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Understanding Toxic Stress

23rd May 2019

We all cope with stress on some level, and we all have our own way of doing so.  The workplace is often considered a source of stress, and work based stress doesn’t always have a positive connotation.

So what impact does work related stress have on our health?  What exactly is toxic stress?  What’s the cost to employers?  What’s the cost to employees?

Stress Impact

Dr. Joanne Crandall from Salish Sea Psychological Services discussed the topic of stress with me.  She explained that we need to remember that stress isn’t just bad for us and that stress is present in our lives in varying levels, and compositions, and can have a number of benefits. Some examples of the positive benefits of stress:

  • Deadlines, and specific goals and objectives put stress on us to complete work on time and budget
  • Stress allows us to assess thresholds of what is manageable and what is not
  • Stress can allow us to push through barriers we may not normally be willing to breach
  • Stress is a motivator, and encourages us to focus on key tasks, actions, requirements
  • When sustainably, and adequately managed stress can help us focus on completing work as planned
  • Stress helps to build tolerance which can be healthy when not overwhelming

So if stress is a normal part of our daily lives, what does it do to us?  While stress can influence mental health, stress is not just a psychological influence, because it has physical impacts on our bodies as well.  Dr. Crandall explained that stress influences many of our body’s systems:

  • Heartrate quickens
  • Breathing changes
  • Bloodpressure increases
  • Our glands secrete adrenaline and cortisol (making us stronger/faster)
  • Metabolism is impacted
  • Immune system can be influenced

That’s an incredible range of physiological responses, but they are generally only intended to be short lived, to give us a boost to deal with whatever it is that is triggering these responses at the moment.  So when we do have these short term stresses, we generally respond with short term instinctive responses like the need to fight, freeze, or flee.

Financial Stress

Similar to other wellness related challenges in the workplace, toxic stress can have health impacts on employees which impacts employers financially, and operationally.

Small business may be less tolerant to any degree of operational or financial impacts related to stress related losses. Larger organizations may be more tolerant of smaller financial losses, but may be exposed  higher volume or higher consequence impacts related to toxic stress impacts.

A few examples of some toxic stress related business impacts are outlined below:

  • Absenteeism, loss of productivity estimated at $300 billion per year in U.S.
  • Presenteeism (employee at work, but not focused) estimates U.S businesses lose $150 billion per year
  • Human resource loss due to:
    • Turnover when employees seek less stressful work environments
    • Employee burnout and long term health concerns
    • Turnover due to toxic work environment and poor employee relations
  • Ineffective and non-motivated employee related loss of business (includes behavioural issues)
  • Cost of hiring, and training new employees
  • Loss of productivity while hiring and while new hires are learning the ropes

These are just a few examples of the significant consequences for businesses that are dealing with unsatisfied, unhealthy, or disengaged employees.

Toxic Stress

We looked at some of the positive aspects of stress, which often leads us to consider the other end of the spectrum, the unpleasant attributes of stress, and the link to unhealthy impacts.  Stress is one thing, but toxic stress is another thing altogether explained Dr. Crandall.

Toxic stress is often associated with children, as it can have debilitating impacts on their health, particularly at very young ages.  It can be described as ongoing, chronic stress with little reprieve, or break.  Many adults are subjected to toxic stress in some capacity.  This stress forces our brains to adapt, and cope, which often means the brain functions at a lower level.

We’re not necessarily built to handle long term stress, particularly toxic stress.  Some examples of potential impacts of long term toxic stress are:

  • Less resilience to stress
  • Vulnerability to anxiety, sleeping disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic headaches
  • Depression
  • Feelings of powerlessness or helplessness
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Heart disease
  • Addictions and dependencies
  • Social isolation
  • Destructive relationships

Toxic stress in the workplace can be caused or influenced by a number of behaviours, environments, and situations.  A few examples:

  • Non-supportive workplaces (limited tolerance/support for health, safety, wellness)
  • Challenging coworker/client relations
  • Bullying, and aggressive behaviours
  • Job uncertainty, or instability
  • High stress personal challenges outside of work (family, financial)
  • High pressure roles and responsibilities (management, sales, project management)
  • Traumatic work (counselling, health care, first responders)

Toxic Distress

Accumulation of toxic stresses within, and outside of the workplace can have a synergistic effect, and have varying impacts on the ability of our bodies and minds to operate in an optimal capacity.  It can leave us overwhelmed, under functioning, and in a state of distress.   We discussed some signs that workers may be struggling with toxic stress.

Dr. Crandall suggested some examples that could be symptoms of toxic stress. They could also be associated with a number of other issues including mental health, prescription medication, or natural hormonal changes among other possible causes.  Symptoms to consider:

  • Withdrawal from social and cultural workplace interactions
  • Inclination to stay in the office, or at the desk
  • Lack of team collaboration or cooperation
  • Mild aggression, short tempers
  • Negative talk, cynicism
  • Sarcastic, facetious responses
  • Lethargy, attendance issues
  • Loss of motivation
  • Drops in performance
  • Repeat reporting of same or similar concerns


The negative aspects of stress, and toxic stress in particular are being better understood.  Dr. Crandall  feels that’s because we’re getting a much better understanding of how our brain works, and the links to our physical wellness, and psychological wellbeing.

So if we’re progressing with our understanding of toxic stress in the workplace, what can employers do to help eliminate, mitigate, and manage toxic stress?  The good news, is Dr. Crandall had lots of suggestions for employers to help manage concerns around toxic stress:

  • Live and lead by example, manage and encourage sustainable workloads
  • Demonstrate how leaders manage stress successfully and provide constructive solutions
  • Reduce overtime to necessary points only
  • Support good time management
  • Explore, define, and encourage work life balance, and put it in context
  • Encourage physical wellbeing
  • Connect socially and encourage healthy lifestyles outside of work
  • Provide a supportive environment (EAP, Counselling, HR support, open door policy)
  • Have clear expectations around balancing performance and wellbeing
  • Understand where employees may breach these expectations
  • Have a response to help support employees where performance and wellbeing are not balanced
  • Listen to any employee concerns, or challenges with balancing performance and wellness
  • Provide validation of concerns where appropriate
  • Listen to employee suggestions and recommendations to address concerns
  • Communicate any potential short or long term solutions being considered
  • Encourage exercise, good nutrition, and personal health
  • Mindfulness and meditation can help some people stay grounded
  • Daily appreciation of the work employees do goes a long way
  • Look at the big picture and put the stress into perspective
  • So what, just ask yourself, what’s the worst case scenario?

Share and Care If You Dare

Employers may be required to manage some of the concerns that employees may bring to them.  An effective way to address these concerns suggested by Dr. Crandall is encouraging an environment where employees can share concerns.  It’s also important to respectfully apply diplomacy, discretion, and compassion when listening to employee concerns.

In Dr. Crandall’s experience these traits can help ease employee anxiety, and foster a feeling of support, and safety. That can be a healthy start in the process of considering root causes, and solutions (where feasible) that can address toxic stress in the workplace.

Not every employee concern and source of toxic stress can be eliminated, or mitigated. Dr. Crandall suggests that helping employees learn to cope with toxic stress more effectively can also be a valuable technique when other solutions haven’t worked.  If all else fails, sometimes just showing support can make a difference.

If you’re interested in connecting with Dr. Crandall, please contact her via connect@salishseapsychology.com

To hear Dr. Crandall speak at the Wellness in the Workplace event on May 30th in Nanaimo, please email info@carbonsafety.ca to register.

Posted in: Safety Blog