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Work related stress guide for staff

This guide is concerned with work-related stress: that is, stress that arises from, or is made worse by, work. Work related stress is not an illness, but it can lead to increased problems with ill health, if it is prolonged or particularly intense.

What is work related stress

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines stress as "the reaction people may have when presented with demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope." It is not a disease. However if stress is intense and goes on for some time, it can lead to mental and physical ill health (e.g. depression, nervous breakdown, heart disease). Workplace stress, if not properly managed, is associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.

Historically stress used to be divided into positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress). In this older view, "to be alive was to experience some form of stress". Nowadays the term "stress" is synonymous with negative stress and the word "pressure" is frequently used to describe positive stress.

You are not alone if you feel very or extremely stressed. In the country as a whole, as many as one in five people could be feeling the same way. Ideally tackling work-related stress is a partnership between you, your manager, and the University: a partnership based on honesty and trust, where you all say what you feel about the situation.

Stress is not a weakness and is not something you have to suffer. The University has a responsibility to protect your health and safety at work and as a good employer will work with you to better manage workplace stress and assist you in dealing with the adverse effects of personal stress.

What is work related stress

Symptoms of stress

The symptoms of stress can manifest themselves in a variety of ways over time and, of course, in combination with each other. There are three broad areas of symptoms:

  • You can often increase your consumption of stimulants, such as alcohol or cigarettes.
  • Your eating habits frequently change.
  • You can become less reliable, with poor timekeeping and increased absence from work and even more accident-prone.
  • Personal relationships often become strained, often for no apparent reason.
Mental health symptoms
  • You will often be increasingly irritable and withdrawn.
  • Anxiety and depression are fellow travellers with stress.
  • You will usually find it harder to maintain your concentration and become increasingly forgetful.
  • Sleep often becomes more difficult.
Physical symptoms
  • General aches and pains sounds almost petty, but people living with stress often find these lasting longer and developing into tense muscles and a general lethargy.
  • Headaches and migraines become more frequent.
  • You can become more susceptible to colds and flu.

There are other symptoms. There can also be longer-term issues which may develop into more complicated conditions. Equally, any one of these points could be nothing in itself but if you recognise a number of features of your life outlined above, then now may be a good time to identify the cause.

How well do you manage your stress - personal checklist

Answer the questions below to help you to understand how well you currently manage your stress.

  • Do you know the main causes of your stress?
  • Can you recognise your early signs of stress?
  • Do you take some exercise each day?
  • Have you a leisure activity you enjoy?
  • Can you use simple relaxation exercises?
  • Do you feel good about yourself and your achievements?
  • Can you be assertive?
  • Can you plan your time?
  • Do you enjoy your work?
  • Do you limit your fat intake and eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day?
  • Do you get enough sleep?
  • Can you balance your work and leisure?

No one can ever be in control of all the stresses in their life, but we can learn how to manage them better. The University through DeakinDevelop offers individual staff members the opportunity to build their confidence and skills in areas such as communication skills, managing change and conflict resolution. There is also online training through Some faculties and other areas run local health and well being programs.

Deakin has a range of health and wellbeing services for staff and students. In the community there are a range of programs that also address individual issues or interests such as insomnia, diet, yoga, aerobics and healthy heart assessments.

The more detailed checklist is at: Stress Self-Assessment Checklist for Staff Members (DOCX, 20.6KB)

What you can do at work

You can help at work by:

  • 'doing your bit' for managing work-related stress by talking to your managers: if they don't know there's a problem, they cannot help. If you don't feel able to talk directly to your manager, ask an OHS representative or contact Health, Wellbeing and Safety to raise the issue on your behalf
  • explore options for helping you deal with the stress. This may involve changes to work hours or duties or the way your work is managed
  • supporting your colleagues if they are experiencing work-related stress. Encourage them to talk to their manager, OHS representative or contact Health, Wellbeing and Safety
  • trying to channel your energy into solving the problem rather than just worrying about it. Think about what would make you happier at work and discuss this with your manager.

What can you do personally

  • Talk to someone early if you are feeling distressed or not coping. You may feel overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, unable to sleep, lack concentration, or just disinterested in work. It may help to talk to a friend or you may want professional assistance through a counsellor in the University's Employee Assistance Program. There are also a range of community resources that can give you help.
  • Don't isolate yourself from work colleagues, friends and family. It is likely that someone from your workplace will be in touch with you if you are absent from work. This is to establish the reason for your absence, your expected return date, and to discuss what assistance they can offer. Be open to alternative ideas and duties that may assist your return to work
  • Review your health status with your general practitioner. There are effective treatments that could help you if you are suffering from anxiety or depression. The beyondblue website has information that may assist you

What can you expect of your supervisor or manager?

Deakin expects managers to be supportive of staff and assist them, specifically:

  • Treat stressed staff in the same way as those with a physical health problem
  • To discuss the issue with you and demonstrate that they are concerned about your health
  • Ask if there is anything they can do to help
  • Advise you about sources of help within or outside the University
  • Actively follow up stress problems and continue to demonstrate their wish to support you
  • Consider any simple modifications to work
  • Review and if necessary modify your work tasks and responsibilities in consultation with you.
  • Develop a return to work plan if you have had sickness absence due to stress or depression
  • Monitor your rehabilitation and return to work progress

What to do after a stress - related illness?

What can you do out of work?

There are usually more areas than we initially think where we can take control of our own lives. A key component of any approach involves making a change, doing something different. The following advice will not prevent work-related stress, but may help you take care of yourself and ensure that you don't make the problem worse. You can:

Changing your thinking Some of the most productive and rewarding techniques involve adjusting the way we think about our situations. Small shifts can quickly free up creative energy and increase our options. When we are feeling low, it is sometimes hard to 'think outside the box'.
Develop a positive attitude The development of a positive attitude to life is an important skill in managing stress. Feeling confident and good about yourself will help you deal with difficult situations and develop the skills to make relationships work.
Seek support Talk to family or friends about what you're feeling – they may be able to help you and provide the support you need to raise your concerns at work.
Keep fit

Be physically active – it stimulates you and gives you more energy. Physically fit and healthy people are able to handle stress better than those who are not. A healthy lifestyle includes regular exercise, a sensible diet, getting adequate sleep and finding time for leisure and relaxation.

A key component of any approach involves making a change, doing something different. This often involves doing something physical, not necessarily taking up jogging or going down the local gym. Even just a quick 20-minute walk can help and that is something you can start on today.
Watch your diet

In the slightly longer term, you should look at your diet. Changing to a healthy diet is a good thing in itself but there are also advantages in learning to take the time to prepare and cook fresh food. This can be a relaxing activity in itself.

Stop smoking – it doesn't help you to stay healthy, even though you might think it relaxes you.

Try to keep alcohol consumption within limits – alcohol acts as depressant and will not help you tackle the problem.

Watch your caffeine intake – tea, coffee and some soft drinks may contribute to making you feel more anxious.

Try learning relaxation techniques – some people find it helps them cope with pressures in the short term.

Do something the forces you to think about something other than work, something that needs your active involvement. Why not blast some aliens in a computer game rather than just having the TV on in the background?

Recovering from the 'high alert' positions that our bodies may have been in for long periods during the day is important and sometimes hard to do. Many of us need to learn new relaxation techniques. There is a great variety of approaches: courses, books, tapes, exercises etc available. Pick one that works for you. 
Rest Sleep is also very important and, again there are a number of guides available to getting a good rest. A common tip is not to go to bed until you are ready, rather than at a specific time, so that you avoid too much lying awake at night. Try to avoid pharmaceutical solutions while you are over-stressed.
You doctor If you have any concerns about the degree to which you feel stressed, do visit your doctor. He or she can be an important part of your planning.

Where can I get more help?

  • If work is affected, discuss the problem with your Client Partner who may refer you to suitable counselling.
  • You can directly access employee assistance counsellors through the Employee Assistance Program. This program provides professional, confidential, voluntary and free counselling to employees with difficulties which meet certain criteria and which affect work performance. Individual counselling will be short-term (up to 5 sessions); when requested, counsellors may conduct mediation between a staff member and his/her supervisor; when a group of staff are facing similar difficulties managing a situation, counsellors may conduct a group session. Staff can contact the EAP independently by making an appointment to see a counsellor on their campus or supervisors can suggest that a staff member use the program.
  • Staff training workshops have been designed upon request to meet the collective needs of work groups. Such programs include Critical Incident Debriefing, Stress Management, Managing Change, and Coping with Difficult Behaviour. Please contact Organisational Development (Human Resources).

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