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Looking for Signs of Psychosocial Damage

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Recognising the signs of stress and responding appropriately

How to identify stress

How can you identify stress in yourself and in others?

Signs of stress include feeling overwhelmed, frustrated or unhappy. Changes in behaviour such as becoming more anxious, losing one’s sense of humour, becoming quieter or noisier than usual, avoiding or over-contacting someone, or being less confident are also markers of stress.

There are tools that can help identify whether someone is experiencing pressurised stress or distress. While asking someone, “RUOK?” can be helpful, it may not always be effective as some people may not be self-aware or may not want to burden others. The feedforward approach is a good alternative to asking about someone’s wellbeing as it is forward-looking and less likely to activate the fear or anger centres of the brain, known as the amygdala.

How to tell if someone is stressed and what to do

Watch the video to understand the signs that someone is more stressed than usual, and the best to handle the situation in order to find positive, productive solutions.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 4 – The Protection of Resilience

And watch the previous video here:

Part 2 – Post Traumatic Growth: Benefiting from stress

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

How to identify stress

Hi, Andrew from SACS, and welcome to video number three in our eight video sequence on psychosocial risk.

What we’ve covered so far is the nature of psychosocial risk and its causes, and we’ve also talked about a thing called post-traumatic growth, how people can actually benefit from negative experiences and from stress.

This particular video is all about how to find out whether people around you are stressed and also whether you are stressed yourself and how at risk you are from a psychosocial risk point of view.

Signs you are stressed

Some indicators of whether you are stressed.

It’s things like feeling personally overwhelmed or frustrated, feeling guilty or unhappy, being irritable, losing confidence, thinking negatively, having racing thoughts, having memory problems, or excessive worrying.

Those are signs where you might be under stress.

You might also notice that you’re in a situation where perhaps you are not as aware of your own state as other people are.

Maybe somebody close to you says, “Well, gee you’re a bit short tempered at the moment,” or, “Are you all right because you’re forgetting things,” or something like that.

Very often we are poor judges of our own stress, particularly when we’re immersed in it.

And I think getting feedback or guidance from trusted people around us can be very powerful to help us to understand our own psychological wellbeing.

Are your colleagues stressed?

Then there’s a question of whether your colleagues are stressed.

That really comes down to the degree to which they have varied from their baseline behaviours.

So for instance, do they appear more anxious than normal? Do they lose their temper more quickly than they use to? Are they noisier than usual when you speak to them?

In other words, they need to talk to you more.

Or maybe they become quieter than usual.

In the previous videos we’ve talked about things like the flight, flight, and freeze response.

Each individual is more inclined to fight, flight, or freeze and so a person who’s inclined to freeze might go quiet and might withdraw from the situation somewhat.

Same with the flight response.

Because the flight response doesn’t always mean I will stay home or I will quit my job.

It may be I kind of retreat into myself into a situation which we call presenteeism rather than absenteeism.

Have people lost their sense of humour? Are they less confident than usual?

In other words, hesitant to try things or asking you for help more often.

Are they either avoiding you or over contacting you?

In other words, where they’re very dependent or perhaps they’re not seeking to have contact with you?

These are all markers of changes in the person’s levels of stress.

Now, of course, the best way of measuring whether somebody’s stressed is to use an actual measure and at SACS we’ve got an instrument that’s got only about eight questions in it which will help to identify whether people are experiencing either pressurised stress or distress.

Pressurised stress means things are getting on top of me.

Distress means I’m becoming more anxious, I’m becoming more depressed, I’m becoming more uncomfortable psychologically, that’s what distress is about.

So there are tools that can measure this stuff very simply and quickly on a phone.

So that’s worth considering.


Now, there are a number of ways of exploring this and probably the obvious one is, RUOK.

So you’d say to somebody, “Are you okay?”

Now, if you have a very trusting relationship and the person has high enough levels of wellbeing and high enough levels of self-awareness to answer this question accurately, that can be very effective.

So I encourage you to use the RUOK.

But you know what sometimes it’s difficult for people to answer that either informatively, in the sense of do they know themselves well enough. Or confidently.

Which is to say, if my boss asks me if I’m okay, I dunno what it’s like around the world, but certainly in Australia, the tendency is to say, “Well, yeah, I’m fine,” because that’s what you say to your boss.

You’re not seeking to pass your burden onto them.

Or maybe you are concerned that it will somehow affect your career prospects if you confess to being psychologically uncomfortable.

Feedforward approach

So I’m going to suggest an alternative.

This is a feedforward approach to seeking guidance.

The challenge for many people in being asked questions like, “Are you okay?” Or, “How have you been coping?” Is that they’re kind of focused on the past. “How have you been doing?”

Now, when you focus on the past, you activate a part of your brain called the amygdala.

That’s the part of the brain that’s associated with previous experiences of this sort, particularly stressful experiences.

And what that means is that it’s more likely to trigger a fight, flight, freeze response of itself, that question.

Now, if you don’t believe me, go up to somebody and say to them, “I have some feedback for you.”

And you’ll see how confronting that can be, because obviously what that means is that I’m going to get some news about something that I’ve done in the past which this person hasn’t liked.

And we know that if you hook people up to brain scan technologies such as magnetic functional resonance imaging, you ask ’em that question and the fear centres of the brain or the anger centre of the brain light up, people become defensive.

Now in a neurological sense, defensiveness is a kind of a cocktail of anger, fear, and depression.

And defensiveness varies from person to person.

In some people it’ll be, “I am hurt.”

In other people it will be, “I am angry.”

But in any event, that’s where people are becoming defensive.

The alternative is to use a different part of the brain, and the part of the brain that we recommend is the prefrontal cortex.

And it’s as simple as turning the focus of the question from the past to the future.

So instead of saying, “How have you been going?” “How have you been coping with all of this?” “How do you feel you’re carrying it, the pressure at the moment?”

An alternative is to say, “Is there anything I can do to make this work better for you in the future?” “Is there anything that we can do to make this a more comfortable situation?” “Is there anything we can do to maximise our success?”

Reorienting the focus from the past to the future tends to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and that means that you get the affiliation that comes from that because the prefrontal cortex is a kind of an affiliative approach to things, a teamwork kind of an approach.

You get goodwill, you get creativity, rather than this sort of defensive approach.

So give that a try.

And also, for instance, if you are the type of leader who likes to get guidance from his or her staff about how I’ve been progressing as a leader, this is a good way of asking for it. “Can you tell me things that would make me a more effective leader?” “Can you give me any advice or guidance about how I could cause you guys to have high levels of wellbeing and productivity?”

Feedforward rather than feedback.

That’s a good way of getting advice from people about how they’re coping with these circumstances.

How to protect against stress

So the next video in the sequence is about resilience, a protective factor.

And the idea here is that if you can increase people’s levels of resilience within your workforce, and you really have two levers to do so, one is the type of people that you recruit, and second is how you lead them once they’re within your organisation.

If you increase their resilience, then you are protecting them to a greater extent against psychosocial risk.

Join us for the next video in this sequence to find out how.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about Management of Psychosocial Risks:

Part 4 – The Protection of Resilience

And watch the previous video here:

Part 2 – Post Traumatic Growth: Benefiting from stress

And if you’d like some help with promoting psychosocial wellbeing, contact us about our Wellbeing Survey.

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