Debunking the Myths around Stress

Debunking the Myths around Stress

What is stress?

One of the biggest issues answering this question is that there is no agreed definition of stress. The NHS defines it as “the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure”, but this is only one of many definitions and they don’t always agree. So, we end up with everything becoming “stress” – you hear comments like “the work-based stress caused him to be stressed and he suffered from stress”. No wonder we’re in a muddle.
So, let’s start off with a physiological explanation of what stress is and in order to do that I’d like to introduce you to our ancestor called Ugg. Ugg is a simple hunter gatherer who spends some of his day out hunting for food. Unfortunately for our Ugg, this also means that sometimes he is the one being hunted.
This means that Ugg is well designed to be able to hunt for prey, but also to run away from a predator. This design is perfect for a hunter gatherer. We call it fight, flight or freeze simply because our body and our brain are beautifully adapted in order for us to be prepared very quickly to fight i.e. to hunt or defend ourselves, to run away or in the worst of circumstances to stand absolutely still, because predators look for movement.
So Ugg would spend 5-10 minutes a day in fight or flight, after which he goes back to his cave to rest and recover.
For our ancestors this system, called the sympathetic nervous system, enabled their bodies and brains to be ready at a split-second’s notice. It was never designed to run for long periods.
Unfortunately, we’ve taken the system that was designed to run for a few minutes, a few times a day and turned this system on for 8 to 18 hours a day. When we turn on our fight flight or freeze (sympathetic nervous system) for long periods, we call this stress.
So now let’s bring Ugg into our modern world and he’s rushing the children to school, fighting the traffic and trying to get to work in time to finish a project in order to achieve a deadline. There is no predator here but the same biological systems react in the way that they were designed to, to help us to run away or fight, and you wonder why you sometimes get road rage?
Now we understand the physiology, lets now look at the psychology and how there is an interplay between our body and our mind.
The first thing that we need to understand is that humans are a very complex animals, and as part of that complexity we have developed a wonderful and terrible thing that we call language. This language allows us to talk to each other, to convey information, to build relationships and to work together to solve problems. Unfortunately, this same language allows us to talk to ourselves. That nagging, berating and often negative voice that sits between our ears.
We are the only animal (that we know of) that can worry about a future that will never happen or to regret a past that we cannot change. We can only do this through the use of this wonderful and terrible thing called language. It is no surprise then that we are the only animal with this ability and we are also the only animal that commits suicide.
This combination of a hunter gatherer’s fight or flight response and the ability of language to initiate that response over nothing is unique to us as human beings. Let me give you an example, let’s say you left your dog out in the rain for a couple of hours. What would happen when you returned and let your dog in? I’m sure it will be pleased to see you, shake itself off and maybe go to its bed and be happy to be in. So let me ask you, what would happen if you left your significant other out in the rain for couple of hours? How different would that response be? How long would they hold onto that for?
So, stress is the individual’s response to a situation, often predicted by the language within their own head. This is why stress is so individual because it’s based in the language in our head, it can last for as long as those thoughts last. An example of this is, when you are driving and someone cuts you up, how long are you discussing this over and over in your head for?
In summary then, stress can be seen as the physiological and psychological reaction when perceived pressure exceeds the persons capacity to cope. Because it is the individual’s own perception of the pressure which is processed through the language in their head, it is unique to them as will be the reaction to that pressure.

What is work related stress?

So now Ugg is working in an office, by this I mean that an animal that was designed to be a hunter gatherer, with this wonderful and terrible thing called language now has to survive in our modern world.
This means that pressure at work is now unavoidable due to the modern working environment. This pressure may be seen as positive, motivational or may be seen as beyond Ugg’s ability to cope, leading to Ugg feeling stress (a combination of the flight or flight response and the language in his head).
The actual stress response as we’ve seen is very individual. However, there are some common pressures at work which are often caused by the organisation in the way that the organisation designs jobs, work systems and the way that individuals are managed.
Research shows that the most stress inducing working environments are where excessive demands and pressures are not matched to the worker’s knowledge and abilities, where there is little engagement, choice or control and where there is little support from others including line managers.

The link between our approach to safety and mental health

In the same way that in safety we are striving for a safe working environment, in mental health we are striving for a positive working environment. So, what is a positive working environment? the world health organisation defines health as “not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. Therefore, a healthy working environment is not only one with an absence of harmful conditions but also one that provides a wide range of health promoting conditions.
Unfortunately, recently I’ve come across a number of organisations who feel that they have “cracked mental health issues” by appointing a number of mental health first aiders. The only measure of effectiveness of this program is the number of mental health first aiders appointed. I have to ask is this truly the solution? When we understand that the most stressful working environments are based around a lack of training, engagement, control and good management, how effective is appointing mental health first aiders going to be?
This is the equivalent in safety to solving safety by appointing a number of first aiders and then assuming that everything will be okay. Of course, that is nonsense, but isn’t that what some companies are doing in mental health?

To truly get to grips with the issues that we’re facing with mental health in the workplace, many of the solutions we’ve looked at within behavioural safety still apply.
1) Providing training for the individual for them to truly understand their role, what is required of them, in order to give them the technical skills and the psychological capacity to be able to complete that role.
2) Engagement of and with staff is key. This is true for any organisation wishing to develop a culture of continual improvement. The people who do the job know how to improve their job, how to use less resources and it is engagement that will help us not only improve now but to continue to improve in future.
3) A sense of control. Engagement also offers a sense of control and ownership of the individual’s working environment. I’ve always said that if you take control away from people they will always find a way to take control back. They will often do this in very negative and very dangerous ways. Giving them some control in order to make improvements directs that energy into something positive.
4) Excellent leadership, especially servant leadership, based on clear expectations and clear direction is the foundation to all of the above. Leaders, especially frontline managers have a huge impact on the culture and therefore on the pressure on the individuals below them, and on themselves. Teaching leaders soft skills cannot be emphasised enough;e are often very good at taking our best technical person and turning them into a leader and assuming that they have the skills to lead.
None of this is easy

I’m in no way pretending that this is an easy solution to a complex problem. If this problem was easy to solve we would have solved it by now. How often can we say the same thing about safety?
We have made so many huge strides towards a safer working environment and it has been such a arduous journey that it can feel like we are starting all over again when it comes to mental health. However, the good news is we don’t have to start again. Many of the systems and best practice that we put in place in order to provide excellence in safety also provide the requirements of a healthy workplace.
Quite often we see safety, health, environment, performance and quality as separate and unique elements of our business, yet when we really look at human behaviour and we really look at the organisations that do all of these things well they have one thing in common, high levels of staff engagement.
This is not necessarily about doing something different, it is about doing what we know is good for our people and our business and doing it well.

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