How to Know When Work Stress is too Much

4 minute read

The charity sector is an amazing place to spend your career. Choosing to focus your work on creating positive change and impact for others is a huge motivator for many. But like lots of things in life, too much of a good thing can start to become an issue. Here’s how to know (and what to do) when work stress is too much.

Stress and performance

Stress as a word is generally misunderstood. We all need a certain amount of stress in our lives in order to function. As far back as 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson proved the empirical link between pressure (stress) and performance. Too little pressure and we remain in a state of boredom or apathy, with no motivation to do anything. As pressure increases we enter a state called eustress, when the balance between pressure and our ability and time available meet that sweet spot of optimum performance. But once pressure starts to outweigh ability and time available, we head into distress, and with it, into overwhelm and the potential of burnout.

In choosing a purpose-driven career in the sector, we usually are also choosing a certain layer of pressure or stress: our work feels more meaningful to us because the end result is purpose-driven not profit (for others)-driven. And as suggested in the Yerkes-Dodson model, that purpose-driven pressure can be a great performance enhancer.

stress at work during pandemic

Stress at work

Stress in the workplace, whatever the sector, is nothing new. Yet the incidence of prolonged periods of work-related stress appear to be on the increase.

In 2018, as one of our founding pieces of work at Claire Warner Wellbeing, we created Charity Well—a study into fundraiser wellbeing. Of more than 700 fundraisers that took part, only 23% said they had never experienced prolonged work-related stress. In 2019, Unite also carried out a study of their NGO and Charity members, and found 80% of respondents had experienced workplace stress in the past 12 months.

When asked what caused the stress, our Charity Well study found that the key contributors were workload, lack of support, constant change in the workplace, bullying and an expectation to work when ill/on leave (presenteeism). We also noticed a worrying trend of organisations focusing their efforts on increasing colleague resilience (and therefore their ability to tolerate stress) rather than on a genuine commitment to reducing stress.

A downward slope

In an age where life seems to be a rollercoaster of large-scale challenge, followed by large-scale challenge, each requiring new focus, new ways of working and a general expectation for ‘more’, it doesn’t come as a surprise that work stress in the charity sector is on the rise. Add to that, the ‘always on’ culture that often we feel our supporters, beneficiaries and/or colleagues demand of us, and the resulting expectations, and the pressure increases further.

But as the Yerkes Dodson model shows, our ability to perform under pressure reaches a peak, then drops off significantly when too much stress is experienced. It’s on this downward slope that many charity sector colleagues find themselves currently.

And often there are tell-tale signs of an issue before the more obvious signs appear. Tackling too much stress at any point is the right thing to do, but far too often, we only realise it half-way down the overwhelm slope.

Woman sitting at laptop looking stressed

The tell-tale signs of too much stress

Stress manifests itself in three main areas: on your mood, on your body and on your behaviour.

Some people experience one or more of sadness, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, a lack of focus or motivation, less or no joy in the things you usually love, irritability, restlessness, depression or anger.

In the body, some experience jaw ache, headache, inability to complete the simplest task, fatigue, chest pain, tension in the muscles, upset stomach, brain fog, sleep problems, change in sex drive, bizarre dreams and an inability to fight off even the mildest cold.

In their behaviour, some display changes in eating (over- or under-eating), social withdrawal, tobacco use, problems that previously didn’t exist in happy relationships, drug or alcohol dependency, angry outbursts, exercising more or less and difficulty in making decisions.

I know personally, when I’m heading towards too much pressure but haven’t yet realised it, I clench my jaw a lot, start to lose words mid-sentence—the word is in my head but won’t come out of my mouth—and I spend more time deciding what to do than actually doing it.

But how can we make sure that our passion for working in the charity sector doesn’t become overtaken by too much stress?

The Stress Bucket Model

Like any good remedy, the best solutions seek to address the cause as well as the symptoms. Those who only focus on the symptoms can, inadvertently, add more pressure to their situation.

The Stress Bucket model, devised by Brabban and Turkington in 2002, suggests we look at our ability to cope with pressure and stress, as we consider a bucket’s ability to hold liquid. There are two ways to prevent a bucket from overflowing: 1) add ‘taps’ or ‘holes’ in the side so that some of the liquid (or pressure/stress) is released; and 2) reduce or stop the flow of liquid in the top. Reduce the flow entirely and there’s no movement at all. Punch too many holes or taps in the sides and the bucket loses its integrity and disintegrates.

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It’s all about balance

We need to look at controlling our stress levels in the same way, reducing the flow where possible, and deliberately introducing ‘taps’ to help us release some of the pressure. ‘Taps’ come in the form of all kinds of non-work related activity, and will be different for different people. But they might include exercise, time spent with loved ones and friends, prioritising sleep, waking rest, taking regular breaks, doing something creative or making time for hobbies and interests etc. Often we view these as activities to fit in outside of work if we can, not what we need to prioritise in order to do the work! It’s in the careful balance of controlling the flow and using these taps that we’re able to best manage our stress. But it has to be a balance.

We have to acknowledge and accept that we aren’t infinite in our abilities and that to do what we love best, we need to prioritise self-care and rest. Our organisations need to acknowledge and accept the bucket analogy and that colleagues too reliant on ‘taps’, who aren’t able to control the flow of pressure and stress, will disintegrate. And to do all of this, we need to be able to detect and monitor our own stress signals and levels, and have honest conversations that result in meaningful support and change.

And if these strategies aren’t working, or your organisation isn’t listening, then it may be time to take a break and find a new role.

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Claire Warner

Claire Warner Wellbeing (CWW) is a UK company focused specifically on charity sector wellbeing. A former charity senior leader of 20 years, a period of significant unwellbeing led Claire to change career. And in conducting her own research, she identified this significant gap in provision and went on to create CWW and provide solutions to help address some of the sector’s key wellbeing challenges.

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