Balancing the Positives & Negatives of Stress at Work

how to spot signs of stress in employees

Stress is an inevitable part of everyday life and our bodies are hard-wired to respond to it. However, it’s clear stress is taking a negative toll on businesses across the country.

Poor mental health costs employers between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee every year. This cost is for all employees, not just those who are ill, so we asked Brendan Street of Nuffield Health to show how employers can cut the cost of stress.

Recent figures reveal, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44 percent of all work-related ill health cases and 57 percent of all working days lost due to ill health. 15.4 million days were lost due to work related stress in 2017/2018.

The main causes of stress in the workplace are workload pressures, mounting responsibility and a perceived lack of support from senior management.

Let’s start by exploring the difference between helpful and unhelpful stress and what this means for employers looking to improve the wellbeing of their workforce.

Is there such a thing as ‘good’ stress?

Stress, or more particularly, our psychological and physical response to it, is not necessarily a bad thing.

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.

If there is a short-lived threat – stress is normal and has its benefits. “Good stress” – Eustress – is the result of our human fight-or-flight response preparing us to deal with the situation increasing our resources.

Physical symptoms might include our hearts beating faster to take in more oxygen, our pupils dilating to see more around us and our cognitive processing briefly increasing so we can think and react quickly.

These experiences in small doses can help us reach short-term goals, but over time, “chronic stress” makes us less productive – we feel like we are barely surviving as opposed to thriving.

Chronic stress is caused when you remain in a heightened state of stress over a long period of time, as the constant release of hormones can put a lot of wear and tear on your body.

Many employees, and employers, believe the means to success is continually ‘achieving’ and moving on to the next goal as soon as possible with no period of reflection. In fact, ‘work addiction’ is often rewarded in our always-on culture, despite its long-term negative impact on wellbeing.

A good example is sleep. Many employees, and employers, tend to overvalue those that undervalue sleep – more time to get stuff done. However, there is a wealth of research that indicates sleep is a key component in building high performing teams and businesses.

Long term stress is detrimental to wellbeing and can lead to conditions like;

  • Chronic anxiety,
  • Obesity,
  • Insomnia,
  • Autoimmune disease,
  • High blood pressure and
  • Depression.

Recognising the signs of stress

A question I’m often asked is ‘How do we know when someone has reached ‘chronic’ stress levels?’

The answer is if you notice stress affecting an employee’s ability to live a normal life and perform at work. This is when action is needed. Not only is physical and mental health impacted, but it also impairs an employee’s performance in the workplace.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, signs of chronic stress, include:

  • Increased absenteeism and employees becoming prone to illness and chronic infection
  • Restlessness
  • Indecisiveness
  • Mood changes e.g. irritability, tearfulness, agitation
  • Procrastination and inefficiency when completing tasks

Once these symptoms impact on the individual they exhibit presenteeim, i.e. they are at work but not performing due to the impact of chronic stress.

Chronic stress doesn’t just affect individuals either. Research from the University of Calgary revealed ‘fear pheromones,’ are physiologically contagious. This means others around them will also show greater activation in brain areas responding to anxiety and fear.

You might notice those suffering from chronic stress are working more or regularly staying late to complete tasks. Ironically, people often do this because they believe it helps them avoid these feelings.

This can also lead to leavism – employees using leave days to catch up with work.  This is an ineffective coping mechanism. We end up ignoring our relationships, eliminating our social lives and eating and sleeping poorly.

Eventually, an employee will become too exhausted to do their jobs well.

They will, quite literally, burn-out.

How to manage chronic stress

The best way to manage chronic symptoms of stress is to first encourage staff to speak about how they’re feeling and create an open culture.

The more staff open-up about reasons for taking leave and signing off sick, the easier it is to monitor and achieve an accurate picture of workplace stress levels and start introducing the right support mechanisms.

Emotional literacy training is an effective tool to boost employee resilience by ensuring staff have a common language to discuss distress and 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, of whom 94 percent stated they’d feel confident supporting a colleague showing signs of emotional distress.

One of the most convenient ways to collect employee data is through online digital platforms. Tools like Nuffield Health’s provide a simple and completely anonymous platform for employees to feed information and help shape their own wellbeing schemes.

Ensure there are people in the company who are trained to properly listen and understand those suffering. A trusted, calm and non-judgmental listener can be the first step in effective treatment and recovery.

Licensed training can be provided through Mental Health First Aid, which provides practical skills, knowledge and confidence to recognise symptoms.

At Nuffield Health, we’ve developed our own 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.

Supporting Emotional Resilience is key

Since not all stress is bad, another important part of the solution is to teach employees how to harness the benefits of short-term stress and build emotional resilience, while supporting them to avoid slipping into the chronic realm.

Sustainable long-term success is not about burning the candle at both ends or forcing employees to open-up when they’re not ready. It’s about giving individuals the confidence to feel they can use available support when it’s needed.

Wise employers offer an array of options tailored to the workforce and based on employee feedback. Offering such a ‘menu’ of options indicates conversations about stress and mental health are both welcomed and expected, which in turn ensures early intervention and prevents employees feeling overwhelmed.

Introducing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) – which offer direct, confidential contact with experts – can also support individuals with situations causing emotional distress. They’ve been shown to reduce the cost of presenteeism in employees suffering from financial issues, work-related problems and even addiction and mental ill health.

Wellbeing is tied to feeling valued and appreciated. Employees want to know their employer has their best interests at heart and, if needed, they’ll be met with understanding and assistance every step of the way.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health.He has over 25 years-experience of treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector.

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