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Stress Awareness Month: Let’s talk about stress

April is Stress Awareness Month – and provides us with a good opportunity to discuss a topic that impacts many of us. Throughout April, we will be sharing a range of information and resources to raise awareness of stress, reduce stigma and dispel myths, to help support veterinary professions to thrive in their roles. This week we will shed light on what is meant by stress and burnout – two terms which are used interchangeably.  

What do we mean by stress? 

Throughout our lives at home and at work, we can all experience different types of stress, which the World Health Organization (WHO) notes ‘is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives’. In responding to stress, the human body releases a number of hormones to help us cope or act. Interested in learning more about the science behind stress? Find out what happens to your body when you’re stressed

Whilst there are often negative connotations associated with stress, the stress curve diagram from MindWell illustrates that some forms of stress can actually be good for us. In fact, optimal stress (also called ‘eustress’) can help us to be motivated and perform at our best. Particularly where we have the ability to rally the necessary resources and support, to cope with demands placed upon us (e.g. to get a task done by a deadline, or intently focus on something). However when we experience excessive demands (whether they be physical, financial, moral or emotional), and we are not able to deploy resources to respond to them, stress can adversely affect our behaviour, relationships, productivity and health.  

A prolonged state of stress where the body continuously activates relevant systems to respond to demands can lead to emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, often referred to as ‘burnout’, common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and physical illness such as heart disease and high blood pressure. The recent Burnout Report from Mental Health UK (2024, pp.9) identified the prevalence in the UK with ‘9 in 10 adults experienced high or extreme stress in the past year’. Find out more, including recommendations to prevent burnout in the Mental Health UK The Burnout Report.  

It’s important to remember that every individual is different and their experience of pressures and demands, the resources and support they have to cope, and what can tip them from optimal to negative stress, will vary (as shown in the Stress Curve Diagram).  

At our fourth MMI Research Symposium in 2023, Dr Rebecca Smith, a lecturer in Veterinary Professional Development at Harper and Keele Veterinary School, discussed the top 10 stressors identified by vets and vet nurses, and how these stressors varied with experience. The report and video are now available to view. 

We’ll be sharing more resources over the next few weeks, including more information on how to spot the signs of stress, how we can manage stress, and what we can do to support ourselves and others.