Three reasons why stress is a meaningless concept

February 28, 2018

Is your job stressful? Do you feel stressed right now? Or are some of your colleagues going through a stressful time? If so, you and your organisation would be fairly typical of the modern workplace. So given that I’m a psychologist, you’re probably anticipating some tips on how to deal with workplace stress. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I actually want to suggest that the whole concept of stress is flawed to the point of being meaningless.

Obviously, I’m not denying that people sometimes have a tough time at work. So what’s wrong with describing that as ‘stress’? Well here are three reasons:

1. It’s a catch-all term

About 20 years ago, I conducted some research as part of my MSc, exploring what people meant when they said they had a satisfying day or stressful day.  I found that there were only two types of satisfying day:

• I got loads of good stuff done
• I faced a big challenge and overcame it

By contrast, there were so many variations of stressful days, that it was almost impossible to categorise them, beyond ‘something bad happened’. Compare these workplace scenarios, all of which could be described as stressful:

• Having much more work that you can possibly do in the time available

• Having a controlling boss who gives no praise and shouts if you make a mistake

• Being unable to save the life of someone in your care

• Being attacked or threatened by a member of the public

• Being ostracised by the rest of your team

• Giving an important presentation to a hostile audience

• Working in an environment that’s too hot/cold/noisy

• Being publicly humiliated or on the receiving end of unfair criticism

• Feeling out of your depth and incapable of doing what’s expected

• Working in a team that’s in constant conflict

• Trying to hold it together at work while facing a crisis in your personal life

These are all ‘stressful situations’ but they have little in common besides being unpleasant. You might argue that these are simply different causes of workplace stress but I think they’re more different than that.  The actual experiences are different. In some of these situations, you may be in shock, in others exhausted; some might leave you feeling profoundly sad, others anxious, angry, despondent, irritated, helpless or terrified. Perhaps it’s easier for people to say “I’m feeling stressed” than “I’m really scared” or “I’m so angry I don’t know what to do with myself” but doesn’t it muddy the water to treat these very different experiences as though they’re the same? Can one set of generic stress management techniques really cover it all?

2. Built-in ambiguity

Stress is a very slippery concept. Sometimes we say “I’m under a lot of stress” or “This is very stressful”, suggesting that stress is an external thing that has an impact on us. Other times, we say “I’m feeling stressed”, as though stress is our reaction to a situation. This might sound like an extremely pedantic distinction but it matters because it cuts to the heart of the question – whose responsibility is it? Is the situation too much to cope with or are you at fault for not being able to hack it?

There’s no straightforward answer to this. It’s a complex interaction of the situation and your capabilities and resilience. I know, for example, that I can feel excited and energised by the idea of having a meeting with a new client without having a clue what it’s going to be about.  For others, the lack of preparation would stymie them. On the other hand, if I were in a job where I was required to make constant quick decisions, I’d probably have a meltdown by lunchtime. Being clear about what’s really bothering you can make it easier to work out what’s reasonable, what you can and can’t do and what you might stretch to if you got a grip on your emotions.

Framing things in terms of stress, by contrast, maintains the ambiguity and can lead to people feeling guilty or inadequate for not coping. A coaching client I’ll call John, for example, managed a team who were doing fine. Then two new projects came in just as three of the team announced they were joining a competitor and were placed on immediate gardening leave. John battled valiantly to hold it all together but wondered whether to admit to his manager that he was feeling stressed. It’s not often a psychologist will tell you that your feelings aren’t that important, but, in this instance, it helped John to see that the conversation he needed to have with his manager was not about his feelings but about resourcing issues and priorities. Looking at it through the lens of stress had muddied the water and given him unrealistic expectations about coping, to the point where he was trying to work miracles.

3. Masking exploitation

Back in the first half of the 20th century, my grandfather cut coal with a shovel and loaded it on to ships at Cardiff docks. Coal trimmersIt was a very tough job. Conditions were harsh, pay was low and he was on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract, so had no financial security. I doubt he would have described himself as stressed and when we look back on those times we tend not to think in terms of stress either. Instead we talk about oppression, exploitation and unacceptable working conditions.

Fast-forward to today and that language seems somewhat archaic. It seems perfectly natural to talk about the stressful working conditions of, for example, unpaid interns working long hours to get a break in fashion or television, or gig-economy delivery drivers who don’t have time for a loo break. Framing these unacceptable work practices in terms of stress normalises them –  stress is just part of working life, isn’t it? Maybe they should just tough it out? Perhaps a bit of lavender oil on the dashboard would help those drivers relax a bit. No, sometimes you don’t need a stress management guru, you need an employment lawyer or a trade union.

So if not stress management, then what?

I take people’s well-being at work very seriously so you’d think that tackling stress would be high on my agenda. It’s true that I’m often called in when someone is ‘suffering from stress’. But if my response to that was a set of generic stress management techniques I’d be doing my clients a disservice. Sure it helps to take a break, clear your head, come to terms with your feelings. Most of us would benefit from more sleep and more exercise. Beyond that what you need is clarity. The way you manage your particular stressful situation given your unique personality, skill set and life circumstances is as individual as you are.

If you’d like some support working out what’s really going on in your stressful situation, I’d be happy to have a chat:

Photo credits

marsmettn tallahassee

Imperial War Museum

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  1. gfas2010 March 1, 2018 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Caroline a great blog that puts a lot of daily stuff into perspective. Well done.

    Is there any reason why you don’t also publish this on LinkedIn. It’s a lot easier to share and you would increase the audience.

    Best regards,


    • carolinegourlay March 1, 2018 at 11:50 am - Reply

      Thanks Felix. I guess as an ex-military man it must be galling hearing people complain of what a stressful time they’re having because they’re busier than they’d like to be and the photocopier has broken down. I have posted a link to this on Linked In but I really must bet more disciplined about posting it as an actual article. Discipline (like decision making) not one of my key strengths! Thanks for the nudge.

  2. Alec Stansfield March 1, 2018 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    This is a thought provoking post, Caroline. And I agree that “stress” can be an unhelpful term when used as a catch-all term. However, I believe there is a single, small step that we can take which unifies the various examples in your list of “bad things that happened” and which provides a meaningful way to categorise your examples.

    That small step is to take the perspective that: “Stress is our natural response to any situation in which one or more of our innate needs are not being met”. So rather than casting out the term as meaningless, let’s adopt a perspective that gives it real, tangible meaning.

    Applying this definition of stress to your examples shows that all of these situations are really variations on the lack of one or more of the following innate human needs (listed in no particular order): our need to feel safe; our need for a sense of autonomy and control; our need for meaning and purpose; our need to belong to a community; our need for respect; our need for a sense of achievement and our innate need for a sense of meaning and purpose.

    There are stressful situations where other innate needs are compromised. For example we call the lack of food or drink: hunger or thirst, a lack of privacy or time for reflection may be described as feeling overcrowded or over-scrutinised, the lack of sleep: tiredness, and the lack of movement: stagnation. All of these are experienced as “stressful” – though these particular needs did not come up in your examples of a bad day.

    As for the idea that stress is just part of working life – I would offer the following distinction between being stretched and being stressed:

    I personally believe that stress is meaningful concept, but that understanding it from the perspective of “needs not met” is vital if we wish to develop pragmatic approaches to dealing with it. Better still, lets aim to create working environments in which all of our needs (other than, perhaps, our need for sleep!) are met in balance – then we can truly expect to thrive. But thanks for stimulating the discussion!

    • carolinegourlay March 12, 2018 at 6:07 pm - Reply

      Thanks Alec. I know you put a lot of work into working out exactly what it is that’s causing someone to be distressed (in the broadest sense) at work, I’m just not sure I agree that we need an overarching concept.

      BTW when I said ‘stress is just part of working life’ I meant it in the sense that it’s how people talk about work. I think the idea of exploitation can get drowned out because ‘we’re all a bit stressed, aren’t we?’.

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