This week, it is again the UK's World Mental Health Day and despite the considerable publicity that is given to mental heath on this day, and also throughout the year, the topic is still, too often, a taboo subject. We know from medical professionals that those suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues need to seek help as soon as possible before permanent damage is allowed to occur and that any delay in diagnosis and treatment, due to social stigma regarding the subject, needs to be avoided. So this being Mental Health Day, I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to look at some basic myths and misconceptions about one cause of mental health problems, stress.
1. ‘There's no such thing as stress'
Wrong! Of course stress exists, but the word ‘stress' itself is often applied incorrectly. Many people will use it when they have a temporary work overload, whereas in fact stress only occurs when a person perceives (over a prolonged period) that they have insufficient personal resources to cope with a given situation.
2. ‘Stress is good for you'
Wrong! It's often mistakenly thought that stress is a stimulus that is good for you, when in fact long-term stress is invariably harmful — and sometimes tragically so. Excessive pressure over a prolonged period is a known contributory cause of depression, hypertension and heart attacks, amongst other stress-related illness.
While a certain amount of pressure can motivate individuals and therefore be useful, stress is never motivating. A probable explanation for the myth that people perform well under stress is the fact that they often perform well under controlled pressure that is effectively managed. Controlled pressure is useful when our body and mind are finely tuned in a way that enables both to achieve optimum results and performance.
3. ‘Stress is a mental illness'
Wrong! Stress is the natural physiological reaction people have to prolonged pressure or other types of excessive demands placed upon them. Stress itself is not an illness, but it can lead to severe depression and also physical ill-health such as back pain and heart disease.
4. ‘Stressors affect everybody equally'
Wrong! We need to appreciate that not everyone will react in the same way to any given problem, and that which one person perceives as merely pressure, another may perceive as stress, and react accordingly.
5. ‘Suffering from stress is a sign of weakness'
Wrong! Anyone can suffer from stress — from the CEO to the office cleaner. It all depends on the circumstances and on the physical and mental resources of the individual. Research shows that many people think that if they admit to experiencing stress, it's a sign of weakness.
6. ‘There's nothing an employer can do if an employee suffers from work-related stress'
Wrong! Employers should have a duty to protect their employees' health and safety, regardless of whether an employee is willing to run the risk of harm. If an employer believes that an employee is at risk of work stress, facilities should be available to allow the employee to have an informal discussion with the HR department or with an independent third party outside of his department head.
7. ‘Employers aren't responsible if an employee's stress is caused by problems that aren't related to their work'
Although a UK company has a duty of care to its employees, that does not extend to preventing ill-health caused by problems outside the workplace. Nevertheless, where an employee is known to be having problems outside work, this should be taken into account when carrying out a risk assessment for a particular job. Consequently, an awareness by an employer of external circumstances, is of advantage to both parties.
Having looked at what defines stress, we need to acknowledge that we can all be susceptible to it and to its effects. When, and if, you do recognise its signs in yourself, or in others, then try to investigate the source of the problem and either deal with it yourself or get someone who can. In some cases that will mean using professional advice.
Remember: better deal with a headache, than a heart attack and my new book Show Stress Who's Boss, published next week, provides the four easy steps to beat your stress!
The author is a BBC guest-broadcaster and motivational speaker. She is CEO of an international stress management and employee wellbeing consultancy based in London. Contact them for proven stress strategies - www.carolespiersgroup.co.uk