Stress Management

by Helen Whitten

The symptoms of stress

Key point

Unless the stress hormones that flood the body in response to a perceived threat are released through physical fight-or-flight activities, the build-up of chemicals in the body has no opportunity to disperse and can cause long-term health problems.

In the short term, however, the symptoms may appear like very minor irritations. You may therefore find that your staff, feeling under pressure to achieve targets, become stressed yet ignore their physical symptoms until they actually become ill.

As a manager, it can help to understand this process for yourself so as to be able to manage your own performance as well as helping others. Tune into the warning signals your body gives you and become aware of your own physical symptoms of stress. These signals tell you that you have situations that need attention in order to relieve stress. Precisely what those symptoms are will vary from one person to another – some people get digestive problems; some get headaches, and others get skin disorders - so it is important to recognise the uniqueness of your own and other people’s reactions to stressful situations.

Physical reactions to stress include increased heart rate and blood pressure as the blood is pumped towards the muscles. Hands and feet tend to become cold as the blood leaves the skin surface. You may sweat, which enables the body to be cooled during physical exertion. Breathing becomes faster, pupils dilate and the mouth becomes dry. Fatty acids are released into the blood and, as cholesterol is released, veins become constricted over time and there is the risk of the build-up of arterial blockages.

Digestive problems, in the form of constipation or diarrhoea, are common symptoms of stress. The glucose released by the liver gives short-term energy, but can cause problems over time.

Therefore, with prolonged stress the chances of serious illness are increased considerably. You may yourself know of people who have suffered heart attacks or burnout at work and others within your organisation who are frequently ill with persistent minor ailments.

Looking out for the physical symptoms

If you notice persistent symptoms of illness and absenteeism in members of your team or other work colleagues, investigate whether these people are under pressure. It is possible that a simple change at work might alleviate their problems. A client recently told us of her surprise when, on visiting her doctor with a minor infection, he asked her whether she was stressed at work. She replied that she was, as there had been recent changes of personnel within her team. She had not previously made the connection between the stressful situation and the fact that she was ill.


Consider these stress symptoms. Have you noticed any in yourself or your colleagues?

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Colds and flu
  • Insomnia
  • Nervous twitching, nailbiting
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Breathlessness
  • Palpitations and chest pain
  • Indigestion, heart burn and stomach problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Butterflies
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Urinary malfunction
  • Loss of libido
  • Psoriasis and skin problems
  • Fainting

Should you or a member of your team experience any of these symptoms on a continuous basis, it is always advisable to consult a doctor.

As your health and the health of each member of an organisation or team is of paramount importance, you may like to suggest to your colleagues and teams that they are watching out for danger signs, both in themselves and in those around them.

Behavioural signs

Alongside the physical symptoms of stress, you are likely to notice changes of behaviour in yourself or in work colleagues when stressed. This is due to the impact that the hormonal build-up has on the nervous system. These signs can be particularly helpful indicators of stress in work colleagues and direct reports.

1. Early warning signals

  • Being too busy to talk
  • Eating at their desk, or skipping meals
  • Drinking many cups of coffee
  • Grumbling about work situations to colleagues
  • Working long hours
  • Arriving late
  • Loss of memory
  • More mistakes than usual
  • Defensiveness
  • Over-reaction to problems

2. ‘It’s getting too much’

  • Irritability and impatience
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Becoming upset over minor problems, slamming drawers and so on
  • Headaches and/or gastric symptoms
  • Smoking or drinking more
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorganised desk or obsessive tidiness
  • Not taking holiday entitlement
  • Reduced social contact and withdrawal
  • Sensitivity to seemingly small problems
  • Absenteeism
  • Resigned, sulking or demotivated attitude

3. ‘I need help’

  • Inability to cope with workload
  • Dizziness and depression
  • Sickness absence
  • Tears
  • Lack of interest in appearance and hygiene
  • Explosions of anger/bullying
  • Palpitations, leading to anxiety/panic attacks
  • Lack of interest in and attention to work
  • Inability to perform simple tasks
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Loss of energy
  • Burnout

If you notice symptoms...

If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, it is worth observing the person to see if there is anything obvious that may be causing them stress in the workplace. It could be that there is a specific project or deadline, or that they are feeling overwhelmed by their workload.


It is important to clarify that this is a confidential exchange.

Find a way to have an informal conversation to start with and, if there is an indication that there is a problem, either at work or at home, take the time to have a longer meeting to identify the issue.

The easiest way of supporting the person is to listen and be on their side. If they feel that they will be judged or criticised for not coping, they are unlikely to open up, which means that you cannot help them solve their problem. So suspend judgement and listen. If the problem is outside your remit, then you can simply give them moral support and possibly advise that they get further professional support (see Knowing when to refer people on). If the problem is within your remit, you have the opportunity to take action and resolve the situation.