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What Is the Number One Source of Stress in America? The Workplace

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: March 28, 2019
Key Takeaways

Toxic work environments can produce high turnover, low morale, and poor performance. They're a lose-lose situation: harmful to workers and bad for business.

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Work environments are getting safer, thanks to the efforts of agencies like OSHA. Workplace deaths in the U.S. have gone down 65% between 1970 and 2015. Workplace injuries were reduced by 72% during the same period.

Those numbers are great, but we still have a long way to go. There is a new area of focus that is rising at an alarming rate: work-related stress.

The Scope of the Problem

According to the health website WebMD, work is the number one source of stress in the U.S. The American Psychological Association has also chimed in on this topic with their 2015 Stress in America survey, which found that money and work are the top two causes of stress in the country. Excessive workloads and unrelenting demands can also exacerbate stress and have a negative impact on physical and psychological health.


The American Institute of Stress maintains that job stress costs U.S. employers more than 300-billion dollars annually. Changing jobs to escape work-related stress is now an all too common practice.

In one survey of over 3,000 people, nearly half of the respondents stated that they had missed work due to work-related stress. 61% said work-related stress made them physically sick and 7% said they had been hospitalized because of workplace stress and its physiological effects.

Companies invest in and work to support safety and environmental programs, but they might not recognize that some aspects of their work environment undermine the physical and psychological health of their employees.

High Workplace Stress Is a Lose-Lose Situation

Are there benefits to creating a high-stress work environment? Does it improve productivity and profits? The answer is "no."

Many studies on work environments have confirmed that negative work environments are less effective by all key performance indicators.

(Learn about the Key EHS Performance Indicators Every Organization Needs to Track.)

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford business professor, states that “even as organizations of all kinds regularly permit, if not encourage, management practices that sicken and kill their employees, these same employers also suffer because toxic management practices and unhealthy workplaces do not improve organizational profitability or performance. On the contrary, unhealthy workplaces diminish employee engagement, increase turnover and reduce job performance."

Too many workplaces are governed by management practices that neither benefit the employees nor their employers. High workplace stress is truly a lose-lose situation.

What Can Be Done?

Thankfully, there are steps we can take to alleviate work-related stress. Pfeffer has identified four areas to focus on.


Risk Recognition

Employees need to recognize when their work environment is causing a health risk due to high levels of psychological stress.

By recognizing the risk, they can work to reduce the stress by speaking to management and weighing options, including changing employment.

Identify Toxic Work Environments

Employers need to be able to identify toxic work environments and poor management practices.

Toxic work environments can produce high turnover, low morale, and poor performance. This is the lose-lose as poor management produces poor results. Managers need to view employee morale as a health marker for their company. Companies are made of people, and unhealthy people make for an unhealthy company.

(Find out How to Reduce and Manage Workplace Stress.)

Government Involvement

Government agencies need to recognize the health risks associated with work-related stress and the burden it places on healthcare costs. The United Kingdom and many Scandinavian countries are already adopting policies to address this.

Social Change

We need a social shift in what is considered acceptable work environments and the psychological burdens work can reasonably place on employees.

We are talking about human sustainability. We all must work for a living. The environment we work in matters. Toxic work environments that place undue stress on employees are not sustainable. We need to view this in the same light as we would a company the pollutes the environment or places employees at risk of physical injury by violating safety laws.

(Learn more about Managing Employee Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents.)

It’s Up to Us

Ultimately, we all must be accountable for our work environments. We are interdependent and social beings. We rely on each other and must learn to recognize when a business practice is overburdening coworkers and colleagues.

The workplace is like an organism – all of its parts must work together for it to function well. If one of your employees is overstressing from work, your business is suffering. Companies are made of people, and healthy people mean a healthy company.

So, take some time to check in and assess your workplace. How stressed are your employees?


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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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