Why managing stress at work is life affirming

work stress management

We lost a friend and work colleague last week; he suffered a massive heart attack and died in ICU. We keep asking ‘Really? Are you sure?’ because of the unexpectedness of it. Because of the tragedy of it. Because it might have been avoided. 

Suffering through job stress

Being employed in a fulfilling job can have psychological benefits, flowing on to physical benefits. Conversely, unemployment, under-employment and stressful working conditions can have adverse impacts on a person’s health (World Health Organization Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2008). 

Stress is a major occupational and public health concern (Kelly & Colquhoun, 2005) as evidenced by their research. For example, stress at work has been identified as both a significant risk factor in mental health conditions common amongst the adult population (Stansfeld & Candy, 2006; Gupta, 2008; Blake, Zhou, & Batt, 2013; and Cleary et al, 2014) and as a contributor to physiological conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, and other chronic conditions (LaMontagne, Keegel, & Vallance, 2007). Our friend was one who suffered. Surely therefore, we as individuals must prioritise our physical and mental health!!

Annastiina Hintsa: I went through a burnout. I was very early in my career at McKinsey, and I really loved what I did. I was super engaged. I was one of the people giving their 200 percent, and it was a cumulative effect of little things: sleep debt, ignoring all the warning signals that others noticed. It was a hard stop—I literally fell down the stairs and hit my head. My first reaction was to search for my laptop, which is kind of embarrassing now. But that moment, when I was at the bottom of a staircase searching for my laptop, worrying about my work and not worrying about myself—that was a turning point for me. After that, I had the realization that I can’t keep on going this way. If I want to do this job and perform well, I need to change something (Ascher & Tonies, 2021). 

Managing Stress at Work: Focus on better ways to be well

However, we also acknowledge that wellbeing is also a function of the environment in which we work. Levett et al (2019) suggest while leading organisations have introduced workplace wellness initiatives, ie mental health leave and EAP services, many of these workplace health promotions target individuals and their coping skills (LaMontagne et al, 2007), without addressing upstream stressors including high workloads and organisational culture and frameworks (Safe Work Australia, 2013). 

Wellbeing interventions do work

Fox et al (2022) conducted an extensive literature review (83 studies) on organisational and group level workplace intervention studies (designed to reduce stress). Interventions were categorised into four types: flexible work and scheduling changes; job and task modifications; relational and team dynamic initiatives; and participatory process interventions. 

The research found well-being outcomes spanned three well-being domains: the mental health continuum from ill-being to positive mental health (e.g. psychological distress); work-specific well-being (e.g. job satisfaction); and work-family well-being (e.g. work-family conflict). The interventions were found to have the potential to improve working well-being with demonstrable effects in all three domains.

Management stressors undermine wellbeing

The researchers also found that failure to improve well-being was more often evident when management prioritised increased productivity or higher quality standards rather than well-being, and did not consider worker capacity or provide opportunities for workers’ input. Examples include shift changes to facilitate new production schedules, implementing lean management practices designed primarily to increase productivity or quality (rather than employee engagement), or implementing new technologies to improve production. 

These management-driven changes seem to create new stressors or pressures that often reduce well-being. Such findings may suggest efforts to craft “win-win” solutions are challenging, since organisational interventions that primarily prioritise the organisation’s interests can actually threaten worker well-being.

Gold standards to consider

What can managers, leaders, and change agents do? PwC, (2010) in its report on Workplace Wellness in Australia suggests organisations can put in place several gold standards around leadership, culture, people and process. As an example, one standard which resonates with the recent death of our colleague:

stress management

The time to focus on wellbeing is NOW

In times of organisational change, work related stressors such as challenging roles and relationships can have destructive personal consequences such as anxiety, burnout and illness (Smollan, 2017). But at its worse, stress and particularly chronic stress can be a silent killer. It is our fervent hope that such a tragedy does not touch your workplace. 


Asher, J & Tonies, F. (2021, February 22). How wellbeing improves performance: an interview with Annatiina Hintsa. McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey & Company.

Fox, K.E.,  Johnson, S.T., Berkman, L.F., Sianoja, M., Soh, Y., Kubzansky, L.D. & Kelly, E.L. (2022). Organisational- and group-level workplace interventions and their effect on multiple domains of worker well-being: A systematic review, Work & Stress, 36(1), 30-59, DOI: 10.1080/02678373.2021.1969476 

Kelly, P. & Colquhoun, D. (2005). The professionalization of stress management: health and wellbeing as a professional duty of care? Critical Public Health, 15(2), 135-145.

Levett, K., Coughlan, S., Longridge, S., Roumeliotis, V., & Adams, J. (2019). Be well: a systems-based wellness intervention using mindfulness in the workplace – a case study. Journal of Management & Organization, 25(5), 613-634. doi:10.1017/jmo.2017.41

PwC (2010). Workplace Wellness in Australia. Report: Aligning action with aims: optimising the benefits of workplace wellness. Medibank Health Solutions.

Smollan, R. (2017). Supporting staff through stressful organizational change. Human Resource Development International, 20(4), 282-304.

World Health Organization Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008, August). Report: Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health. Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Geneva. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-IER-CSDH-08.1

By Dr Andrea Howell and Mike Bengough

Directors of Hoben Workplace Consulting and members/joint leaders of the Learning & Development Division of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) – ANZ branch.

Key Messages:

  • Listen to your friends and colleagues
  • Set a wellbeing program for all levels of staff

Recent Posts

Scroll to Top