Why there's no such thing as good stress

There is a vital difference between stress and pressure at work, ?according to vice president of the International Stress Management Association Ann McCracken

Speaking at St John Ambulance’s Embedding Mental Health Best Practices in the Workplace Summit 2018, she asked her audience: “How many of you think that a little bit of stress is good for you? It’s common to hear that if we’re working towards a deadline, for instance, then stress can help us reach our goals. But everyone who knows about stress and what it actually means, will tell you that there is nothing 'good' about stress."

McCracken explained that the official definition of stress is when too many demands are placed on us, leading to adverse effects on a person’s physical and psychological wellbeing: “If we look at the medical definition of stress, there is nothing desirable about it. The problem is that definitions of stress and pressure are regularly confused. While pressure can motivate us, stress depletes us.”

Achieving a culture which minimises stress means finding the right balance of pressure, said McCracken: “It can be difficult to implement, because different levels of pressure work well for different people. Too little pressure can mean that employees feel bored and demotivated, and too much pressure can lead to stress and exhaustion.”

This is not entirely employers' responsibility however, McCracken said: “In order to achieve a high level of emotional wellbeing, we need to find coping skills, which are made up of our life skills and lifestyle.” Life skills can include anything from cooking to being able to communicate, while our lifestyle can be dictated by factors such as levels of physical fitness, she said.

McCracken said that employers have a duty to tackle stress by facilitating open discussion at work: “When you look at the consequences of stress, you realise why it’s so important that we get it right. If someone on your team tells you that they’re stressed, talk to them, try and find out what isn’t working. The people that you work with will often have the answers, but they need prompting to be able to put actions in place.”

In a separate session at the conference, senior associate at law firm Shoosmiths Simon Fennell, looked at the legal implications of stress in the workplace. He highlighted that if the impact of stress is severe enough, it can be classed as a disability.

“We know that a disability is classed as something that can have an impact on someone’s day-to-day functioning and their ability to complete particular tasks, and mental illness falls under this definition," he said. “So can stress be a disability? The answer is yes, if the impact is severe enough on a person’s functioning.

“My advice to employers would be: if someone tells you that they are struggling with stress, do not wait. If you don’t make reasonable adjustments to help an employee with stress, it could be classed as discrimination.”