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An Introduction To Stress Management and Relief

Employers should provide a stress-free work environment, recognise where stress is becoming a problem for staff, and take action to reduce stress. This is important because:

  • Stress in the workplace reduces productivity, increases management pressures, and makes people ill in many ways, evidence of which is still increasing. 
  • Workplace stress affects the performance of the brain, including functions of work performance; memory, concentration, and learning.
  • Workplace stress can lead to and may be a part of a person's suffering from a mental health condition.
  • Prolonged exposure to stress commonly leads to clinical depression, which is a serious mental illness that for many people can quickly become life-threatening, depending on the individual response, external interventions and support, or lack of any.

The Impacts of Stress on Productivity

In the UK over 13 million working days are lost every year because of stress. In the majority and perhaps all of these cases stress equates to a degree of mental illness.

  • Stress is believed to trigger 70% of visits to doctors, and 85% of serious illnesses (UK HSE stress statistics).

Stress at work, therefore, provides a serious risk of litigation for all employers and organisations, carrying significant liabilities for damages, bad publicity and loss of reputation. Dealing with stress-related claims also consumes vast amounts of management time.

Every year in the UK over 6,000 people take their own lives. In many cases, workplace stress is a major factor.

Stress is not the same as a high-pressure job work situation, a heavy workload, or the threat of redundancy.

  • Any of these things can easily give rise to clinical stress in a worker, but many people operate happily under pressure and can handle a redundancy threat or a period of very intense work, without suffering from stress.
  • So stress is dependent on personal reactions to pressures, and a person's reactions to pressures are influenced by many different things.

Consequently, one person's reaction to a particular workplace pressure is likely to be very different from another person's reaction to the same pressure. One person may handle a given pressure with ease and even enjoyment; whereas another person, perhaps already anxious or depressed about other matters (e.g., debts, bereavement, illness, etc.) could be tipped into a very serious depression by the same apparently 'safe' pressure.

Technically and clinically 'stress' is somewhere on the scale of mental illness.

  • In this respect, 'stress' does not refer to pressures that a person can cope with, and which people seek and use as a driver or spur for heightened performance and achievement.

So, there are clearly strong economic and financial reasons for organisations to manage and reduce stress at work, aside from the obvious humanitarian and ethical considerations. If you are suffering from stress yourself the stress management guidelines here are just as relevant. See the workplace stress research articles below.

Stress and stress management are directly related to personal well-being and specifically to workplace well-being. See the separate article on workplace wellbeing for a detailed explanation of well-being and its relevance to modern work and management.

Stress Management Techniques

Please note that these ideas are for stress before it becomes more serious depression.

While these ideas can certainly be beneficial for serious levels of depression, serious depression warrants much more serious attention and remedial actions.

So please bear that in mind - we are initially addressing stress before it becomes clinical depression.

If you are stressed, do one or all of these things, in whatever order that takes your fancy. These ideas can also be adapted for team development exercises.

The key to de-stressing the moment is getting away from or removing yourself from the stressor. Developing new habits, which regularly remove you and distract you from stressors and stressful situations and pressures is essentially how to manage stress on a more permanent basis.

  • In this modern world, it is difficult if not impossible to change stressful situations. What we can do however is change and reduce our exposure to those stressful situations.

These stress reduction ideas and techniques are based on that simple principle. These tips won't change the situation causing the stress, but they will, more importantly, enable you to change your reaction and relationship to stressful situations.

6 Tips for Handling Stress 

1. Humour

Humour is one of the greatest and quickest devices for reducing stress.

  • Humour works because laughter produces helpful chemicals in the brain.
  • Humour also gets your brain thinking and working in a different way - it distracts you from having a stressed mindset. 
  • Distraction is a simple effective de-stressor - it takes your thoughts away from the stress, and thereby diffuses the stressful feelings.

Therefore most people will feel quite different and notice a change in mindset after laughing and being distracted by something humorous.

  1. Go read the funny family fortune answers. Or try the funny letters to the council
  2.  Even if you've seen them a hundred times before. As you start to smile and chuckle the stress begins to dissipate.

If this material fails to make you laugh then find something which does. Keep taking the laughter medicine until you feel suitably relaxed and re-charged.

2. Brisk Walk and Self-talk

Go for a short quick really brisk walk outside by actually leaving the building and changing your environment.

  1. Breathe in some fresh air and smell the atmosphere...
  2. Trees, rain, flowers, traffic fumes - doesn't matter - stimulate your senses with new things.
  3. On your way out keep saying to yourself out loud (and to anyone else you see, in that daft way people say "Elvis has left the building.."):

"(your name) is leaving the building.. "

And when you are outside and free say:

"(your name) has left the building.. "

  • You can extend the exercise by going to a park and jogging a little.
  • Or do a few star jumps - something energetic to get your body moving and relaxing.
  • Or stroke a dog, or pick up some litter, or kick a kid's football.

You can, of course, use other mantras or chants, depending on what you want to do and how far you want to get away from the stress causes, for example:

"(your name) is doing star-jumps/picking up litter/looking for a small non-threatening dog.." or

"(your name) is leaving/has left the industrial park/district/city/company/country.." etc, etc.

Of course, this is daft, but the daftness reduces the stress by removing you from the stress in your mind and body. Doing something daft and physical - and reinforcing it with some daft chanting - opens up the world again.

3. Rehydrate

Go get a big cup or a bottle of water.

Here's why...

  1. Most of us fail to drink enough water - that's water - not tea, coffee, coke, 'sports' drinks, Red Bull or fruit juice... 
  2. All of your organs, including your brain, are strongly dependent on water to function properly. It's how we are built.  
  3. If you starve your body of water you will function below your best - and you will get stressed. Physically and mentally. 
Offices and workplaces commonly have a very dry atmosphere due to air conditioning, etc., which increases people's susceptibility to dehydration. 

This is why you must keep your body properly hydrated by regularly drinking water (most people need 4-8 glasses of water a day or minimum of 2 litres). 

You will drink more water if you keep some on your desk at all times. 

  • When you drink water you need to pee. This gives you a bit of a break and a bit of exercise now and then, which also reduces stress. 
  • When you pee you can see if your body is properly hydrated (your pee will be clear or near clear - if it's yellow you are not taking enough water). 
This will also prompt some amusing discussion and chuckling with your colleagues ("Nature calls - I'm off to the bog again...") which is also good for reducing stress. 

You do not need to buy expensive mineral water. Tap water is fine. 

If you do not like the taste of tap water it's probably because of the chlorine (aquarium fish don't like it either), however, the chlorine dissipates quite naturally after a few hours - even though a plastic bottle - so keep some ordinary tap water in the fridge for 2-3 hours and try it then. 

  • If you want to be really exotic add a slice of lemon or lime. 

So now you are fully watered and guffawing and exercised up to the max, read on for ideas for how to prevent stress as well as reduce and manage it.

4. Powernap

(Not so easy but still perfectly possible)

  • Take a quick nap. It is nature's way of recharging and re-energising.
  • A quick 10-30 minutes' sleep is very helpful to reduce stress.

It's obviously essential if you are driving while tired, but a quick sleep is a powerful de-stressor too.

  • A lunchtime snooze is very practical for home-workers - it just requires the realisation that doing so is acceptable and beneficial (when we are conditioned unfortunately to think that sleeping during the day is lazy, rather than healthy).

At some stage, the conventional Western industry will 'wake up' to the realisation that many people derive enormous benefits from a midday nap. Sounds ridiculous? Tell that to the many millions in the Mediterranean countries who thrive on a mid-day siesta.

  • People in the Mediterranean and Central Americas take a siesta every working day, and this is almost certainly related to longer life expectancy and lower levels of heart disease.

See the more detailed evidence and reasoning in the sleep and rest section below.

If your work situation is not quite ready to tolerate the concept of a daytime nap then practise a short session of self-hypnosis, combined with deep breathing, which you can do at your desk, or even in the loo. It works wonders.

See the self-hypnosis and relaxation page.

In the summer, of course, you can go to the nearest park and try it alfresco (that's from the Italian incidentally, alfresco, meaning in the fresh air - which is another good thing for stress reduction). 

5. Make a Cuppa

Any tea will do, but a flavoured cup of tea is even better.

  • Experiment with different natural flavourings using herbs and spices and fruit.
  • Fresh mint is wonderful and excellent for the digestive system. Nettles are fantastic and contain natural relaxants. Orange zest is super (use one of those nifty little zester gadgets). Ginger root is brilliant. Many herbs, spices, fruits and edible plants make great flavoured tea, and many herbs and spices have real therapeutic properties.

Use a 'base' of green tea leaves - about half a spoonful per serving - plus the natural flavouring(s) of your choice, and freshly boiled water. Be bold - use lots of leaves - experiment until you find a blend that you really enjoy. Sugar or honey brings out the taste. Best without milk, but milk is fine if you prefer it.

Making the tea and preparing the ingredients to take your mind off your problems, and then smelling and drinking the tea also relaxes you. There is something wonderful about natural plants and fruits which you can't buy in a packet. Use a tea-pot or cafetiere, or if you are happy with a bit of foliage in your drink actually brew it in a big mug or heatproof tumbler.

Fresh mint and ginger tea recipe:

Put all this into a teapot or cafetiere and add boiling water for 2-3 cups. Allow to brew for a minute or two, stir and serve. (This is enough for 2-3 mug-sized servings):

  • 1-1½ heaped teaspoons of green tea leaves 
  • 2-4 sprigs of fresh mint (a very generous handful of leaves with or without the stems - more than you might imagine) 
  • 3-6 zest scrapes of an orange 
  • half a teaspoon of chopped ginger root 
  • 2-4 teaspoons of sugar or 1-2 teaspoons of honey - more or less to taste

Alter the amounts to your own taste. The recipe also works very well without the orange and ginger, which is effectively the mint tea drink that is hugely popular in Morocco and other parts of North Africa. Dried mint can be substituted for fresh mint. 

6. Crying

Not much is known about the physiology of crying and tears, although many find that crying - weeping proper tears - has a powerful helpful effect on stress levels. Whatever the science behind crying, a good bout of sobbing and weeping does seem to release tension and stress for many people.

  • Of course, how and where you choose to submit to this most basic of emotional impulses is up to you. The middle of the boardroom during an important presentation to a top client is probably not a great idea, but there are more private situations and you should feel free to try it from time to time if the urge takes you.

It is a shame that attitudes towards crying and tears prevent many people from crying, and it's a sad reflection on our unforgiving society that some people who might benefit from a good cry feel that they shouldn't do it ever - even in complete privacy. 

  • Unfortunately most of us - especially boys - are told as children that crying is bad or shameful or childish, which of course is utter nonsense. 

Whatever shedding a few tears can be a very good thing now and then, and if you've yet to discover its benefits then give it a try. You might be surprised. 

People Most At Risk From Stress Research Evidence

In one US study, as many as 40% of workers described their jobs as very stressful. While not a scientific gauge and not measuring serious stress health problems, this gives some indication as to how prevalent work-related stress is. 

As regards official health records, in the UK, the nursing and teaching occupations are most affected by work-related stress, with 2% of workers at any one time suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety. (The figure for teachers rises to 4% when including physical conditions relating to stress.) 

Care workers, managers and professionals are the next highest affected occupations, with over 1% suffering from serious work-related stress at any one time. UK HSE work-related stress statistics suggest that work-related stress affects men and women in equal numbers and that people in the 45-retirement age suffer more than younger people. 

More socially-based USA research suggests that the following American social groups are more prone to stress (this is therefore not limited to work-related stress): young adults, women, working mothers, less educated people, divorced or widowed people, the unemployed, isolated people, people without health insurance, city dwellers

  • Combined with the factors affecting stress susceptibility (detailed below), it's not difficult to see that virtually no one is immune from stress. 
  • An American poll found that 89% of respondents had experienced serious stress at some point in their lives. The threat from stress is perceived so strongly in Japan that the Japanese even have a word for sudden death due to overwork, 'karoshi'.

Data is sparse and confused (stress statistics are also complicated by mental health reporting in the UK), but the statistics do indicate certain growth. 

  • In the UK HSE statistics indicate a doubling of reported clinical cases between 1990 and 1999. 
  •  Working days lost per annum appear to have been about 6.5 million in the mid-1990s but rose to over 13 million by 2001. 
  • Greater awareness of the stress ailment in reporting no doubt accounts for some of this variance, but one thing's for sure: the number of people suffering from work-related stress isn't reducing.

The Costs of Stress

UK HSE statistics suggest stress-related costs to UK employers in the region of £700m every year. The cost of stress to society is estimated at £7bn pa. (These figures were respectively £350m and £3.7bn in 1995/6 when total days lost were half present levels).

What Causes Stress?

Stress is caused by various factors - not all of which are work-related of course, (which incidentally doesn't reduce the employer's obligation to protect against the causes of stress at work). Causes of stress - known as stressors - are in two categories:

  1. External stressors - physical conditions such as heat or cold, stressful psychological environments such as working conditions and abusive relationships, eg., bullying.
  2. Internal stressors - physical ailments such as infection or inflammation, or psychological problems such as worrying about something.

From the above, it is easy to see that work can be a source of both external and internal stressors.

Stressors are also described as either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic):

  • Short-term 'acute' stress is the reaction to the immediate threat, also known as the fight or flight response. This is when the primitive part of the brain and certain chemicals within the brain cause a reaction to potentially harmful stressors or warnings (just as if preparing the body to run away or defend itself), such as noise, over-crowding, danger, bullying or harassment, or even an imagined or recalled threatening experience. When the threat subsides the body returns to normal, which is called the 'relaxation response'. (NB The relaxation response among people varies; ie., people recover from acute stress at different rates.)
  • Long-term 'chronic' stressors are those pressures which are ongoing and continuous when the urge to fight or flight has been suppressed. 
    • Examples of chronic stressors include ongoing pressurised work, ongoing relationship problems, isolation, and persistent financial worries.

The working environment can generate both acute and chronic stressors but is more likely to be a source of chronic stressors.

Effects On Health and Performance

Stress is proven beyond doubt to make people ill, and evidence is increasing as to a number of ailments and diseases caused by stress: 

  1. Stress is now known to contribute to heart disease; it causes hypertension and high blood pressure and impairs the immune system. 
  2. Stress is also linked to strokes, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), ulcers, diabetes, muscle and joint pain, miscarriage during pregnancy, allergies, alopecia and even premature tooth loss.

Various US studies have demonstrated that removing stress improves specific aspects of health: 

  • Stress management was shown to be capable of reducing the risk of heart attack by up to 75% in people with heart disease; stress management techniques, along with methods for coping with anger, contributed to a reduction of high blood pressure, and; chronic tension headache sufferers, it was found that stress management techniques increased the effectiveness of prescribed drugs, and after six months actually equalled the effectiveness of anti-depressants. 
  • The clear implication for these ailments is that stress makes them worse.

Stress significantly reduces brain functions such as memory, concentration, and learning, all of which are central to effective performance at work. 

  • Certain tests have shown up to 50% loss of performance in cognitive tests performed by stress sufferers. 
  •  Some health effects caused by stress are reversible and the body and mind revert to normal when the stress is relieved. 
  • Other health effects caused by stress are so serious that they are irreversible, and at worse are terminal.

Stress is said by some to be a good thing, for themselves or others, that it promotes excitement and positive feelings. If these are the effects then it is not stress as defined here. It's the excitement and stimulus derived (by one who wants these feelings and can handle them) from working hard in a controlled and manageable way towards an achievable and realistic aim, which for sure can be very exciting, but it ain't stress. 

  • Stress is bad for people and organisations, it's a threat and a health risk, and it needs to be recognised and dealt with, not dismissed as something good, or welcomed.

What Causes Stress At Work?

These are typical causes of stress at work:

  • Bullying or harassment, by anyone, not necessarily a person's manager
  • Feeling powerless and uninvolved in determining one's own responsibilities
  • Continuous unreasonable performance demands
  • Lack of effective communication and conflict resolution
  • Lack of job security
  • Long working hours
  • Excessive time away from home and family
  • Office politics and conflict among staff
  • A feeling that one's reward is not commensurate with one's responsibility
  • Working hours, responsibilities and pressures disrupting life balance (diet, exercise, sleep and rest, play, family time, etc)

Susceptibility to Stress

A person's susceptibility to stress can be affected by any or all of these factors, which means that everyone has a different tolerance to stressors. And in respect of certain of these factors, stress susceptibility is not fixed, so each person's stress tolerance level changes over time:

  • Childhood experience (abuse can increase stress susceptibility)
  • Personality (certain personalities are more stress-prone than others)
  • Genetics (particularly inherited 'relaxation response', connected with serotonin levels, the brain's 'well-being chemical')
  • Immunity abnormality (as might cause certain diseases such as arthritis and eczema, which weaken stress resilience)
  • Lifestyle (principally poor diet and lack of exercise)
  • Duration and intensity of the exposure to stressors 

Stress Test

At a clinical level, the stress in individuals can be assessed scientifically by measuring the levels of two hormones produced by the adrenal glands: 

  1. Cortisol 
  2. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone)
However, managers do not have ready access to these methods. They must, therefore, rely on other signs. Some of these are not exclusively due to stress, nor are they certain proof of stress, but they are indicators to prompt investigation as to whether stress is present. You can use this list of ten key stress indicators as a simple initial stress test - tick the factors applicable.

  1. Sleep difficulties
  2. Loss of appetite
  3. Poor concentration or poor memory retention
  4. Performance dip
  5. Uncharacteristic errors or missed deadlines
  6. Anger or tantrums
  7. Violent or anti-social behaviour
  8. Emotional outbursts
  9. Alcohol or drug abuse
  10. Nervous habits

Personal Stress Management

If you are suffering from work-related stress and it's beginning to affect, or already affecting your health, stop to think: why are you taking this risk with your body and mind? Life's short enough as it is; illness is all around us; why make matters worse? Commit to change before one day change is forced upon you.

If you recognise signs of stress in a staff member, especially if you are that person's manager, don't ignore it - do something about it. It is your duty to do so. 

  • If you do not feel capable of dealing with the situation, do not ignore it - you must refer it to someone who can deal with it. 
  • You must also look for signs of non-work-related stressors or factors that increase susceptibility to stress because these will make a person more vulnerable to work-related stressors. These rules apply to you as well

Stress relief methods are many and various. There is no single remedy that applies to every person suffering from stress, and most solutions involve a combination of remedies. Successful stress management frequently relies on reducing stress susceptibility and removing the stressors, and often factors will be both contributing to susceptibility and a direct cause. 

Here are some simple pointers for reducing stress susceptibility and stress itself, for yourself or to help others:

Pointers for Reducing Stress Susceptibility 

  • Think really seriously about and talk with others, to identify the causes of the stress and take steps to remove, reduce them or remove yourself (the stressed person) from the situation that causes the stress.
  • Understand the type(s) of stressors affecting you (or the stressed person), and the contributors to the stress susceptibility - knowing what you're dealing with is essential to developing the stress management approach.
  • Improve diet - group B vitamins and magnesium are important, but potentially so are all the other vitamins and minerals: a balanced healthy diet is essential. Assess the current diet and identify where improvements should be made and commit to those improvements.
  • Reduce toxin intake - obviously tobacco, alcohol especially - might seem to provide temporary relief but they are working against the balance of the body and contributing to stress susceptibility, and therefore increasing stress itself.
  • Do more exercise - generally, and at times when feeling very stressed - exercise burns up adrenaline and produces helpful chemicals and positive feelings.
  • Stressed people must try to be detached, step back, and look from the outside at the issues that cause the stress.
  • Don't try to control things that are uncontrollable - instead adjust response, adapt.
  • Share worries - talk to someone else - off-load, loneliness is a big ally of stress, so sharing the burden is essential.
  • Increase self-awareness of personal moods and feelings - anticipate and take steps to avoid stress build-up before it becomes more serious.
  • Explore and use relaxation methods - they do work if given a chance - yoga, meditation, self-hypnosis, massage, a breath of fresh air, anything that works and can be done in a particular situation.
  • Spend more time in nature - going for a hike, or taking up gardening, can provide a  sense of fulfilment. Gardening to improve health and wellbeing is a well-known stress reliever
  • Seek out modern computer aids - including free downloads and desktop add-ons - for averting stresses specifically caused by sitting for long uninterrupted periods at a computer screen work-station, for example, related to breathing, posture, seating, eye strain, and RSI (repetitive strain injury).

Note also that managing stress does not cure medical problems. 

  • Relieving stress can alleviate and speed recovery from certain illnesses, particularly those caused by stress, (which depending on circumstances can disappear when the stress is relieved); i.e., relieving stress is not a substitute for conventional treatments of illness, disease and injury.

Importantly, if the stress is causing serious health effects the sufferer must consult a doctor. Do not imagine that things will improve by soldiering on, or hoping that the sufferer will somehow become more resilient; things can and probably will get worse.

For less serious forms of stress, simply identify the cause(s) of stress, then commit/agree to remove the cause(s). If appropriate this may involve removing the person from the situation that is causing the stress. Counselling may be necessary to identify the cause(s), particularly if the sufferer has any tendency to deny or ignore the stress problem.

Acceptance, cognisance and commitment on the part of the stressed person are essential. No one can begin to manage their stress if they are still feeling acutely stressed - they'll still be in 'fight or flight' mode. This is why a manager accused of causing stress through bullying or harassment must never be expected to resolve the problem. The situation must be handled by someone who will not perpetuate the stressful influence.

Removing the stressor(s) or the person from the stressful situation is only part of the solution; look also at the factors which affect stress susceptibility: 

  • Where possible try to improve the factors that could be contributing to stress vulnerability. This particularly and frequently involves diet and exercise.

The two simplest ways to reduce stress susceptibility, and in many situations alleviate stress itself (although not removing the direct causes of stress itself) are available to everyone, cost nothing, and are guaranteed to produce virtually immediate improvements. They are diet and exercise.

A Healthy Diet to Reduce Stress

It's widely accepted that nutritional deficiency impairs the health of the body, and it's unrealistic not to expect the brain to be affected as well by poor diet. If the brain is affected, so are our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

We know that certain vitamins and minerals are required to ensure a healthy brain and neurological functionality. We know also that certain deficiencies relate directly to the specific brain and nervous system weaknesses: 

  1. The Vitamin B Group is particularly relevant to the brain, depression and stress susceptibility. 
  2. Vitamin B1 deficiency is associated with depression, nervous system weakness and dementia. 
  3. B2 deficiency is associated with nervous system disorders and depression. 
  4. B3 is essential for protein synthesis, including the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is necessary for maintaining a healthy nervous system. 
  5. Vitamin B6 is essential for neurotransmitter synthesis and maintaining a healthy nervous system; B6 deficiency is associated with depression and dementia. 
  6. B12 deficiency is associated with peripheral nerve degeneration, dementia, and depression.

Vitamin C is essential to protect against stress too: 

  • It maintains a healthy immune system, which is important for reducing stress susceptibility (we are more likely to suffer from stress when we are ill, and we are more prone to illness when our immune system is weak). 
  • Vitamin C speeds healing, which contributes to reducing stress susceptibility. Vitamin C is associated with improving post-traumatic stress disorders and chronic infections.

A 2003 UK 18-month study into violent and anti-social behaviour at a youth offenders institution provided remarkable evidence as to the link between diet and stress: 

  1. Around 230 inmate volunteers were divided into two groups. 
  2. Half were given a daily vitamin/fatty acid/mineral supplement; half were given a placebo. 
  3. The group given the supplement showed a 25% reduction in recorded offences, and a 40% reduction in serious cases including violence towards others, and behaviours that are directly attributable to stress.

Vitamin D helps maintain a healthy body condition, particularly bones and speed of fracture healing, which are directly linked to stress susceptibility.

Adequate intake of minerals is also essential for a healthy body and brain, and so for reducing stress susceptibility.

A properly balanced diet is clearly essential, both to avoid direct physical stress caused by the brain and nervous system and to reduce stress susceptibility resulting from poor health and condition. 

  • Toxins such as alcohol, tobacco smoke, excessive salt, steroids, other drugs and other pollutants work against the balance between minerals, vitamins mind and body. Obviously then, excessive toxins from these sources will increase stress susceptibility and stress itself.

Some other simple (and to some, surprising) points about food, drink and diet:

  1. Processed foods are not as good for you as fresh natural foods. Look at all the chemicals listed on the packaging to see what you are putting into your body.
  2. Generally speaking, and contrary to popular opinion, butter is better for you than margarine. This is because the fat in butter is natural and can be converted by the body more easily than the hydrogenated fat that occurs commonly in margarine.
  3. Fresh fruit and vegetables are good for you. Simple and true.
  4. Fish is good for you, especially oily fish like mackerel. Battered fish from the chip shop, cooked in hydrogenated cooking oil is not so good for you.
  5. Canned baked beans often have extremely high salt and sugar content. The beans are good for you, but the sauce isn't if it contains too much salt and sugar. Look at the contents on the label.
  6. Canned and bottled fizzy 'pop' drinks are generally very bad for you. They contain various chemicals, including aspartame, which has been linked in several studies with nervous system disorders. Many squashes and cordials also contain aspartame.
  7. Too much coffee is bad for you. Interestingly expresso coffee contains less caffeine than filter and instant coffee because it passes through the coffee grounds more quickly.
  8. Tea is good for you. Especially green tea.
  9. Pills and tablets are not good for you, avoid them if you can. For example, next time you have a headache, don't take tablets, go for a run, or a walk in the fresh air to relax naturally.

The rule is simple and inescapable: eat and drink healthily, and avoid excessive intake of toxins, to reduce stress susceptibility and stress itself. If you are suffering from stress and do not obey these simple rules you will continue to have to be stressed, and moreover, you will maintain a higher susceptibility to stress.

Irrespective of your tastes, it's easy these days to have a balanced healthy diet if you want to - the challenge isn't in knowing what's good and bad, it's simply a matter of commitment and personal resolve. You have one body for the whole of your life - look after it.

Sleep and Rest to Reduce Stress

Sleep and rest are essential for a healthy life balance.

  • We have evolved from ancestors whose sleep patterns were governed by and attuned to nature. We are born with genes and bodies which reflect our successful evolutionary survival over tens of thousands of years. 
  • Our genes and bodies do not reflect the modern world's less natural way of life.

Only in very recent generations have the modern heating, lighting, communications and entertainment technologies enabled (and encouraged) people to keep daft unnatural waking and working hours. Such behaviour is at odds with our genetic preferences.

  • Resisting and breaking with our genetically programmed sleep and rest patterns create internal conflicts and stresses, just as if we were to eat unnatural foods or breathe unnatural air.

Having a good night's sleep is vital for a healthy mind and body.

  • Napping during the day is also healthy. It recharges and energises, relaxes, and helps to wipe the brain of pressures and unpleasant feelings.

Evidence of the relevance and reliability of this logic is found for example in the following research by Androniki Naska et al published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on 12 February 2007, and summarised here:

  • The research project is titled Siesta in Healthy Adults and Coronary Mortality in the General Population. The research team was headed by Androniki Naska PhD of the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology, University of Athens Medical School, Athens, Greece.

The introduction of the report extract explains the approach:

"Midday napping (siesta) is common in populations with low coronary mortality, but epidemiological studies have generated conflicting results. We have undertaken an analysis based on a sizable cohort with a high frequency of napping and information on potentially confounding variables including reported comorbidity, physical activity, and diet..."

The research studied 23,681 adults for an average of 6.32 years and found that:

  •  Men and women taking a siesta of any frequency or duration had a coronary mortality ratio of 0.66, i.e., were 34% less likely to die of heart disease. 
  • Those who occasionally napped during the daytime had a 12% reduction in fatal heart disease, and people systematically napping during the daytime had a 37% lower incidence of fatal heart disease. 
  • The study found the correlation strongest among working men. 
  • It was concluded that taking a siesta (midday nap) correlates with reduced fatality from heart disease, that the correlation strengthens with the consistency of the siesta habit, and that the association was particularly evident among working men.

While the study did not measure stress per se, it is reasonable to make at least a partial connection between reduced fatality due to heart disease and reduction in stress, since the two illnesses (stress and heart disease) are undeniably linked.

Here is the Extract Study report by Androniki Naska et al published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on 12 February 2007.

Exercise to Reduce Stress

Physical exercise is immensely beneficial in managing stress. This is for several reasons:

  1. Exercise releases helpful chemicals in our brain and body that are good for us.
  2. Exercise distracts us from the causes of stress.
  3. Exercise warms and relaxes cold, tight muscles and tissues which contribute to stress feelings.
  4. Exercise develops and maintains a healthy body which directly reduces stress susceptibility.
  5. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain which is good for us.
  6.  Exercises also release hormones and stimulate the nervous system in ways that are good for us. 
  7. Exercise produces chemicals in the body such as beta-endorphin, which is proven to have a positive effect on how we feel.
 For many people, serious exercise produces a kind of 'high'. Scientists still don't fully understand how exactly these effects happen, but we do know that exercise produces powerful feelings of well-being and a physical glow, both of which directly reduce stress feelings. 

Exercise of all types (muscle-building and stamina-building) relaxes tense muscles and tight connective tissues in the body, which directly contribute to stress feelings and symptoms (particularly headaches). 

Try this next time you get a stress headache - one that comes up the back of your neck into the back of your head: 
  • Stand up, leave whatever you are doing, walk outside, take a few deep breaths, roll your shoulders backwards gently, slowly at first, then gradually speed up to about one rotation per second and keep it going for one minute. 
  • You can actually feel your shoulders warming and loosening, then feel your neck muscles warming up and relaxing, and then feel the relaxing feeling beginning to take the edge of the pain in the back of your head. And that's after just sixty seconds of exercise! 
  • Imagine what 15 minutes of brisk walking or jogging can do. Ask anyone who's just finished a game of tennis or squash or soccer if they feel at all stressed. Of course, they don't. It's actually impossible to stay stressed if you do a serious bit of exercise.

Exercise is wonderfully distracting - especially something very competitive which makes you push yourself further than you might do by yourself. When your body is involved with exercise it's very absorbing - it's actually very difficult to think about your problems when you are puffing and panting. Something terrific happens to the brain when the body works out, especially aerobic exercise - cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart pumping.

We all evolved over millions of years with bodies that were built to exercise, it's no wonder that avoiding it creates all kinds of tensions.

Exercise, like a better diet, isn't difficult to adopt - the answer is simple, the opportunity is there - it's the personal commitment that makes the difference.

Anger Management to Reduce Stress

The term 'anger management' is widely used now as if the subject stands alone. However, 'anger management' is simply an aspect of managing stress, since anger in the workplace is a symptom of stress. 

  • Anger is often stressed in denial, and as such is best approached via one-to-one counselling. Training courses can convey anger management and stress reduction theory and ideas, but one-to-one counselling is necessary to turn theory into practice. 
  • Management of anger (and any other unreasonable emotional behaviour for that matter) and the stress that causes it can only be improved if the person wants to change - acceptance, cognisance, commitment - so awareness is the first requirement. 
  • Without a commitment to change there's not a lot that a manager or employer can do to help - anger management is only possible when the angry person accepts and commits to the need to change.

A big factor in persuading someone of the need to commit to change is to look objectively and sensitively with the other person at the consequences (for themselves and others) of their anger. 

  • Often angry people are in denial ("my temper is okay, people understand it's just me and my moods...."), so removing this denial is essential. Helping angry people to realise that their behaviour is destructive and negative is an important first step. 
  • Discuss the effects on their health and their family. Get the person to see things from outside themselves.

As with stress, the next anger management step is for the angry person to understand the cause of their angry tendency, which will be a combination of stressors and stress susceptibility factors. 

  • Angry people need help in gaining this understanding - the counsellor often won't know the reason either until rapport is established.
  •  If the problem is a temporary tendency then short-term acute stress may be the direct cause. 
  • Use one-to-one counselling to discover the causes and then agree on the necessary action to deal with them. Where the anger is persistent, frequent and ongoing, long-term chronic stress is more likely to be the cause. Again, counselling is required to get to the root causes. Exposing these issues can be very difficult, so great sensitivity is required. The counsellor may need several sessions in order to build sufficient trust and rapport.

The situation must be referred to a suitably qualified person whenever necessary, i.e. when the counsellor is unable to establish a rapport, analyse the causes, or agree on a way forward. In any event, if you spot the need for anger management in a person be aware that serious anger, and especially violence, is a clinical problem and so must be referred to a suitably qualified advisor or support group - under no circumstances attempt to deal with seriously or violently angry people via workplace counselling; these cases require expert professional help.

Establishing a commitment to change and identifying the causes is sufficient for many people to make changes and improve - the will to change, combined with an awareness of causes, then leads to a solution.

Ideas For Those At Risk

Many workers in the healthcare professions are at particular risk from stress and stress-related performance issues (absenteeism, attrition, high staff turnover, etc). Other sectors also have staff that are at a higher risk than normal from the effects of work-related stress.

  • It is the duty of all employers to look after these people. The solutions are more complex than blaming people for not being able to cope, or blaming the recruitment selection process.

In these situations, it is often assumed that a better selection of (more resilient) new recruits is the solution. However, the challenge is two-fold 

  1. identifying the best new candidates, and more importantly
  2. helping and supporting staff in their roles.

In terms of identifying the best new candidates, look at Emotional Intelligence methodology. The ability to absorb high levels of stress and pressure is governed largely by emotional maturity and personal well-being, which to an extent are reflected in the EQ model.

  • The Emotional Intelligence section contains some useful resources (for example an Emotional Intelligence competency framework, which can be used to structure interview questions or even to create an assessment tool to assist in the recruitment process).
  • Other methodologies are also relevant to the qualities which greatly assist in high-stress roles (and especially training/support for the people in the roles), including NLPTransactional Analysis, and  Empathy.

Existing staff and new people in stress-prone roles are also likely to benefit from help given with relaxation, stress relief, meditation, peace of mind, well-being, etc., all of which increase personal reserves necessary to deal with stressful situations, which in turn reduces attrition, absenteeism and staff losses. Happily many providers in these fields are not expensive and bring great calm to people in a wide variety of stressful jobs.

Mood-Influencing Stress Factors

In the same way that 'you are what you eat' recent research suggests that also 'you are what you watch'.

Given how the brain works it is logical - and increasingly proven - that if you subject yourself to miserable, negative experiences portrayed on film and television, and computer games, you will feel unhappy or even depressed as a result. 

  • Negative, violent, miserable images, actions, language and sounds are in effect a form of negative conditioning. They produce stress, anxiety, and actually adversely affect a person's physical health.
  • Evidence is growing that positive or negative images and sounds have a corresponding positive or negative effect on your physical health and well-being
  • Watching violent or miserable TV, films or playing violent computer games are experiences now proven to have a directly negative effect on a person's physical health, as well as mental state.

Conversely, watching or listening to an amusing experience or portrayal in a variety of media (TV, film, even books) has a beneficial effect on your mood, and thereby will tend to improve your physical healthmental state, and reduce your stress levels.

Think about and control the influences upon you - reduce the negatives and increase the positives - and you will improve your physical and mental health, and you will most certainly reduce your stress levels.

Some useful references:

  • Research published in 2005 by Dr Michael Miller of the University of Maryland in Baltimore confirmed the positive and negative effects on blood vessels and their 'endothelium' lining, from respectively positive and negative viewing and listening experiences, and the resulting hormonal changes that result, producing stress, and adversely affecting blood vessel performance. 
  • Healthy blood vessels and endothelium are able to dilate (open) more freely and quickly, aiding blood flow and reducing the propensity to clots and related blood flow problems such as heart risks. 
  1. Basically, negative experiences reduce the capability of blood vessels to dilate, and positive viewing experiences and laughter reduce stress and improve blood vessel dilation. 
  2. Specifically, the research found that stress caused blood flow to slow by around 35%, but laughter increased it by around 22%. 
  3. Miller also referenced numerous prior studies demonstrating the positive effects of humour and laughter on stress and health, together with evidence of the contrary negative effects on health, stress and the body's natural functions caused by negative viewing experiences. 
  4. Miller found that stress and reduced blood vessel performance resulting from negative experiences last for around 45 minutes, and suggested that unrelenting stress could permanently (adversely) alter blood vessels.

Professor Andrew Steptoe, British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College London, has previously shown associations between positive emotional states such as happiness and low levels of the stress hormone cortisol, (as well as finding that people with a more positive outlook appear to be less affected by stressful events).

Dr Margaret Stuber's US research has demonstrated that laughter is an effective pain reducer in children, and specifically that children's stress levels were reduced after laughing, and in UK hospitals 'clown doctors' are used in children's wards to improve patients' tolerance to stress and pain, including prior to anaesthetic and operating theatre.

Further Evidence on the Damaging Effects of Stress and Pressures in the Workplace

If you needed any further evidence of the damaging effects of stress and pressures in the workplace - especially for managers, here's a useful research article released on 28 April 2006 by the Chartered Institute of Management:

  • Increased anger and loss of humour amongst people in the workplace are just two of the knock-on effects that businesses now have to deal with due to poor workplace health, according to new research (published April 2006).
  • The 'Quality of Working Life' report published by the Chartered Management Institute and Workplace Health Connect uncovers a high number of physical and psychological symptoms and highlights the impact these have on business performance.

The survey questioned 1,541 managers in the UK revealing a poor picture of health, with only half (50%) believing they are currently in 'good' health.

Key findings of the report were:

  • Anger and mood: 43% admitted to feeling or becoming angry with others too easily and one-third (31%) confessed to a loss of humour creating workplace pressures.
  • Muscle tension and headaches: More than half of those questioned (55%) complained of muscular tension or physical aches and pains. 44% said they experienced frequent headaches.
  • Tiredness and insomnia: Asked about psychological symptoms, 55% experienced feelings of constant tiredness at work. 57% complained of insomnia.

The report also shows that ill-health is having an impact on morale and performance. 

  • One-third (30%) admit they are irritable 'sometimes or often' towards colleagues. 
  • Some managers also want to avoid contact with other people (26%) and many (21%) have difficulty making decisions due to ill health.

Mary Chapman (no relation), chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, says: 

"With the impact of ill-health being keenly felt in the workplace, managers need a better understanding of the consequences of letting relatively minor symptoms escalate. They need to take more personal responsibility for improving their health because inaction is clearly having an effect on colleagues and the knock-on effect is those customer relationships will suffer, too."

Elizabeth Gyngell, programme director at Workplace Health Connect, says: 

"Health activities should not be driven by a concern over legislation, but by the understanding that improved well-being can generate significant benefits to morale and performance. This means organisations should ensure their employees are well versed in identifying and addressing symptoms before they escalate."

The above article 'Poor workplace health is no laughing matter for UK managers' is ©CMI 2006 and used with permission.

The Chartered Management Institute helps set and raise standards in management, encouraging development to improve performance. Moreover, with in-depth research and regular policy surveys of its 71,000 individual members and 450 corporate members, the Institute has a deep understanding of the key issues. The Chartered Management Institute came into being on 1 April 2002, as a result of the Institute of Management being granted a Royal Charter.

As regards health in the workplace, Workplace Health Connect (a partnership between the CMI and the Health and Safety Executive) provides free, confidential, impartial and practical advice and support on health, safety and return-to-work issues.

Small businesses, which employ less than 250 workers and are based in England and Wales, can access the service via an Adviceline (0845 609 6006). Where needed, this will be followed up by workplace visits from qualified Workplace Health Connect advisers. These visits are available in London, the North East, the North West, South Wales and the West Midlands.

Workplace Health Connect advisers are able to advise on a range of issues that can affect workplace health including poor manual handling techniques, incorrect use of chemicals, poor hygiene in the workplace, working in dusty or noisy environments and working at a badly set up workstation. See the Workplace Health Connect website.

Further articles and research about workplace stress and health will be added in due course.

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