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You are here: Home Topics Psychosocial risks and stress Stress - definition and symptoms

Stress - definition and symptoms

Definition and causes

People experience stress when they perceive that there is an imbalance between the demands made of them and the resources they have available to cope with those demands. Although the experience of stress is psychological, stress also affects people’s physical health.

Common factors in work-related stress include lack of control over work, unsuitable demands being made of workers, and lack of support from colleagues and management.

Stress is caused by a poor match between us and our work, poor relationships and presence of psychological or physical violence at a workplace, and by conflicts between our roles at work and outside it. 

Reactions to the same circumstances vary between individuals. Some people can cope better with high demands, than others. It is the individual’s subjective evaluation of their situation that is important. It is not possible to determine from the situation alone the amount of stress it may cause.

Short-term stress – for instance when meeting a deadline – isn’t usually a problem: indeed it can help people perform to the best of their ability. Stress becomes a risk to safety and health when it is protracted.

Symptoms of work-related stress

The experience of stress can alter the way a person feels, thinks and behaves. Symptoms include:

At the organisation level:

  • absenteeism, high staff turnover, poor time-keeping, disciplinary problems, harassment, reduced productivity, accidents, errors, and increased costs from compensation or health care.

At the individual level:

  • emotional reactions (irritability, anxiety, sleep problems, depression, hypochondria, alienation, burnout, family relationship problems);
  • cognitive reactions (difficulty in concentrating, remembering, learning new things, making decisions);
  • behavioural reactions (abuse of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; destructive behaviour), and
  • physiological reactions (back problems, weakened immunity, peptic ulcers, heart problems, hypertension).