Stress and its symptoms

Dr
Sayeed Khan gives us a whistlestop guide to the symptoms that may indicate
stress among employees

Stress
has always been around in one form or another, as is demonstrated by this quote
attributed to the British Medical Journal of 1875:

“Fatigue
is common in jobs that require either unflagging devotion or a high degree of
stress. Widespread tiredness among the educated middle classes is attributed to
the pace of modern life”.

More
recently, stress and mental ill-health has taken over from musculoskeletal
disorders, such as back pain, as the main reason for cases of incapacity
benefit.

According
to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as many as one in
five people are suffering from high levels of work-related stress in the UK.
That’s around 5 million workers. But what exactly is stress, and what are the
symptoms?

The
HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to the excess pressure
or demands that are placed upon them”. The factors which lead to someone
feeling stress are unique to that person. But experience shows that the main
stressors, especially if prolonged or accumulative, are:


Relationships within the family
– Financial difficulties
– Work
– The individual’s personality
– The lack of a social network (friends)
– Health problems.

Symptoms
of stress

These
are numerous, and it may be difficult to distinguish between reactions that
cause stress, and those that are associated with it. But look out for changes
in behaviour, mood or bodily symptoms.

Behavioural
changes include forgetfulness, procrastination, hurried speech, making simple
mistakes, becoming unkempt or drinking excessively and smoking constantly. Mood
changes can range from a sense of sadness to clinical depression and anxiety,
as well as the acute reaction of a nervous breakdown.

People
commonly notice that an individual seems unusually irritable or quiet, or the
person overreacts to situations. Individuals who are normally confident become
indecisive. Bodily symptoms can include the exacerbation of a quiescent
problem, such as migraine, or the development of new symptoms. For example, if
someone regularly suffers headaches on a Saturday morning or insomnia on every
Sunday night, is there some new stressor(s) at work?

Individuals
with stress can also suffer with unexplainable neck stiffness or pain, back
pain, irritable bowels, chest pain, overbreathing (and thus a sense of
light-headedness or dizziness) and the classic symptom of feeling tired all the
time. All of these symptoms can be brought on by stress.

Work
is increasingly described as being synonymous with stress. But this is a gross
oversimplification as many businesses recognise that a good employer can be a
major part of the solution. Yet, it is essential to have some sense of pressure
in life as this presents us with challenges and, if we respond positively, we
are rewarded with a sense of achievement and satisfaction. People worry about
burning out, but it is equally important not to start rusting.

Managing
stress

The
key to managing stress in business is straightforward. It relies on good
management practice. Risk assessment is the key tool with which to manage
workplace stress. For more help, look for the Engineering Employers’
Federation’s ‘Managing stress at work’ guidance (www.eef.org.uk).

Many
managers recognise they are responsible for the effective working of their
people, but not many realise that an employee’s ineffectiveness may be due to a
mental health problem. Good management controls stressors and helps to minimise
the risks of stress arising. Remember, it may be difficult to rehabilitate a
worker, and a sick note is not a magic cure; it simply avoids and delays the
need to face up to the problem and tackle it.

If
you are dealing with a stress sufferer, it is important for both employee and
manager to take note of persistent behavioural or mood changes, and to identify
any new or prolonged stressors that may be responsible. If problems continue
even after stressors have been resolved, then it is worth the employee having a
word with their GP.

Managers
can tactfully raise persistent mood or behavioural changes with an employee,
but some may find it difficult to kickstart such a conversation. For guidance
on how to talk to an employee with stress problems, look to Mindout’s website (www.mindout.net). It covers topics such as
what to say if someone becomes tearful, or how to engage a person who is
reluctant to talk.

As
a manager, always bear in mind that people are afraid of talking about mental health
issues. If someone suffers a broken arm, people may even joke about the
incident. But mental health problems carry a stigma, so it is vital for
employers to accept that stress must be addressed seriously and sensibly.
Collectively, we need to create a culture in which employees’ mental problems
can be openly discussed and managed, rather than hidden.

For
more on stress, read about ‘Battered Britain’ in this week’s Personnel Today

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