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Stress is a part of nursing, just as it is in many professions and workplaces. Nursing, however, is considered as one of the most stressful of occupations as it involves hard, intense work and deals with life and death situations.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rates nursing as the second most stressful occupation, only beaten by teaching.

In simple terms, stress is a temporary imbalance in a person’s emotional state and behaviour, usually happening when people are under more pressure than they can cope with. Most people believe that a little stress can be good to make them perform better, but if allowed to continue and get out of control, stress can lead to serious side-effects such as physical sickness and depression.

The impact of too much stress on nurses is important because the psychological and mental harm caused by stresscan adversely affect how they deliver patient care, it can cause distress to the nurse themselves, and it can affect their health and attendance record.

Nationally, around 16% of all workers say their jobs are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressful, according to a survey by the HSE of 3,800 people carried out in 2005.

In healthcare the levels seem to be higher and a Healthcare Commission survey of 217,000 NHS staff in 2004 found that 36% of people said they were suffering from work-related stress.

The cost of stress is significant and the HSE estimates that 6.5 million working days are lost in the UK every year because of stress. The problem of workplace stress is calculated to cost the UK economy £7 billion a year.

It is not only the life and death nature of what nurses do that can make the work stressful, but also excessive workload, reliance on agency staff, relationships between nurses and other professions and being unable to switch off when they go home.

A good employer should have policies on managing stress to help their employees, but not all do. Some trusts have confidential staff counselling services, for example, and some train managers in stress management policy so they can identify and reduce staff stress.

Individuals can help to minimise stress themselves by taking regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and getting plenty of sleep and relaxation. More assertive people will be better at coping with stress as they will say ‘no’ to things quicker and find it easier to ask for help and support.

Updated: September 2006

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