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Is 'stress' a meaningless term?

Fingers on the buzzers

A while back I put out a poll on social media to ask people to define what the word stress means. I asked them to take part in my little green man test, where you imagine a Martian has just landed on Earth and ask you what stress means. Respondents must finish the sentence, “Stress is……”

I polled 108 people, and received the following answers: agitation, being highly strung, anger, aggravation, feeling upset, distress, feeling brow-beaten, rage, fury, irritation, anxiety, tension, worrying, overwork, too much pressure, frustration, overwhelm, job hassles, money worries, threat to safety, unrealistic demands, too much going on…

What the hell are we on about?

Stress is a word most of us probably use, but what are we actually talking about? How can we pin it down? It can’t be all 22 of the responses my survey received. Which one is it? Or is it none of them?

In this blog, I’m going to share my reasons why I think it’s actually a meaningless term, and one that gets in the way of helping people who are struggling, rather than helping in any way. I’ll give you a quick tour of the origins of the term, its use in the scientific literature, and adjustments you can make to ensure your stress reporting actually tells you something useful.

Where it all started

Many people believe the word stress originated in the medical world, but it was actually borrowed from the world of engineering by Endocrinologist Hans Selye, one of the founding fathers of stress research, and applied to human biology. Stress in engineering refers to the force applied to an object, and how that object deforms as a result of that force. Selye borrowed it as a metaphor.

If you scroll through the 947 pages of the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) or the more commonly used across Europe, ICD 10 (International classification of diseases), you’ll notice that everyday stress isn’t anywhere to be found, apart from reference to post-traumatic stress and trauma. vSo, while many think that ‘stress’ is a medical term, it actually isn’t.

Mountains of stress research

At first glance, stress appears to be a highly researched topic. But this can be quite misleading, and I’ll tell you why… Yes, there has been lots and lots of research that uses the word stress, but there hasn’t been lots based on a single agreed definition of what stress is, in the same way that there is on ‘Diabetes type 2’ for example.

What we do have is a bit like there being lots of research into ‘happiness’, but without ever stating what happiness means, or just as commonly, using various definitions such as ‘more money’, ‘contentment’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘good health’ etc.

Better data?

So, what sort of data on stress are you recording in your business? Maybe it’s very detailed, or maybe none at all. The problem with absence and wellbeing data on stress is that if you’ve not made it clear what you mean by those terms people will apply their own meaning to it. Stress isn’t a concrete term like ‘overwork’ where it means the same thing to pretty much everyone.

My suggestion would be to consider the usefulness of having the word ‘stress’ on your absence reporting or pulse surveys, and decide whether that data actually tells you anything you can use? If not maybe splitting it into categories such as ‘workload issues’, ‘private life issues’, ‘work relationships’ etc, might give you something more usable

In closing

To conclude, stress is essentially an umbrella concept most of use to describe when we don’t like how we feel. When we use it, we mistakenly assume that we’re all describing the same thing, but that’s rarely the case.

The next time you hear the word, ask the person what they mean by it. Each time you do this you might be surprised by the variety of responses you get. But at least once you know what the person actually means you’ll be much better placed to support them with what they’re actually struggling with.


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