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Stress and pressure

An introduction to stress and pressure in the workplace.

Before reading on, watch the animation above.

Why do we experience stress?

Medical theory defines stress as our body’s response to a pressure or an external threat. The stress response is a reaction that we as a species have evolved to have over time, since it can make us more alert and keep us safe from threats.

When a threat is perceived, this triggers a rush of hormones and chemicals which raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, reduce blood flow to the skin and reduce stomach activity. These neuro-chemical changes prepare our bodies to respond to the emergency or threat.

Stress hormones can cause physical symptoms as follows:

  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • pain
  • nausea
  • indigestion
  • dizziness
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath.

Nobody enjoys the feeling of stress, but from an evolutionary perspective, we can see that stress is a useful short-term response to a stressor in an emergency, such as being confronted by a wild bear. It can still be a useful response in our modern world. For example, if a car speeds towards us whilst we are crossing the road, our stress response will be triggered in order to prepare us to run from it and avoid a collision.

However, we also experience stress for threats which do not pose an immediate risk to our lives since stress can be triggered by any perceived threat to us. Inevitably, we all experience different pressures at work, whether that be delivering a presentation, learning to use new technologies or software, or trying to resolve a conflict between colleagues. The stress response can still be useful in these cases. For example, if we have an upcoming deadline, we may get a surge of energy to help us finish the job on time.

Experiencing stress is not a sign of weakness or mental illness – it is a natural response which we have inherited from our ancestors. Once the threat or pressure has subsided, our hormone levels usually return to normal, and our sense of wellbeing is restored.

Over to you!

The perception of stress in the workplace varies greatly. For some, being stressed is worn as a badge of honour, signalling how much your expertise is in demand. How does the perception of stress vary within your workplace? How would you like it to be perceived?


Porges S.W. The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleve Clin J Med. 2009.

Mental Health Foundation. How to manage and reduce stress. 2022.

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Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Modern Workplace

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