Stress is the body’s natural response to physical and mental demands. In 2009, studies conducted by the American Psychological Association indicated that 69 percent of employees reported that their job was a significant source of stress. Further research has shown that work-related stress is widespread, and that it is not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries. The fact is that stress can affect anyone at any time, regardless of their position in an organization. However, it should be noted that stress is not an illness - it is a state of being. Therefore, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop. In this article, we'll look at work-related stress, its causes, how to recognize it and how to manage it.

What is Work-Related Stress?

Work-related stress is defined as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work. Common causes of work-related stress include deadlines, large projects, lack of control, lack of support, high expectations and so on. Because our brains don't necessarily sort personal stress from work-related stress, personal struggles can impact our mental reserves for dealing with stress, causing previously non-stressful work responsibilities to become a source of stress.

Causes of Work-Related Stress

Work-related stress can be attributed to either organizational factors or individual/personal factors, or, as mentioned, both. It is important to understand each of these factors and how they are related to one another, as this can influence the amount of stress an individual experiences.

Organizational Factors: Well-designed, organized and managed work is generally good for workers, but when insufficient attention to job design, work organization and management has occurred, it can result in work-related stress. These factors include:

  • Demand: Workers are unable to cope with the demands of their jobs
  • Control: Workers are unable to have a say about the way they do their work
  • Support: Workers receive inadequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors
  • Relationships: Workers are subjected to unacceptable behaviours, e.g. bullying and harassment at work (For more, see Workplace Bullying: An Act of War Threatening the Health and Safety of Your Employees.)
  • Role: Workers do not understand their role and responsibilities
  • Change: The organization does not engage their workers when undergoing an organizational change

Individual/Personal Factors: Problems outside of work can also contribute to stress. Furthermore, individual/personal problems can make it difficult for people to cope with the pressures of work, which negatively impacts their ability to do their job. These include:

  • Personal relationship problems
  • Financial pressures
  • Personality factors, such as emotionality

Impact of Work-Related Stress on Workers and Organizations

Work-related stress can be a significant cause of psychological illness, but it can also affect the physical health of workers. Studies conducted by the American Psychological Association have indicated that workers who suffer from work-related stress experience symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue and nausea, in combination with feelings of irritability, anger, nervousness and lack of motivation. Increased work-related stress can also lead to unhealthy behaviours among workers, inclusive of smoking, comfort eating, poor diet choices, inactivity and drinking alcohol to manage their stress. These behaviours can lead to long-term, serious health problems like cardiovascular diseases, obesity, lung cancer, depression and suicide.

Moreover, job stress is also a concern for employers. Research has shown that job stress cost U.S. businesses an estimated $300 billion per year due to absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees. (Also check out 8 Strategies to Promote Workplace Mental Health.)

Recognizing the Signs of Work-Related Stress

Stress can cause changes in those experiencing it and, in some cases, there are clear signs that people are experiencing stress at work. If these signs are identified early, action can be taken before the issue becomes unmanageable. Catching things early also makes it easier to reduce and eliminate the causes. If you or someone you know is suffering from some of the following symptoms, it may be stress:

Emotional symptoms: These include negative or depressive feelings, increased emotional reactions, being withdrawn, loss of motivation, commitment and confidence, and mood swings.

Mental symptoms: These include confusion, difficulty concentrating and poor memory.

Changes from normal behavior: This includes changes in eating habits, increased smoking, drinking or drug taking, changes in sleep patterns, twitchy or nervous behaviour and changes in attendance like arriving later or taking more time off from work.

What Can Employers Do?

The prevention and management of work-related stress requires an organizational level of intervention as it is the organization that creates the stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employers can undertake the following actions to prevent and reduce their workers risk for work-related stress:

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources
  • Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job
  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs
  • Improve communications to reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers

Managing Your Work-Related Stress: Tips for Employees

Is work stressing you out? The American Psychological Association recommends that you do the following:

  1. Get to know yourself: Be aware of your stress level and know what stresses you out
  2. Take short breaks: Stay energized and productive by taking a minute or two periodically. throughout the day to stand up, stretch, breathe deeply and shake off the accumulating tension.
  3. Find healthy ways to manage stress: Work to replace unhealthy coping strategies with healthy behaviors, like exercise, meditation or talking with friends and family.
  4. Take care of yourself: Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and engage in regular physical activity. Ensure you have a healthy mind and body through activities like yoga, taking a short walk, going to the gym or playing sports that will enhance both your physical and mental health.
  5. Ask for professional support: Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to manage work-related stress. Your employer may also have stress management resources available through an employee assistance program, including online information, available counseling and referral to mental health professionals, if needed.

Under Pressure?

There is no simple solution for work-related stress. Work-related stress can affect your health when you are exposed to stressful working conditions over a long period of time. Furthermore, your ability to cope with stress decreases with time. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by work-related stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist, who can help you better manage work-related stress. If you are responsible for the health and safety of others, it is important to learn how to recognize the signs and have supports in place to guide vulnerable employees towards. An employee assistance program either operated in-house or by a third party is a good place to start.

(If you find your employee program is lacking, find out what you can do to improve your health and safety program in 6 Steps to Achieve Occupational Health and Safety.)