What is stress?

An interesting view into workplace stress

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Tim Routledge - Science Director Biostress

Tim Routledge

Chief Science Officer


Stress is something we all think we’re familiar with. Whether it be early in the morning rushing to work, giving an important presentation or confessing your love to an undying flame. Stress, however, can also become debilitating if not managed properly. But do we actually know what constitutes stress? It’s a feeling, the raised heartbeat and clenched fist in your throat. It’s both a thing to avoid, and a necessary motivator, depending on the situation. It can blindside you or you can see it coming from miles away.

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What is stress?

Fundamentally, stress is a physiological reaction to an element in the environment known as a stressor. This can be anything from a change in temperature, a loud noise, or a nasty look from a passer-by. When our brain registers a stressor, it will send signals to the parts of your nervous system which will produce all the familiar signs: increased heartbeat, sweating, increased rate of respiration, feeling hot or dizzy…etc. What is interesting, is that the registering and reaction to a stressor will happen unconsciously first, and the brain’s conscious explanation will come second. That is, you may get to work and start feeling stressed as you sit down, thinking of all the tasks you have to complete whereas in reality, your stress response was activated by being honked at on your drive in, and only now are you consciously associating the feeling with the current situation. Briefly put, stress is a bodily reaction which can be triggered without us knowing why – so our brain fills in the gap with what makes the most sense. This is what underlies the Big Contradiction in workplace stress, though surveys point to work as the major stressor, objective data may tell a very different story – such as in our study with UCL and Bath University.

Resilience and stress management

Now it might appear as though the focus on managing workplace stress is misplaced, but importantly, stress which manifests outside the workplace can still play a significant role in employee wellbeing and performance. Namely, that arousal or activation of a stress response will accumulate, and the amount anyone can handle is determined by their resilience. Resilience is our individual ability to handle the build-up of these stress responses. Employers should work to input stress management strategies which focus on improving individual and organisational resilience, including recognising the significant impact of external factors such as sleep and activity. Hence, working on resilience can help counter the stress which impacts employee performance and wellbeing, no matter the cause.

Ultimately, stress is nuanced and multi-faceted. There is no one cure-all antidote to getting rid of stress for good. But understanding when it happens, and why it happens, is the first step to rising to the challenge. Objective data will help pave the way.