned and developed. Everyone can develop their resilience and increase their sense of well-being and satisfaction with life

Just as there can be a variety of reactions to stress, people find different stress management techniques helpful. That’s why it’s important to have an open dialogue so stress doesn’t become a silent issue and individual action plans can be created.

Provide support by implementing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with situations causing emotional distress.

From financial issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental ill-health, research has shown these benefits help to reduce the costs of presenteeism and enhance long-term emotional resilience among workers.

You could also consider introducing additional stress management techniques to help with less serious day-to-day issues. These could include mindfulness workshops and internal seminars on topics like time management, good sleep habits and money worries. You could also encourage staff to dedicate some personal time to self-care and to research appropriate stress-relief options, particularly if they struggle with stress. Point them in the direction of things like this Kava’s Buyer Guide to help them, should they need some gentle encouragement.

Nuffield Health has found each work environment will have unique needs. However, whatever the needs of your organisation, effective support strategies for stress should involve a suite of options that indicate to staff a dialogue about stress is both welcomed and expected.

Adopting this approach, businesses will benefit from reduced absenteeism and a happier, healthier workplace.

By Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing, Nuffield Health