The Benefits of Coaching when dealing with Stress in the Workplace 1


Coaching has the potential to increase individual performance, potential and initiate behavioural changes in thinking, doing, and acting that have positive long-term impacts on organisations. Organisations are under tremendous pressure to continually change and adapt to both external and internal demands in order to retain their competitive advantages. These demands require that employees take on greater ownership and responsibility for their functions, placing increasing demands on individuals to perform at the highest level. In essence individuals at all levels within organisations are required as a matter of course to ‘do more with less’ [18].

The challenges of balancing personal, social, and work demands in today’s working environments are unrelenting and increasingly putting individuals under extreme pressure and stress. Physical and emotional demands create conflicts that are disturbing individual peace of mind.

Dupler (2005) defines psychophysiology as the interaction between mind and body and studies the physical symptoms, partly induced by emotional states, responsible for illnesses, which include anxiety, stress, and fear. Dupler points out that emotional stresses can linger in the body/mind for extended periods, and unbalance healthy systems. Physiological unrest resulting from working environment stresses such as workload, work-pace, long working hours, poor management, and restrictions on participation can lead to decreased levels of individual performance, withdrawal, ill health, and ultimately ‘burnout’ [1,2].




Hans Selye was one of the first to study the stress response. Selye, while working as a medical student, noticed that ‘patients with quite different illnesses shared many of the same symptoms, such as muscle weakness, weight loss, and apathy’. Selye also found that different stressors produced similar responses such as the enlargement of adrenal glands, shrinkage of the thymus gland, and bleeding stomach ulcers [3].

Selye proposed a three-stage model of the stress response, a profile of how organisms respond to stress, which he termed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The model is characterised by three phases [4]:

  1. A nonspecific mobilization phase, which promotes sympathetic nervous system activity;
  2. The resistance phase, during which the organism makes efforts to cope with the threat; and
  3. An exhaustion phase, which occurs if the organism fails to overcome the threat and depletes its physiological resources’ [4].


Although Selye was the first to use the term ‘Stress’, in a biological context, his definition of stress: “the non-specific response of the body to any demand placed upon it“, has been updated by Neuroscientists such as Jaap Koolhaas who believes that stress, “should be restricted to conditions where an environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity of an organism“. Koolhaas, J. et al. (2011) and Everly G.S. and Lating J.M. (2013), who propose a clinical perspective, and suggest that, “Stress is a physiological response that serves as a mechanism of mediation linking any given stressor to its target-organ effect.” [4,5,6].


Compton, W.C. (Positive Psychology), maintains; ‘those significant life events we confront from time to time such as, marriage, death in the family, the birth of a child, job changes are seldom the problem because they occur infrequently’. Compton explains that significant life events are normally associated with religious rituals or structured processes, such as weddings, funerals, and company on-boarding procedures that provide the framework and resources required to cope with the changes involved. Compton maintains that It is the smaller daily hassles that are the most problematic to cope with. It is these smaller more frequent demands on us, which we try to cope with on our own that, affect our mood and affect our well-being [7].



The human body manages a multitude of highly complex interactions to maintain balance or return systems to functioning within a normal range – homeostasis. These interactions within the body facilitate compensatory changes supportive of physical and psychological functioning. The liver, the kidneys, and the brain (hypothalamus, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system) help maintain homeostasis. Inability to maintain homeostasis may lead to death or disease, a condition known as ‘homeostatic imbalance’ [8].


A stressed person typically has anxious thoughts and difficulty concentrating or remembering and can portray changed outward behaviours. These changes can include clenching of teeth, wringing hands; frequent pacing, biting fingernails, and heavy breathing are common signs of stress. People may also feel physically different when they are stressed such as, butterflies in the stomach, cold hands and feet, dry mouth, and increased heart rate. These symptoms are all physiological effects of stress that can be associated with the emotion of anxiety [1].


Stress can be characterised as acute or chronic depending on its duration. Acute stress is commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” response and is the body’s immediate response to a perceived threat. Chronic stress results when a stressful situation persists for a long period [10].


According to a 2000 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, the primary stress hormones, glucocorticoids and catecholamine’s, are necessary in the short run for allostasis, (the maintenance of homeostasis through the adaptation to short-term stress), but detrimental if produced continuously over an extended period of time, resulting in allostatic load [10,11,12].


Sustained allostatic load increases vulnerability to ill health and disease due to maladaptive changes in the brain from stress-induced alterations. Because of the mind-body interaction, long-term stress-induced plasticity of the brain can result in maladaptive effects on metabolic processes, immune and cardiovascular system, and other essential operations of the body, resulting in impaired mental and physical health [12].


The Stress Response


When a person ‘appraises’ an event as stressful, the body undergoes a number of changes that heighten physiological and emotional arousal. In particular, the left amygdala, which is situated in the Limbic System of the brain, has been linked to feelings of social anxiety, obsessive and compulsive disorders, and the effects of post-traumatic stress [13].


Anxiety and panic attacks can occur when the amygdala senses environmental stressors that stimulate fight or flight response. When this threat is encountered, the Hypothalamus carries out four specific functions:

  1. Firstly, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated. The Sympathomedullary Pathway (SAM) – sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system when activated prepares the body for action by directing the adrenal medulla glands to secrete the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). This reaction is immediate and lasts 2-3 seconds. In response, the heart begins to beat more rapidly, muscle tension increases, blood pressure rises, and blood flow is diverted from the internal organs and skin to the brain and muscles. Breathing speeds up, the pupils dilate, and perspiration increases. This reaction is sometimes called the fight-or-flight response because it energizes the body to either confront or flee from a threat, (or freeze).
  2. Simultaneously the Hypothalamus directs the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), activating the The Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal System, (HPA). This in turn, acts on the adrenal cortex, which is stimulated to release the hormone such as corticosteroid + glucose, which helps to increase the body’s energy level over a longer period to fuel the fight-or-flight response. This is considered an intermediary response, marginally slower than the Sam response and lasts 20-30 seconds.
  3. In situations where the stressors continue to result in allostatic load, the Hypothalamus produces antidiuretic hormone (ADH) or vasopressin and,
  4. Stimulates the thyroid gland to produce thyroxine, (The Neuroendocrine Pathways) [14].


The stress pathways and systems involved in the above four functions are designed to ensure physical survival and consist of three levels of response intended to address the level and duration of a threat. Under normal circumstances, once the stressor has receded or been overcome, the parasympathetic system would kick in and return the body to a state of homeostasis with the effects of the stress response resolved within a relatively short period.


In our modern working environments where ongoing stressors such as the demands in the workplace, insecurity, and uncertainty are not dealt with over extended periods-of-time, the release of ACTH, vasopressin, and thyroxine in the neuroendocrine pathways are prolonged and becomes counterproductive suppressing the immune system for extended periods – hours, days, and weeks, compromising several physiological systems.


  • Research by McEwan, (2010), indicates that sustained stress weakens hippocampal neurons and in some cases, the neurons die off resulting in a reduction of the hippocampal area.
  • Inability by the body to maintain homeostasis may lead to death or a disease, a condition known as ‘homeostatic imbalance’, suppressing and compromising the body’s immune system [12].


Stress in the workplace


The World Health Organisation in 1986 stated that health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. A healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but also an abundance of health-promoting ones [15].


Pressure at the workplace is unavoidable due to the demands of contemporary work environments. Pressure perceived as acceptable by an individual, might keep workers alert, motivated, able to work and learn, depending on the available resources and personal characteristics. However, when that pressure becomes excessive or otherwise unmanageable it leads to stress. Stress can damage an employees’ health and business performance.


Work-related stress can be caused by poor work organisation – the way jobs and work systems are designed, and the way work and systems are managed. A person experiencing stress in the work environment typically has anxious thoughts and difficulty concentrating or remembering [2,15].


The following stressors can initiate and sustain the stress response in the workplace:

  • ‘Employee knowledge and abilities are not matched to work demands and pressures and challenge employee ability to cope.
  • Employees have little control over their own work processes,
  • Employees feel they have little support from peers, management and organisational leadership, as well as.
  • There is confusion between pressure, challenges, change, and stress.
  • In situations where bad management practice is tolerated’ [2,15].

Organisations need ongoing support if they aspire to be healthy learning organisations as current research into how the brain works clearly indicates that distractions, multitasking, emotional turmoil, social rejection, and stress impact on memory retention and therefore learning and knowledge creation. In-house managers have little or no time or energy left to offer support to their employees and people are increasingly expected to take responsibility for their own learning, growth, and personal development. An executive/business coach, (outsider), who understands the way organisations, teams and individuals work or do not work is a key to assisting learning organisations reduce the impacts of stress on individuals.

Coping with Stress


In order to develop an effective stress management programme it is first necessary to identify the factors that are central to a person controlling his/her stress, and to identify the intervention methods which effectively target these factors. Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) interpretation of stress focuses on the transaction between people and their external environment (known as the Transactional Model) [16].


The Transactional Model contends that stress may not be a stressor if the person does not perceive the stressor as a threat but rather as positive or even challenging. In addition, if the person possesses or can use adequate coping skills, then stress may not actually be a result or develop because of the stressor. The model proposes that people can be taught to manage their stress and cope with their stressors. They may learn to change their perspective of the stressor and provide them with the ability and confidence to improve their lives and handle all of types of stressors [16].


  • Employees are less likely to experience work-related stress when:
  • ‘The demands and pressures at the workplace are matched to employee knowledge and abilities,
  • Employees can exercise some form of control over their work and the way they do it,
  • The working environment is supportive and employee peers, management and organisational leadership are engaged and co-operative,
  • Employees are encouraged to participate in decisions that concern their jobs’ [2,16].


In particular Executive Management confronted with the pace of change in today’s working environments often find themselves working outside their area of knowledge, comfort and influence and at times operating in areas they are completely unfamiliar with. In these situations, executive mangers can find themselves isolated from their peers and need a neutral sounding board – a safe environment outside of the organisation to articulate these fears and concerns. An executive business coach can assist these individuals to overcome obstacles and progress toward their desired future state.

As already, mentioned middle managers and teams are pressured from two sides. Their job descriptions require them to work in a particular way, but their immediate seniors, or the organisation have opposing behaviours and values and provide little support. A Business Coach can help move teams or managers forward, developing successful patterns or strategies, which can significantly improve both individual and team performance.

The impact of coaching stressed individuals who are under great pressure to produce results in situations where there is insufficient support or resources, lack of recognition, conflict of values, change and lack of support, too much or even too little work is significant. Effective coaching with stressed individuals is about changing beliefs and behaviours, and ultimately releasing fears and other issues, which are holding individuals back from achieving their full potential [18].



Employees will continue to face threats to homeostasis in the workplace and their continued well-being will depend on individual ability to adapt to environmental stressors. At a societal level and an individual level, employees will continue to be faced with the insecurities of daily existence including job stress, marital stress, and unsafe neighborhoods. How each person individually chooses to meet these challenges will determine their ongoing health. In contrast, if stressors prove to be overwhelming for individuals who are biologically vulnerable because of age, genetic, or constitutional factors, stressors may lead to sickness, and burnout. Business and Executive Coaching is a medium and platform that can support individuals who have few psychosocial resources and poor coping skills. [17]


Reference List

  1. Dupler, D. Psychophysiology, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005, The Gale Group, Inc. retrieved from, on 17 June 2016.
  2. Leka, S. Griffiths, A. Cox, T., ‘Work Organization and stress : systematic problem approaches for employers, managers’ and trade union representatives,, World Health Organization, 2004.
  3. Research Paper on Stress – Stress (psychology), retrieved from, on 12 June 2016.
  4. Wikipedia, Stress (biology), retrieved from, on 10 June 2016.
  5. Koolhaas, J. M., Bartolomucci, A., Buwalda, B., Flügge, G., de Boer, S., Korte, S. M., Meerlo, P., Murison, R., Olivier, B., Palanza, P., Richter-Levin, G., Sgoifo, A., Steimer, T., Stiedl, O., van Dijk, G., Wöhr, M. & Fuchs, E. 2011 In : Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 35, 5, p. 1291-1301.
  6. Everly G.S. and Lating, J.M. A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-5538-7_2, Springer Science+Business Media New York, 2013.
  7. Compton, W.C. Positive Psychology – The Science of Happiness and Flourishig, 2nd Edition, Psycophysiology handout.
  8. Wikipedia, Human homeostasis, retrieved from,, on 10 June 2016.
  9. Wikipedia, Stress (psychological), retrieved from, on 12 June 2016.
  10. McEwen, BS. & Gianaros, P.J. (2011). Stress- and Allostasis-Induced Brain Plasticity. Annual Review of Medicine. 62:431-45.
  11. McEwen, B.S. (2000). Allostasis and Allostatic Load: Implications for Neuropsychopharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology. 22:108-124.
  12. McEwen, B. & Gianaros, P. (2010). Central role of brain in stress and adaptation: Links to socioeconomic status, health, and disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1186: 190-222.
  13. Wikipedia, Amygdala, retrieved from, Wikipedia, Human homeostasis, retrieved from,, on 13 June 2016.
  14. Physiology of Stress Chapter 2, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Psycophysiology handout.
  15. Recognition and respect at work as predictors of occupational health and well-being, Presentation by Norbert K. Semmer, Universität Bern, WHO, Geneva, 14 February 2007.
  16. Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer.
  17. Schneiderman, N.  Ironson, G. and Siegel, S.D. STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants, Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005; 1: 607–628, retrieved from, on 12 June 2016.
  18. Parkinson, C., “Effective Coaching in the Workplace”, retrieved from,  on 2 July 2016.


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One thought on “The Benefits of Coaching when dealing with Stress in the Workplace

  • Hannes Nel

    Sorry, Hugh, can’t read this much during working hours. Will ask our researcher in coaching to read it and comment if she feels it is necessary. This might take a while, though.