Created on: 14 Jul 2023

Stress at work can be damaging and can adversely affect both mental and physical health.

Stress is a very commonly used term, and something to which we are all subjected in varying degrees, but it can be difficult to define.

It is often used to describe distress, fatigue and a feeling of not being able to cope. Others see it as a driving force which helps them to survive. People respond to the same situation in very different ways.

Some will manage a stressful situation for a period of time and then find it intolerable. Stress will result if the demands made on individuals do not match the resources available (in the person or provided by the organisation) or meet the individual's needs and motivation.

Causes of Stress

Stress at work may arise from a variety of sources. Often there will be more than one factor responsible for an individual’s stress reaction and personal factors and situations cannot be excluded from the stress equation.

Organisational change or restructuring, work overload, relationship difficulties, being bullied or harassed at work are all potential sources of stress which could contribute or cause serious psychological damage.

Effect of Stress

The body itself has a built-in mechanism which is designed to combat attack, based on the well-established response of ‘fight or flight’. While it may have been very useful to our ancestors, these responses can be unacceptable and ineffective in coping with stress at work.

The physiological response is useful if it is called into play rarely and only for a short time. The increasing heart rate and muscle tone, the effect on blood sugar levels and the ejection of fats into the blood, do prepare the body against assault or for escape. But if these responses become a regular or chronic reaction to the demands of working life then they will be harmful.

The hormones released can themselves cause damage. The links between adrenaline and coronary heart disease are known. Also, while in the short term adrenaline will help the body to react quickly, too much adrenaline will have an effect on the brain and produce the sensation of tiredness.

The symptoms of chronic (long-term) stress are wide ranging. They can include indecision, loss of appetite, reduced weight, headache, backache, skin rashes and difficulty in sleeping and may lead to heart diseases, and ulcers.

Diseases of the blood circulation system are probably the best known stressrelated illnesses, including:

  • hypertension;
  • coronary heart disease;
  • angina; and
  • coronary thrombosis (heart attack).

Several factors can increase the effects of stress, such as smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise. Diseases of the digestive system are also clearly linked to stress. The increase in stomach acids and the decrease in stomach activity which accompanies the emergency response can lead to ulcers and colitis (inflammation of the bowels).

Again these stress factors can be made worse by an inadequate diet and lack of proper opportunities to recover from the stress.

Other illnesses associated with stress include:

  • bronchial asthma;
  • nervous rashes;
  • some cancers; and
  • the triggering of diabetes.

Stress and mental health Mental strain caused by stress at work is one of the most common but least understood aspects of the problem.

Psychological reactions include:

  • fatigue;
  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • hostility and aggression;
  • psychosomatic complaints; and
  • neuroses.

Illnesses associated with mental strain are not usually classified as occupational diseases, and nor are the symptoms identified. Few records are kept, even though their origins may be clear to the millions of workers who are suffering every day.

Mental strain or mental ill health caused by stress in work is very rarely tackled. Society's attitudes to mental ill-health are very different from those to physical ill health. This can add to the pressure of the stressed individuals and may cause them to try and hide the effects until they become so great that the symptoms are unavoidable.

Just as the ways which the body reacts to stress can be harmful if stress is prolonged, so too are some of the ways which people use to try and reduce stress symptoms. As levels of stress increase so does consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, and tranquillisers.

Tackling Occupational Stress

Stress is an occupational hazard that employers should, as far as reasonably practicable, protect their employees from. There should be a clear policy on stress and it should be considered in the employer’s risk assessments as required by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

The Stress Management Standards produced by the HSE provide a tool for assessing the extent of the stress problem in an organisation and indicate the where preventative measures are required. The Health and Safety Executive will also be able to use the Standards to assess how well employers are managing stress.

The Standards classify the causes of stress under six headings; Demands (e.g. workload and the working environment), Control (an individual’s control over his or her work), Support (provided by the organisation/ management/colleagues), Relationships (causes of stress include bullying or harassment), Role (problems of role ambiguity or conflict can cause stress) and Change (how organisational change is managed can impact on stress levels).

For information on the Standards visit: 

Further information on stress can be found at: 

Practical advice on how to cope with work pressures and stress can be found on the Teacher Support website: 

Action for Safety Reps

If a member is off work due to a stress related illness it is important that she or he is advised to inform the employer of the exact nature of the illness and its causes. On receiving such information the Head Teacher or Line Manager should arrange for a referral to the occupational health service or welfare service.

Cases of stress related ill health absences may be the result of bullying or harassment and in these cases the assistance of the general EIS Rep and the Local Association Secretary or Branch Secretary may be required.