Stress is a pattern of emotional (e.g. anxiety, depression), cognitive (e.g. poor concentration), behavioural (e.g. increased alcohol use) and physical (e.g. increased blood pressure, headaches) reactions to adverse conditions and is characterised by high levels of arousal, distress and feelings of not coping (European Commission, Employment & Social Affairs, 1999). Stress is not usually classified as a mental disorder, although it can precipitate both physical and emotional problems.
Pressure at work can be positive for employees; a lot depends on the nature, intensity and length of the pressure, the degree of control of the situation that an individual feels he or she has, the individual's response, and the existence or absence of protective factors. For example, a worker who is exposed to continued pressure over a long period (excessive workload for a number of months), who feels unable to control the situation (fears losing the job) and has minimal support at work and at home is at risk of the negative consequences of stress.
Acute stress disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder are potential consequences of critical incidents that need to be managed. Post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular, can lead to personal distress, significant disability and reduced work performance.
One consequence of long-term exposure to stress may be burnout. The use of the expression burnout has become increasingly popular around the world to describe the result of a long-term exposure to a work situation that is beyond the person’s capacity to cope. The term was coined by Freudenberger (1974) to refer to exhaustion of aid workers; the notion has now been broadened to include all types of workers.
Burnout is characterised by feelings of intense fatigue, a sense of isolation and loss of control, as well as a feeling of accomplishing nothing at work. It is often accompanied by insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, a variety of muscular and joint pains, and lapses in memory.