Stress Awareness Month takes place every April and has been celebrated now since 1992. A campaign designed to raise awareness about stress, the contributory factors and various ways to manage it, stress still holds a significant amount of stigma, and the month of April focuses on reducing that. 

What is stress?

There are many definitions of stress, however, what is commonly thought to be a mental health condition, it may surprise you to learn that it's actually a physical condition.

The Stress Management Society say "when stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action". 

Surprisingly, stress is necessary to motivate our bodies to respond to the situations we are in, the release of hormones gives us a boost of energy and focusses our mind on a particular task in the moment. E.g. if a bus comes around the corner just as you have stepped out into the road, you will ‘feel’ the immediate release of hormones and you will step back without having to consciously think through your next move.

So while a small amount of stress is safe, when levels exceed normal and become too high, it can lead to cognitive, emotional and physical ill-health, which often results in a change in behaviour as we look for new ways to both function and cope.

If the factors that are causing the increase in stress are not managed, ill-health can become long-term and have a significant detrimental impact on the person’s ability to fully participate in normal life activities. When this happens, stress can tarnish relationships, affect your lifestyle and can sometimes develop into various mental health conditions.


What causes stress?

There are so many factors and general life experiences that can lead to an increase in stress. Importantly, every person is different, and each experience can be coped with at varying degrees of success by the same person at different times in their life.

Stress can be caused by a sudden change in personal circumstances such as moving home, divorce, or the death of a loved one. Or can be caused by a gradual build-up of a situation that becomes overwhelming over time such as a poor relationship with somebody, caring for somebody that has a chronic illness, or an increase in workload at work that hasn’t been managed well.

When the person experiences a saturation point, the body will start to respond negatively and this will then lead to the emotional, physical, and cognitive changes mentioned above.

Stress at work

Workplace related stress is increasingly common across both the UK and worldwide, due to factors such as financial uncertainty due to the cost of living crisis and increased worry around flexible working, given the increase of employers forcing employees back into offices.

With 79% of people affected by work-related stress specifically, this is where HR teams and managers can really make a difference. 


How can HR support employees with stress?

HR and business leaders cannot always manage and control stress as the factors causing stress may be present in the individual’s personal life and not in the workplace. However, HR and line mangers in particular, can identify any changes in behaviour that can lead to supportive conversations taking place and an employee opening up about their worries and stress.

Organisations that provide mental health support can make a real difference, if employees feel nurtured, well paid and have access to mental health resources that they will actually use, this will avoid long-term and costly absences as well as improving the overall company reputation, morale and Employee Brand Proposition (EVP).

In the work place, all businesses have a legal duty to manage stress. This can be done by implementing  Stress Risk Assessments which are used to identify potential causes of work related stress, as well as factors to help minimise potential risks.

According to Bupa the most common causes of work-related stress are:

  • An excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines
  • Regularly being under pressure to meet targets or deadlines
  • Difficult relationships with colleagues, or bullying at work
  • Management style e.g. micromanagement
  • Being unclear about your job role and what you're responsibilities
  • Being in the wrong job for your skills, abilities and expectations

HR policy and practice should be well considered with stress and employee wellbeing being at the heart of them. Role evaluation, clear job descriptions and well-trained, supportive managers are essential to achieving high engagement and the best productivity from all staff.

Business leaders will have competing priorities when it comes to investing in staff so HR should be presenting an evidence-based argument to leverage total reward approaches that include support such as access to EAP services and the training of Mental Health First Aiders.

A number of companies and charities additionally provide support for managers and HR Leaders to help their staff's mental wellbeing, including Mind, British Red Cross and Mental Health Organisation

How can individuals support their stress levels?

We previously mentioned this years theme, #LittleByLittle, which encourages consistent and small positive actions and the impact that they have on overall health and wellbeing. The Stress Management Society urge that even the smallest steps can make a difference to your daily routine. They suggest: 

Connecting with loved ones / someone you can trust: simply asking someone, "how are you?" can open a door for further conversation. 

Prioritising sleep: take time to wind down in the evening, minimise phone use before bed and ensuring you get at least 7-9 hours of rest each night. 

Moving in your own way: whether this be daily housework, walking, yoga or a fitness class, moving your body will release endorphins, which reduce stress and increase wellbeing. 

Spending time in nature: spending time amongst trees, flowers, in the forest or in country parks is a great way to connect with nature and stimulate your senses. 

Breathing deeply: being conscious in the breaths you take can help shift your mind and encourage you to relax.

Practising mindfulness: practising mindfulness can help individuals feel present, aiding emotional regulation and control. Prioritise time to meditate or follow a guided meditation video online, it could be for as little as 2/3 minutes but could make a huge difference. 

Helpful resources to aid positive mental wellbeing


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