The words ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’ mean quite different things. Too much pressure on any individual can trigger the onset of stress. To manage stress you need to consider pressure.

Pressure
Pressure is the sum of all the demands placed on you.
This includes all the demands, including those outside the workplace. We cannot look at stress management only at work.
Pressure comes from the wider world and individuals, managers and organisations need to manage this while at work.
Would you like the boundaries between your wider world and work to be stronger or weaker?
Pressure leads to stress when the demands you face are too great and you become increasingly tense and anxious.

Stress
Stress is your response to an unmanageable level of pressure.
Stress is a response to pressure – not the pressure itself. Pressure doesn’t always result in stress – it depends on the person and their circumstances.
Some pressure can be good.
For example – most people who perform in public (actors, sports personalities, etc.) suggest that if they don’t feel nervous before a performance they are unlikely to perform at their best.

If you have ever had to give a speech or a presentation, you will know that the pressure of having to do this increased production of the hormone adrenaline. A certain amount of adrenaline actually stimulates us and makes us perform better – short term ‘stress’ can inspire or fire us up. However, the trick is to control our response, because a bad reaction can ruin performance.

Having a job with very little to do and low levels of pressure may sound attractive, but you would soon get bored and you would perform badly!

Here are two examples:

  • The UK government set up a new section when the Channel tunnel was first being considered – the scheme was shelved, leaving employees with literally nothing to do until they could be reassigned to other posts.
  • After a disaster at Hillsborough Football Stadium in the UK, the Taylor Report suggested the introduction of identity cards for football supporters. Employees were transferred into a section specifically to handle the issue of these identity cards, then the idea was rejected following opposition from the public and the football authorities. Staff had nothing to do until the section was disbanded.

In both of these examples, the staff concerned experienced too little pressure and as a result suffered from stress.

Optimum Pressure
As pressure increases, you start to feel more alert and raring to go – ‘energised’ on the stress continuum. You are more alert and attentive, and you feel and perform well. It is difficult to quantify the level of pressure that produces this optimum situation, because it is different for everyone and our responses depend on many factors.

However, as the level of pressure continues to rise, tension creeps in, along with a general feeling that you are struggling to cope. You begin to feel the stress of too many demands and, although you may appear calm on the outside, you will still experience tension and discomfort.

Challenge and Support
Managers often experience pressure as a balance between challenge and support.

The first step in managing stress levels (in yourself and in others) is to recognise the symptoms – both physical and behavioural symptoms. Certain personality types are more likely to experience stress than others, and there are checklists in this module to help you recognise different types of personality and assess the symptoms of stress.

When you look at what is causing stress, it is useful to separate out those factors in the workplace which can trigger stress (we identify four distinct groups of workplace factors) and those events in our wider life which are likely to cause stress.

Read more in our Managing stress learning module linked to this theme.