The cost of anxiety and depression has been estimated at 1 trillion in productivity each year globally. The problem is our workplaces can be pressure cooker where negative stress is created. Stress is the anthesis to creativity, shutting down our frontal lobe and making it harder for us to communicate, and work in collaboration. In this blog I look at how work related stress manifests, how work stress is generated and what you can do to change your reaction to it. Learning how to handle workplace stress can be a game changer!

I am going to share a secret with you. When I first started my own business as a 24-year-old, I knew nothing about business. The only training I had was one paper in my Physiotherapy degree that helped write a business plan. Somehow, I got an A on that paper and my fake business made a million bucks in the first year of operation. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough to prepare me for the actual stresses of starting my own practice, and for the first few years I was ’faking it till I make it’.

You’re probably thinking, why did you start your own business if you had no experience? Being young, naive and full of passion for what I did, I used that to drive my success from the start. The powerful idea that I could run a practice better than my former employer, was the catalyst to create a more nurturing, safe and fun work environment, than the one I’d worked in previously.

Time and Stress Management

In reality, I was always stretching myself beyond my perceived abilities and keeping my body and mind under constant stress, which long term, took its toll. My recovering type A personality used the pressure cooker environment of starting and growing my business to its full advantage. I worked long hours, working to be an entrepreneur, manager and clinician. I was experiencing all the classic workplace stress triggers due to my daily habits and lack of my time and stress management.

What I learnt along the way (the hard way) with illness and exhaustion, was that I couldn’t ignore my body and mind, push the limits without nurturing them or finding a better balance and practicing what I preach. 

Job stress has been found to lead to physiological and psychological distress

I’m not saying, don’t start your own business or that you shouldn’t feel stress in the workplace. 

Actually, far from it. 

Stress at work can help you perform, when it’s used in the right way. But long term chronic stress can have a detrimental effect on your physiology and psychology.  In this, the second blog of my workplace wellness series, I want to share with you what I learned during my time as a business owner, manager and entrepreneur and how you can get a handle on workplace stress. 

Work-Related Stress

I wouldn’t recommend starting your own business if you are already under stress, which is the position I was in as that 24-year-old starting out. For the 9 months leading up to launch, I had been working in a clinic with an owner who was a complete bully. I didn’t realise before I started how high the staff turnover was. Later I found out, people left either because of burnout, emotionally and physical exhaustion, or because they didn’t want to participate in the psychological warfare that was occurring. 

All these experiences can be lessons and working for that employer taught me a lot about what I won’t tolerate, and how I want to treat others. I definitely wasn’t a perfect employer myself. Actually far from it. My stress tolerance with starting my own business was tested and I know both my emotions and behaviours were often hijacked with stress.

13 years on from starting my own practice, nurturing my two kids and with lots of practice communicating with other humans, I have learned what helps me and what can help others combat all the levels of stress we go through in moments at work and life. 

Handling Stress at Work

To understand how we can better manage workplace stress we need to understand what stress is and how it impacts us at work. When the proverbial s$@* is hitting the fan, it can be hard to keep your cool. Many jobs require us to be firefighters, problem solvers and manage what is thrown at us. It’s often these roles that I see the long term consequences of chronic stress on people’s health. 

Colligan and Higgins describe workplace stress as “the change in one’s physical or mental state in response to workplaces that pose an appraised challenge or threat to that employee.”

The key part of that definition is the concept of our body and mind reacting to a challenge or a threat. When I paused and thought about the tasks I gave staff or took on in a job, I realised that so often my body was reacting as if it was under threat.  

The next time you are working on a task, pause for a moment and see if what you are doing feels like a threat or a challenge. Then, observe the way your body and mind feel. What one person sees as a challenge may actually be threatening to another.

The way we react to work stress also depends on our past experiences, beliefs and habits and will influence if we perceive it as a threat or a challenge. 

Handling stress at work

Stress can be defined as eustress(good stress) or distress(bad stress). Our mindset on stress is powerful and can change the way that our body responds to an event. If we see workplace stress as a challenge, our brain will release different chemicals that allows it to wire and grow from the experience. When we see stress as negative, it will flood the stress hormones into our blood and overwhelm our body into action.

General Adaptation Syndrome – The Three Stages of Stress

The key thing with both good and bad stress is that our bodies were never designed to be under that pump for long periods of time. A paradigm shift is required in many workplaces for both employers and employees to see that they both have a part in reducing the impact of stress at work. Hans Selye who coined the phrase stress in his research, developed the concept of General Adaptation Syndrome which describes the three stages of stress that help us draw awareness to our daily, weekly and monthly tasks and state of being at work. 

Stage One – Alarm Reaction Phase

Stage one is the alarm reaction phase, which is part of our survival response and designed to mobilise us out of danger. It does this by activating our hypothalamus which communicates with our adrenals to flood the body with our stress hormones. I love this phase as it’s helped get me out of some tough times when under pressure.

Symptoms of stress in Stage One

Recognising the symptoms of stress can help you break the cycle. Even in this early stage, the acute phase can cause symptoms of emotional distress, anxiety, worry, anger and frustration with physical symptoms being due fatigue, upset gut, high blood pressure, neck and back pain, headaches, dizziness, lack of concentration or brain fog. 

Stage Two – Resistance Phase 

Our body will try to reset back to homeostasis when under pressure and that’s when our parasympathetic nervous system initiates the resistance phase, to try and rebalance the adrenal overload that is occurring. 

Symptoms of stress in Stage Two

The symptoms experienced with acute stress is experienced more frequently and with higher intensity. In this phase, because the tolerance to stress reduces, you can be more reactive to situations, time urgency, be irritable and possibly be more aggressive. Physically you can be more likely to experience chest pain, asthma, hypertension and headaches with the increased number of episodes of stress. 

Stage Three – Exhaustion Phase

I know this phase very well and have seen 100’s of patients in this phase when their body, mind and emotions are screaming for help after the long term stress load. This is when the alarm is continually reactivated and the adrenal system can’t keep up with the demand. When you realise that our bodies are not designed for this, it can be a game-changer.

Your body can go into a state of hypoadrenia in the exhaustion phase and this is when things get serious. 

Symptoms of stress in Stage Three

Often triggered by life changes out of our control such as illness, financial stress, family dramas, and work problems, rectifying the impacts of the exhaustion phase can take years. 

This depletion with our adrenal glands has a knock-on effect to multiple systems around the body, from immune function, to sex hormones and reproduction to gut health. It’s why sometimes the presentation of patients at the exhaustion phase can be very complex for doctors to treat. 


As you may have read in our first blog on workplace wellness, how to stress less at work, our bandwidth and tolerance to stress can change over time depending on our life events, injuries and illnesses, behaviours and habits.  One of the first steps in changing the impact of work stress is to become aware at what stage you are at.

The longer you are under stress, the longer it takes to unwind the patterns and impact on the body and mind.

Stress Management Skills

When you begin to tune into how you feel and how your body is reacting to a situation, you can then take steps to unwind from the stress spiral. When you’re at work, you may not have the luxury of hiding away and taking a rest, taking time out to meditate or switching off for a long break. So you need other tools to help.

Here are my top tips that can help break the impact of stress on the body and mind while at work.

Two Minute Calm Reset

Pause: Take a conscious moment to walk away from you are doing and put your tools down. I recommend you take a two minute reset several times a day, to help bring your body back to homeostasis. This is also great to do before a meeting, when driving, before you start the day, when planning out your day and allows you to reset your body and assure it that it’s safe.

Body: Scan your body from head to toe, and notice where you are holding tension. Where you are gripping. Where the weight is. Is it in your legs and hips? Are your shoulder relaxed? Is your neck long and soft? Is your jaw loose? Telling your body to let go is one piece of the relaxation puzzle. 

Breath: The simple things with breathing add up. Take a long breathe out. Then, focus on bringing your breathing rhythm. In for 3, out for 6 and pause for 1 if you can. Learning to exhale for longer activates your parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve, reducing the impact of stress. 

Mind: Once your breath is under control, you want your mind to focus and a simple way of doing that is by using a set of words that resonate for you. It could be in your mind repeating any of these words: Softness, calm, relaxed, refreshed, energised, happy, grateful, joy. Find the words you need in the moment and repeat on every long exhale.

Emotions: How do you feel? How do you want to feel? Sit with that new feeling and continue the slow low breathing pattern. Tuning into your gut and intuition is a crucial part of reducing stress and often gets missed. 

Best ways to relieve stress in the moment 

If you learn nothing from reading this blog post, I want you to take away one thing. 

Without Fail Exhale

Breathing is one of the best ways to change your body’s reaction to stress. Especially when it has been hijacked for so long and stuck in the exhaustion phase. Learning to lengthen your exhale and look at the reason why your body and mind has driven you to that point is key.  It takes time to implement new habits at work, so stick with these small pauses throughout the day to help.

I wish I could give you a silver bullet to reduce stress at work, but what I can give you is awareness and techniques that you can practice to help find what the best form of managing stress is for you. What I learned from my journey of working as a physiotherapist and an entrepreneur is that one size does not fit all.  It depends on what stress stage you are in, your mindset, the demands placed on you, your past experiences, your daily habits and so much more.

When changing your reaction to stress, sometimes you need to attack it just as you would climbing a giant mountain. One step at a time. 

What is your workplace doing in 2020 to deal with workplace stress?

Emma Ferris is as a breathing coach, workplace wellness educator and physiotherapist working to create change in how businesses and individuals manage stress. Emma runs workplace wellness workshops around New Zealand and is the creator of Breathe Right & Reduce Your Stress  30-day online breathing course. Drawing on a 15-year career in physiotherapy, workplace education and stress management, she is teaching the world to find their calm and stress less at The Breath Effect. 

Workplace Wellness & Stress Reduction Workshops

If your business is ready for a stress reduction makeover then it’s time to have Emma at The Breath Effect tailor a specific workplace wellness programme specifically for your needs. For more information about Workplace Wellness Workshops contact Emma