Stress may be defined as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them".
Pressure is part of work and helps to keep both workers and managers motivated. However, if the pressure is excessive or uncontrolled that can lead to stress which undermines performance, is costly to employers and above all can make people ill. In short, stress is a response to pressure. Pressure can be beneficial in certain circumstances such as when it inspires motivation and commitment. Excessive pressure becomes stress which is harmful and can lead to major illness, even death. There is no such thing as 'good' stress.
The effects of stress can lead to physical symptoms of ill health, such as heart disease, as well as longer term psychological damage. Many of the early outward signs are noticeable and include:
Changes in behaviour
Unusual tearfulness, irritability or aggression
Increased sickness absence
Reduced performance, e.g. inability to concentrate
Overworking or failure to delegate
Erosion of self-confidence
Relationship problems, e.g. becoming withdrawn or argumentative
Increased unwillingness to co-operate or accept advice
Excessive smoking or drinking
Individuals suffering from stress may also complain of:
Raised blood pressure
Increased heart rate
Work-related stress is the result of a conflict between the role and needs of an individual and the demands of the workplace. Physiologically we are programmed to deal with threatening situations by producing more adrenaline which increases heart-rate and puts our bodies into a state of arousal, 'the fight or flight' reaction. This response is only intended to be short-term. The effect of excessive pressure is to keep the body constantly in such a state, which leads to the harmful signs and symptoms including those listed above.
Research has shown that feeling stressed at work is not confined to particular occupations or levels within organisations. Workers with management responsibilities also show stress symptoms. Different individuals may react differently to stress and the same person may react differently to stress at different times. A survey undertaken by the HSE in 1995 suggested that over half a million people believed they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, or some physical illness resulting from stress, caused or made worse by their work.