Stress in the Workplace

Stress is a part of the tapestry of work. Few people have not experienced the frantic irritation of being overwhelmed when they are drained of physical and mental energy to meet a deadline or make a presentation to a group of trainees. As people are different, stress that may intimidate one person can invigorate and challenge another. What seems to matter is whether the individual in the stressful situation believes that they have the resources to cope, to maintain a sense of control.

This is particularly so with adults who have a developed sense of their own autonomy and may explain why so often people do not seek help until they are on the brink of a ‘stress breakdown’. The problem is that when it’s easier to salvage, people are soldiering on and are not so willing to talk about it. This trend is supported by Workcover statistics that show stress claims are on the rise and those most at risk are people working in professional and semi-professional ranks. Stress costs more than $50 million and accounted for 5.4 % of overall claims in 1998-99, compared with 2.7% 10 years earlier. The upward trend has continued despite a tightening of the eligibility criteria in 1994-95 that stipulated that work had to be a significant factor in the complaint, rather than aspects of the worker’s personal life.

Stress overload can flare during a crisis – even a welcome circumstance such as getting a promotion, or less dramatically, it can creep into the bones of someone who is exhausted by weeks, months or even years of being overloaded. “Too much stress can lead a person to become anxious and extreme stress can wear down even the most resilient person to the point where they develop an actual problem with anxiety. When someone is in a severe situation and are unable to escape or get support, they can cross the line.” Dr Erica Frydenberg, a clinical and organisational psychologist at the University of Melbourne.

Anxiety of sufficient strength to warrant a medical diagnosis affects 1 in 10 adults, that is nearly 1.3 million people – females are affected twice as much as males. More than 2.7 million work days are lost annually when people cannot perform their usual activities because of disabling anxiety, according to last year’s National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing Report. Everyone experiences anxiety but it is a shape-shifter that blooms in many guises and intensities. It can range from butterflies in the stomach and twinges of trepidation to persistent, free-floating apprehension that perplexes people who have no sense of what their sense of dread is about.

They are more likely to be aware of the changes in their body; the racig heart, sweating, nausea, stiff muscles, trembling, difficulty breathing and a parched mouth that signals that anxiety has taken root. Equally disconcerting may be the constant fretting which shatters concentration. As stress balloons into anxiety, flight or flee urges become imperatives to get out of a situation which is frequently accompanied by a numbing sense of unreality with consequent detachment. When anxiety reaches these proportions, a full blown anxiety/panic attack is generally not far off. The National Survey of Mental Health (1999) estimates that some 30% of people will experience a full blown panic attack at some stage in their lives with some 3% of this number developing bouts with such regularity that it becomes a matter for psychiatric intervention.

In spite of it’s ability to fracture working lives, anxiety was designed to help human survival. It is a fundamental physiological device within the nervous system that primes us for action in the face of danger. Without this response we would not have the impetus to react instantly and slam our foot on the brake. Any situation in which we fall short of our expectations, either our own, our peers or those of our employer can trigger the flight/fight response. In minor to moderate doses, this nervous tension provides the clarity to screen out distractions and meet deadlines, to concentrate and avoid errors and stay on track during a talk.


Personality: Personality style can relate to susceptibility to stress related illness such as heart attack and stroke, as with stress Type ‘A’ people. For people who obsess about achieving or if we notice ourselves becoming a bit of a perfectionist, ask this simple question “Would it really be the end of the world if you made a mistake?”.

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