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What do we mean by ‘stress’?

The fact April is Stress Awareness Month has got our OSH content developer, Ryan Exley, thinking about the language we use on this subject, both in and out of the workplace. Read his thoughts and watch out for more Top Tips and related comment/analysis on managing stress in the workplace as the month goes on

Stress is something that arguably, as a profession, we can be hesitant to address. The problems lie around a lack of understanding of the term ‘stressed’. We don’t fully understand how to have conversations on this issue, and it can be easier to label an individual and send them off to occupational health or the GP for help.

Instead of sending workers to the GP, isn’t this an appropriate moment for organisations to review their work practices and do things differently? Prevention is, after all, better than cure. IOSH has resources available to help prevent stress, including our occupational health toolkit - look out also, this month, for a series of related Top Tips.

But do we understand the language people use when they talk about stress? What it is they’re trying to tell us?

Stress can be a word we use to mask other emotions. We give it such a broad specification that it seems to cover anything from pressure to annoyance, irritation to anger, and more besides. I’d suggest it’s become a term we use simply because we’ve become too lazy to think about how we are feeling.

Research into managing stress, funded by EU-OSHA (the European Union information agency for occupational safety and health), began to challenge the language we use and differentiate between stress and pressure:

‘Some people use the word stress to relate to the demands and challenges they face, which we call pressure. Stress is different from pressure, which is a natural part of life. That pressure can come from many different sources (inside and outside work). It can take many forms, both self-generated (eg wanting to do a good job) and external (eg deadlines imposed by others). People work better with some (but not too much) pressure. The best level of demand at work varies between different people and also varies with the nature of what you are trying to do. We all need some pressure to work well, but some need more (or less) than others to work at their best. Stress can happen when things get too much for you but it can also happen when there isn’t enough to challenge you.”[1]

The three states of positive and negative language

Figure 1 demonstrates the three states in which we live - the past, present and future. It highlights some of the words we use to describe our emotions in these three states, both positively and negatively:

Past negative – Life full of regret, depression, bitterness, remorse, guilt, things I didn’t do

Past positive – I’ve led a good life, enjoyed myself, did all the things I wanted to

Future negative – I am fearful, I dread what’s coming, I don’t feel I have any control

Future positive – Bring it on, let’s go, I can’t wait

Present positive – Things are going OK. I’m on an even keel. In control.

It’s only when we get to the present negative that the word ‘stress’ is really used. I’m stressed. I put myself under so much stress. I can’t cope with all this stress. Stress is a present tense, of-the-moment reaction to one’s environment, both physical and mental.

Writing a list and understanding present negatives may help you prescribe and understand other alternatives to ‘stressed’; it can help you to address the issue in a different way. The exercise below may also be of help in training / awareness raising / discussions with line managers (who play such a critical part in the identification of ‘stress’ in their teams).


Using the diagram and the present negative segment specifically, write a list of words that may come under present negative.

Once you have a list of words, will any of these words enable you to diagnose a worker who says he/she is stressed? Could they actually be something else, something you’ve noted down?

  1. Osha.europa.eu. 2021. E-guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks - Safety and health at work - EU-OSHA. [online] Available at: <https://osha.europa.eu/en/tools-and-resources/e-guides/e-guide-managing-stress-and-psychosocial-risks> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
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Jeremy Waterfield
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