Stress Management

by Helen Whitten

In a nutshell

1. What is stress management?

One of your duties as a manager is to understand what stress is all about and what can be done both to prevent it and to manage it. Stress is

  • A sense of overwhelm
  • The fight-or-flight response that primes your mind and body for strength and speed
  • A reduction in the immune system
  • A state rather than an illness, but it leads to illness
  • Not good for your business – it cuts off the part of the brain people need to solve complex problems
  • Something people can learn to manage.


2. The business case for stress management

Stress is a business issue. It impacts health and productivity. Business issues include

  • Sickness absence
  • Mistakes and bad decisions
  • Aggression and bad communication
  • Reduced performance and productivity
  • Lack of creativity as people are in survival or safety mode
  • 10.5 million lost working days per year in Britain
  • £780 = the average total cost to a business of absence per employee per year.


3. The fight-or-flight response

This is an inherited automatic survival mechanism that results from a sense of immediate danger. The brain activates to protect the person and enable them to manage a physical threat. This physical response is to provide you with strength and speed:

  • Lungs take in more oxygen
  • Liver pours out glucose for energy
  • Digestion halts
  • Pupils dilate for better vision
  • Blood pressure and heart rate sore
  • All energy is diverted to muscles and the survival area of the brain
  • Your upper, thinking brain is deprived of the energy it needs for clarity of thought
  • Long-term, the cortisol released into the body helps to lower the immune system.

None of this is very useful in a client meeting!


4. The symptoms of stress

Becoming aware of physical symptoms helps you observe those of your staff who may be stressed. These symptoms can include

  • Headaches
  • Colds and flu
  • Neck and back ache
  • Skin problems and rashes
  • Digestive problems
  • Persistent illness

There are also behavioural symptoms, and it is important for people to recognise their own signs of stress and also for you, as a manager, to recognise when members of your team might be stressed. There are three stages to observe:

  1. Early warning signals: working long hours, more mistakes, over-reaction
  2. ‘It’s getting too much’: irritability, impactions, aggression, sickness
  3. ‘I need help’: depression, sickness absence, anti-social behaviour, burnout


5. Typical stressful situations

An important aspect of managing stress is to identify which situations are most stressful, so that you can prepare for them and/or alter them. Examples of stressors would be

  • Workplace

Change, uncertainty, job security, long hours, targets, deadlines, harassment, conflict, technology, lack of control

  • Personal life

Small children, teenagers, elderly parents, financial concerns, health, divorce, bereavement, lack of work-life balance

  • General

The economy, transport, politics

Sometimes people can change the situation, but stress management is normally a matter of finding a better mental and emotional approach to difficult situations.


6. The beliefs behind stress

Thinking impacts emotions. Think negatively and you get stressed; undermine your confidence and competence, and you get stressed. Being stressed has negative consequences on your performance and ability to think clearly. Applying the ABCDE model enables you to change your approach:

A = Activating Event (situation perceived as stressful)

B = Belief or expectation of the event (this is terrible)

C = Consequential emotion and behaviour (stress reaction)

D = Disputing whether your belief (B) is helping you achieve a good result in A

E= Exchanging your thought and approach in order to better manage A

Stressful or negative beliefs are often due to perfectionism – the way the person thinks things should, ought or must be. You can help staff by teaching them to pursue excellence (which is achievable), rather than an impossible and unrealistic perfection.


7. Your responsibilities as a manager

There are specific regulations that fall into a manager’s remit of responsibility. There are six categories you should be concerned with in terms of managing staff:

  1. Job demands – staff should be able to cope with the demands of the job
  2. Control – they should have an adequate say concerning how the work is done
  3. Support – they require adequate support from colleagues and superiors
  4. Roles – they should be clear as to roles and responsibilities
  5. Relationships – they should not be subjected to unacceptable behaviours
  6. Change – they should be involved in organisational changes.

These categories and the HSE regulations are designed to prevent stress, which the HSE view as the greatest danger to businesses in the 21st Century.


8. Action steps:

  • Looking on the bright side of life
  • Gaining perspective
  • 7-11 breathing
  • Physical release and exercise
  • Managing difficult situations
  • Managing conflict
  • Dealing with bullying or harassment
  • Self-care
  • Creating a supportive culture
  • Physical environment
  • Support and network groups
  • Lifestyle and work-life balance
  • Technology and how to survive it
  • Managing panic attacks
  • Knowing when to refer people on
  • Managing change and uncertainty
  • Mediation and relaxation