Let’s talk about stress


By Anastasia Stefanidou, Communications Officer, Biochemical Society

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2015/2016 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health. It’s time for employers to support their staff and invest in giving people the techniques and guidance on how to cope with stressful situations.

To raise awareness of and encourage discussion around the issue, The Physiological Society held a “Under Pressure: Making sense of stress” panel discussion on Tuesday, 21 February 2017.

The Physiological Society is devoting all of 2017 to ‘Making Sense of Stress’ across all areas – events, outreach, education, policy, and communications – with the general aim of emphasizing the contribution, past and current, of physiology to our understanding of stress.

Geoff McDonald, leader of minds@work, chaired last week’s panel, which included Stafford Lightman, Director of the Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol and current President Elect of the British Neuroscience Association and Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology and Director of the Research Centre for Applied Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

The mechanisms of stress

Hans Selye, known as “the father of stress,” noticed, as a medical student, that patients suffering from different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms. They just “looked sick”. This observation may have been the first step in his recognition of the concept of stress.

Lightman opened the event presenting the mechanisms of stress. “Stress is perceived in the brain. You can’t have stress unless you perceive it. It’s something your body perceives as bad, and you need to adapt to it”, he said.

What happens to you when you’re stressed? When your brain perceives a stressor, it tells the inside of the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, and the outside to release glucocorticoids. This hormonal response is one way our body responds to stress.

Lightman also explained that we have evolved to respond to stress in a way that it is in our interest. In many situations, short term stress is good. For instance, stressful incidents increase our vigilance, activate our acute memory and increase heart rate, adrenaline and blood sugar.

image1
Physiological response to acute stress (credit: Stafford Lightman)

Prolonged stress, on the other hand, can cause all sorts of problems like depression, inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities (anhedonia), lack of sex drive, disrupted sleep, heart diseases, and metabolic syndromes like diabetes.

image2
Pathophysiological response to chronic stress (credit: Stafford Lightman)

In addition to these physiological mechanisms, your genes, your early life experiences, and your stresses as an adult greatly influence your susceptibility to stress.

The cost of work-related stress

Kinman then spoke about the costs of work-related stress and wellbeing in demanding professions.

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “the process that arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope.”

The statistics are alarming. The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) show that:

  • The UK lost 11.7 million working days due to this condition in 2015/16 (average of 23.9 days lost per case).
  • In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.
  • Stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence.
  • The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety (LFS) were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support
  • Estimated financial burden is $221 million to $187 billion

What do we do now?

Everybody who needs help, has to be empowered to ask. It’s time to change our culture and help sufferers thrive in their workplace. Tackling work-related stress can bring benefit in many areas: reduced costs – of sick pay, sickness cover, overtime, and recruitment – and fewer days lost to sickness and absenteeism.

In January 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a package of measures that aim to transform mental health support in the UK at each stage of a person’s life, including in workplaces, schools, and the community. This mental health reform is an opportunity to tackle the stigma associated with mental health.

Last week, #FuturePRoof published a report exploring the mental health of public relations professionals. The report included the following recommendations for employers:

  • Make mental health and wellbeing a management issue within your management team
  • Company policies and procedures should cover sickness due to mental health. Provide clear signposting and training to all employees and managers on policies and procedures
  • Where resources do not exist within an organization, access external support. Small organizations should consider retaining specialized support

Stress in the workplace is an epidemic. However, the normalisation of speaking up about mental health is slowly shifting attitudes and workplace culture. There’s no single solution but education and empathy go a long way in helping to tackle the issue. Make sure you help your co-workers by listening, being empathetic, and making sure they know they aren’t alone.

Geoff McDonald quoted Alexander den Heijer, who said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” With some understanding of the physiology of stress under our belts, it’s now up to all of us to influence the government! Everyone, do your part!

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