What is work-related stress?


ll stress is not bad for us. It is also a normal and unavoidable part of everyday life. At a moderate level it can have positive effects on our performance. However, prolonged chronic stress can have harmful physical, psychological, behavioral and social consequences.   


Work-related stress is not a sign of weakness. Nor is stress a disease, but if it is intense and continues for a longer period of time, it can possibly lead to mental ill-health: too much just is too much.


Anyone can be affected by stress at work or burn-out – it does not mean that you meet the criteria for a psychiatric disorder. Psychological distress refers to affective, psychophysical or psychosomatic and anxiety symptoms.  Distressing reactions may also be a “normal” reaction to a difficult or challenging stressful situation.


 It is known that adverse working conditions and work stressors contribute to the development of this distress. It means that work-related stress can also be a symptom of an organizational problem, like the atmosphere, excessive responsibility, high workload, role ambiguity, lack of autonomy, control or support and poor management style.


Occupational stress can also be seen as a cognitively mediated interaction between the individual and the environment.  Sometimes how we interpret and evaluate the situation determines our emotional and behavioral response to it.  Most situations or events are not in themselves intrinsically stressful but only become stressful when we appraise them as such. 


While acknowledging the importance of the work environment in triggering stress, dysfunctional cognitive processes and maladaptive coping strategies are also considered important.


Then we can ask: what can be done to change the thought processes, emotions and behavior that are also related to harmful stress and which can increase the experience of stress? What clinical tools exist to help people to cope with stressors?


Interventions for work-related stress

The experience of occupational stress may reflect the characteristics of the person, the job or both. It is an interaction between individual and environmental factors.  Stress management interventions have been proven to be effective.

Work-related stress and job burn-out can be helped by individual psychological interventions, like: 


  • counseling of an occupational health psychologist: the assessment of the problem, the analysis and clarification of the situation, planning of the interventions.

  • cognitive stress management and cognitive - behavioral treatment of work-related stress. These approaches aim at changing cognitions and subsequently reinforcing active coping skills.

  • coaching to explore different options and values in work-life, to set realistic goals and to facilitate self-awareness of underlying cognitive and emotional barriers to goal attainment

  • short-term or long term psychotherapy might sometimes be needed, especially if profound burn-out has developed into severe depression.


For instance, the Stress Inoculation model consists of three steps designed to increase stress tolerance. It is a short-term intervention, usually lasting from 8 to 16 sessions. The aim is to create alternative, more functional thought and behavioral patterns, which can be adopted to everyday life.  It is a flexible, individually tailored, multifaceted form of cognitive-behavioral intervention.


All in all, the cognitive approach is a goal-directed, time-limited and collaborative approach.


It is based upon an underlying theoretical rationale that affects and behaviors are largely determined by the way we structure the world. How we react to events is determined by our views of them, not always by the events themselves.

 We are not always fully aware of these thoughts and “internal dialogues” that we tend to engage in with ourselves and which can sensitize us to stress. With the help of a trained professional we can learn to identify these processes and to understand their meaning to us. Through examining and re-evaluating our views we can develop alternative viewpoints and behaviors that may be more effective and help us to deal with work-related stress.


As we become aware of our thinking styles and of alternative ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, we become more flexible. This way of working enhances our understanding and awareness of the nature and impact of the stress and coping resources.


The cognitive approach does not seek to give direct answers or “didactic lectures” to difficulties but rather through a collaborative process called ”guided discovery” helps individuals to discover their own solutions and conclusions. This promotes insight and allows for a more rational decision making process to take place.


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