What is Stress?


Stress is a normal component of the bodyís response to demands that are placed on it. When we are frightened or angry, the body responds to this stress with a number of physical reactions that prepare it for action. Factors that trigger this stress response are known as stressors.

Stressors are encountered in almost every aspect of our lives. Excess stress, or distress, has been identified as an important factor in many types of illness. Heart disease is one of the health effects that has been linked to excessive stress. Workplace stressors can lead to distress because they are, in many cases, beyond the individualís control. And the individual may be exposed to the same stressors day after day. Occupational stress is often the combined effect of several stressors. The health effects of different stressors cannot be easily separated. Nonetheless, an understanding of the different types of stressors is essential to recognizing, assessing and controlling these potential hazards. Workplace stressors include physical and organizational factors.

Physical Stressors

The body has automatic mechanisms that attempt to protect it from physical agents such as noise and extreme temperature. Physical stressors can be harmful because they force body systems to continuously compensate for conditions that are outside the normal range.

Exposure to excessive heat and excessive cold may be workplace stressors. Other physical agents that cause excessive stress are high levels of noise and vibration.

Work station design may cause excessive stress. Heavy manual labour may have similar effects. Work on rotating shifts may place the body under physical stress, because the bodyís natural cycles, known as the circadian rhythm, are forced to readjust. Several days may be needed for this adjustment to take place, when workers change from one shift to another. In the meantime, their appetite, sleep, body temperature and blood pressure may be affected.

Organizational Stressors

Organizational stressors result when people face anxiety or frustration from aspects of their work that they cannot control. Examples include situations where people are not able to exercise their full skills and knowledge potential or may not understand what they produce, and how. They may face conflicting demands. Or they may not receive the respect or recognition they expect for their accomplishments. Organizational stressors may cause specific reactions in the body that can lead to potential health effects. One European study correlates the degree of stress with the amount of responsibility and control a person has over the job.

Work Overload or Underload

A person may become frustrated at work due to a number of circumstances, such as repetitive tasks without the opportunity for variation or for undertaking greater responsibility and learning, and not receiving adequate recognition.

Excessive work demands may be distressful and potentially lead to emotional stress when they exceed the personís capabilities. Excessive work without appropriate breaks may also be distressful. Work overload may also weaken a personís confidence in their own abilities and adequacy to do the job.

Role Uncertainty and Role Conflict

The responsibilities placed on individuals are often positive aspects of their work. Meeting responsibility and "doing a good job" are important factors in self-esteem. But where job responsibilities conflict or are unclear, work can be confusing and frustrating and may lead to excessive stress.

Responsibility for Others

Jobs which involve accepting responsibility for the care and welfare of other people can be emotionally draining. The distress that results can eventually lead to a condition known as burnout, which means that the person is emotionally and physically exhausted. People in this situation may begin to blame themselves when things go wrong or become indifferent towards the people in their care. This can happen without the affected person even being aware of it. Health care, custodial and social workers are particularly vulnerable.


When a person feels, or is in fact, isolated for long periods of time, they may become distressed. Some work processes separate people and can create feelings of isolation, which may cause distress.

Job Satisfaction

Lack of job satisfaction may contribute to excessive stress. The lack of promotional opportunities or restrictive job functions and uncertainty about job performance may be contributing factors.

Job Security

A concern for job security may contribute to stress. A feeling of insecurity can come from several sources. The potential for layoffs due to lack of work, job loss due to discriminatory dismissal and sexual or racial discrimination or harassment are examples of stressful situations.

Workplace Violence

Violence, excessive aggression or hostility in the workplace may also be stressful. This also applies to situations where it is perceived that a potential danger of violence, aggression or hostility exists.

Health Effects

Individuals respond differently to stress. Personality, general health and the support of friends and colleagues all affect this response. A group of people exposed to the same type of stressors may experience different health effects. Nonetheless, the bodyís physical response to stress is generally the same for everyone. It is commonly known as the generalized stress response.

Excessive stress has been associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive ailments, skin rashes, insomnia, nervous or emotional disorders, substance abuse and interpersonal and family dysfunction.

As long as stressful experiences are brief and infrequent, the body quickly returns to normal. In nature, this phenomenon is known as the fight or flight reaction. But a person who is in a continuous state of stress throughout every working day may experience a wide variety of potential health effects.

Assessing Excessive Stress

It is difficult for an employer or a joint health and safety committee to determine that excessive stress is contributing to adverse health effects. Known stressors may be present in the workplace, and their potential effects may be observed. Attendance records or interviews with workers and supervisors could indicate the possibility that a person is suffering from stress-related health effects. However, a determination that a stress-related health effect exists requires a thorough evaluation by a medical professional.

Excessive stress may be controlled or reduced by eliminating the source of the excessive stress, or by helping people to cope. Control at the source is preferable where it is possible and practicable.

Control at the source may involve changes to the physical environment or to the organization or conditions of work. Physical stressors, such as excessive temperatures or noise and poor air quality, may possibly be reduced or eliminated. Work stations may be designed to reduce repetitive and strenuous movements.

Excessive stress caused by shift work may also be reduced. Eliminating shift work is usually impossible, but schedules can be designed on a forward rotating basis to minimize the disruption of body rhythms. Ideally, the persons on shift should be involved in developing their schedules.

Organizational stressors may be eliminated or controlled through changes in working conditions, such as job rotation and increased job responsibilities and opportunities so as to allow people to learn and apply new skills. Employee involvement in the decision-making process, clear work assignments to avoid work uncertainty, and policies that eliminate harassment and discrimination in the workplace can help to reduce excessive stress.

Programs to help employees cope with excessive stress include employee assistance programs (EAP). Some companies conduct seminars for this purpose. Workplace meetings that allow people to share their views about work procedures and design and organizational issues may also help.


Stress is a normal component of our everyday lives. Excessive stress, or distress, is the effect of prolonged excessive physical or emotional pressure on the human body. Factors that may cause excessive stress, such as physical agents and organizational characteristics, are called stressors. Some physical agents such as excessive noise, vibration and temperatures are stressors. Other physical factors that may lead to distress include work station design, ventilation and lighting. Shiftwork may cause excess stress by interfering with the workerís body rhythms.

Organizational factors which can lead to anxiety and frustration are also stressors and may include:

  • work overload or underload
  • role uncertainty and role conflict
  • responsibility for others
  • isolation
  • job dissatisfaction
  • job insecurity

The health effects of excessive occupational stress may be more severe where the causes are likely to be persistent and continual and when the person may not have control over them.

The body reacts to excessive stress in different ways. The general pattern of physical reactions is known as the generalized stress response. Heart disease and high blood pressure and other health effects have been associated with excessive stress.

There are no widely accepted standards for the assessment of stress. The determination that adverse health effects may be stress-related requires an evaluation by a medical professional. The joint health and safety committee may assist in identifying workplace stressors and recommending potential solutions to reduce workplace stress.

Excessive stress may be controlled by eliminating the source of the distress or by helping people to cope. Where possible and practicable, the former approach is preferable.

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