Our consultant clinical psychologist Khadj Rouf says:

It’s Mental Health Awareness week, and this year’s focus is on stress awareness.

This is a welcome move, as stress is something that affects many public sector workers, particularly those of us working in the health service.

Working with people who have may have complex problems can be very rewarding, but it can also be occupationally stressful.

Many staff are giving their best in very challenging circumstances, as we know the demand for mental health services has increased, though this has not always been matched by funding.

So what is stress and how does it affect our mental health?
Stress affects the mind, body and behaviour. It is part of being human – it is a fundamental part of our survival mechanism: fight, flight or freeze.

Fight, flight or freeze is triggered when we face a challenge – it helps us decide whether to fight off a threat, run away from it, or do nothing until the threat has gone.

Stress can be positive or negative
Positive stress builds motivation, hope and active focus on the task at hand – such a running a race or taking an exam.

People need a certain level of stress but it needs to stay in balance.

Negative effects of stress occur when threats are prolonged, unmanageable and overwhelming.

Prolonged stress can have negative effects on your mind and body. Changes can include problems with decision-making and problem solving; feeling the need to withdraw from people; becoming physically unwell or developing conditions such as high blood pressure; feeling angry or irritable. In the extreme, people can develop ‘burnout’ or physical exhaustion and feelings of failure.

Job related stress
Work is chronically stressful and bad for health when:

  • jobs have high demands but a low level of personal control
  • there is high effort and low reward
  • the job is isolating
  • where jobs security is low
  • where they might not be fairness at work
  • the work involves long periods of sitting
  • the work is shift based (Marmot, 2015).

Sometimes people can be coping well with their workload but changes in the organisation, problems with workplace relationships (such as bullying) or pressures outside of work, can lead to stress feeling unmanageable.

This can happen to anyone, and people should not feel ashamed if they are experiencing negative stress. And our work lives should not create a culture of ‘stress is the new normal’, as this is simply bad for health.

Your employer has a duty to help you
Workplace stress is a health and safety issue, and employers have a responsibility toward staff who work in emotionally demanding occupations. It is important to know your rights, and to raise issues as early as you can, before they affect your health. Find out more about employer responsibilities.

There are things which you can do to get support from your employer, such as talking with your manager, occupational health, human resources or trade union rep for advice.

Outside of work, you can talk to your GP about stress which may be affecting your emotional or physical well-being.

Talking to someone can help to identify and problem solve about the source of stress. For example, if work is very stressful, ensuring that you have access to regular supervision might be helpful.

It is possible to get help

There are also everyday ideas for managing stress which can be helpful. Find out more about being more stress aware and reducing stress.

This week is a chance to do a stress check for yourself

How are you feeling at work? What are you noticing for yourself? What are you noticing in your colleagues – do others seem under pressure too?

There are some simple daily things which can help to reduce stress, such as taking regular short breaks, taking a walk away from your desk or work area, having a friendly conversation and lunch break with your colleagues.

Even thinking about your posture can be a helpful thing to do – very often stress can lead to muscle tension, back pain and headaches.

Trying to drop your shoulders and make more space for your ribs to breathe properly can just give you a few simple minutes to unwind.

If you are struggling, then don’t feel that you are alone. There is support available, and getting help at an early stage can prevent stress reactions becoming problematic for your health.