ThinkingStress: Can a little be a good thing?

As burn-out is officially recognised as a syndrome, Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, explains how we can boost our resilience.
Content Team3 months ago9 min

A staggering 15.4 million working days are lost each year, thanks to absenteeism caused by stress, anxiety and depression. Now, work-related burn-out has been added to the World Health Organisation’s handbook of diseases, called the International Classification of Diseases, meaning it’ll become a globally-recognised syndrome as of 2022.

According to the WHO, burn-out results from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. Symptoms include exhaustion, “increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job” and reduced professional efficacy.

With this news in mind, here’s how to recognise chronic stress and how to deal with it.

Good stress versus bad stress

Stress occurs when we view the demands placed upon us as reaching or exceeding the resources we possess to cope. We find situations like this intimidating, so to prepare us for a potential threat the body releases chemicals, which are referred to as the “fight or flight” response.

So, are all forms of stress bad? There is in fact a type called ‘eustress’ – translated from the Greek for ‘good stress’ – which has been found by medical researchers to have both emotional and physical health benefits.

Characteristics include that it’s a short-term feeling, which motivates and energises and is within our coping ability. It also increases attention and work performance.

In contrast, negative stressful situations – or distress – are classified as outside our coping abilities, uncomfortable and detrimental to our health if long-term.

Feeling like this over a long period of time is what leads to ‘chronic stress’, which, in turn, can exacerbate other health concerns like anxiety, obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure and depression. As the World Health Organisation says, it can also result in burn-out.

How to recognise chronic stress

Of course, chronic stress doesn’t just affect our physical and mental health – it can result in a decline in work performance too. Managers should be alert to certain signposts which show when a team member might be struggling to cope with stress. These could include some of the following characteristics or behaviours:

  • Trouble making decisions
  • Mood changes at work (e.g. tearfulness, nervousness, irritability)
  • Procrastination and disorganisation when completing tasks
  • More absenteeism, due to repeated complaints of physical symptoms (for example, upset stomach, headaches)

How to deal with it

When an employee is experiencing difficulties, it’s important they are encouraged to seek out expert help. This should begin with discreet, private conversations – initiated by a line manager – discussing the changes they’ve noticed and letting them know the business is there to support them.

Most organisations have wellbeing programmes and policies in place, so before entering any conversations, read-up on these to make sure you’re aware of the support options available.

Create an open culture

One of the ways to encourage staff to speak about stress at work is to create an open culture. If everyone is transparent about their reasons for taking leave and signing off sick, stigma will slowly begin to dissolve.

When staff feel comfortable sharing difficulties with a business, it’s then easier to monitor workplace stress levels, enabling HR to make decisions about the right resources needed.

At Nuffield Health we offer emotional literacy training to employees, which helps them recognise the signs of emotional distress in themselves and others. They are also taught different coping strategies to maintain good emotional health. This training helps managers too, giving them the knowledge, self-awareness and empathy to make them better listeners.

Increasing emotional resilience

We all respond differently to stressful situations, and this is partly related to our varying levels of resilience. Put simply, the more resilient we feel, the more we can cope with challenging scenarios and adapt to change.

But we can all struggle from time to time, and it’s important to remember that resilience isn’t a fixed trait – our attitude towards stressful situations can be learned and nurtured. Stress management techniques can help boost our emotional resilience, and the way we react and respond to stress.

Techniques to help with minor day-to-day issues could include mindfulness workshops and internal seminars on topics like time management, good sleep habits and money worries.

For more serious concerns, businesses could consider implementing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). These gives staff around-the-clock, confidential contact with experts who can support them with situations causing emotional distress. From mental ill health, to financial issues and work-related problems, research suggests EAPs can reduce the costs of presenteeism.

Every work environment has unique requirements and whatever the needs of your organisation, effective support strategies should include tailored options, as well as an open dialogue about stress. Businesses with this approach will benefit from reduced absenteeism and a happier, healthier workplace.

Take a look at how author and TV star Dr Chatterjee says you can be less stressed at work here.


Brendan is the Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. He has over 25 years-experience of treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector, and is a BABCP accredited cognitive behavioural psychotherapist. 

Author of Stress: Can a little be a good thing?
Brendan Street

Content Team

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