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Change Work October 2010

Bring it on!

It seems to be more or less accepted that "stress" at work is on the increase.  It's certainly prevalent as this statistic demonstrates:  "In 2008/09 an estimated 415 000 individuals in Britain, who worked in the last year, believed that they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill" (Health & Safety Executive:

And I wonder how many additional people felt ill but didn't realise that it was due to stress.

But is it really something new and on the rise? If so, is it due to increasing demands or decreasing ability to cope?  Or is that we now have a name for the resulting condition?  Was life really easier, and less worrying during feudal times?  In wartime?  The Black Death?

I don't know.  It's an interesting question and one I'd like to hear other views on.  But it's not the question I want to discuss now. Instead I'd like to consider what stress is and what you can do about it.

First of all, I'd distinguish between "stress" and "pressure".

Pressure exists in the world outside of you. It's about the demands that others impose on you.

Stress comes from your response to pressure, in particular when the perceived demands swamp your ability to cope.  (And perceived demands aren't necessarily the same as what's actually being demanded.)

The term "stress" is frequently used to characterise the situation rather than the response.  But it's the response that matters.

One of the dictionary definitions of "stress" is, "a state of mental, emotional, or other strain". Leaving aside the question of what "strain" might be, what's interesting about this definition is that it categorises stress as a state.  And your state at any moment is entirely internal to you.  It may well be a response to the outside world - to the situation you find yourself in - but it's not a characteristic of the situation or the environment.  (Physicists and engineers may be having trouble with this definition - see the footnote below*.)

And what's more, different people, at different times, experience the same events differently.

But there still survives a certain quite aggressive attitude that stress is what winners seek and, by implication, losers can't handle.  So you hear, "I thrive on stress", and similar.  Perhaps people who say this are lying.  But if not, then I suggest that what they're experiencing isn't stress because, according to the definition above, stress is characterised by what you feel. So, if you're feeling energised, if you're "thriving", then you're not "stressed" - by definition!

If you believe that you thrive on stress then I suggest that what you probably have is a very positive response to challenge.  The more you're pressed, the more motivated you become.  But there must still be a limit to what any individual can deal with without experiencing stress.

So what then, for example, do we mean by "a stressful job"?  You could say that it's any job you can't do!  Or one that frequently overwhelms your ability to cope.  And it's interesting that the factors that overwhelm you may have nothing to do with how complex or specialised the role as defined in the job description is. They are much more likely to be about the volume of work, relationships with colleagues and your manager's behaviour towards you.

What can you do to change it?

Well, there are a few approaches that may be familiar from earlier newsletters:

So, stress is what you experience when perceived demands exceed your ability to cope.  As well as looking for ways to change the demands you can also change how you respond so that you don't feel stressed, even if the pressure persists.  It's in your hands, which means that, in a sense, stress is usually self -inflicted. And Tommy Cooper had a useful comment on that, "I went to see the doctor.  I said, 'Doctor!  It hurts when I do that'.  The doctor said, 'Don't do that!' "

I certainly couldn't put it better.

*In physics and engineering, the exact opposite definition holds: "stress" relates to the forces applied to an object whereas "strain" is a measure of how the object responds by stretching or compressing.  So there's a certain irony in the dictionary definition I quoted, referring to the psychological concept of stress as, "a state of mental, emotional, or other strain".  Defining "stress" as a type of "strain" makes no sense in mechanics!