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Workplace stress

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Workplace stress

Definitions of Occupational Stress

At the most basic level occupational stress can be defined as stress involving work. According to the current World Health Organization's (WHO) definition, occupational or work-related stress "is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope."[1]

Discussion of Stress models

Stress cannot be located in any single variable, but results from the complex interactions between a large system of interrelated variables.[2][3][4] It is useful to distinguish stressful job conditions or stressors from an individual's reactions or strains.[5] Strains can be mental, physical or emotional. Occupational stress can occur when there is a discrepancy between the demands of the environment/workplace and an individual’s ability to carry out and complete these demands.[6][7] Often a stressor can lead the body to have a physiological reaction that can strain a person physically as well as mentally. A variety of factors contribute to workplace stress such as excessive workload, isolation, extensive hours worked, toxic work environments, lack of autonomy, difficult relationships among coworkers and management, management bullying, harassment and lack of opportunities or motivation to advancement in one’s skill level.[8]

Research concerns with stressors and strains studies

A number of work stress researchers and organizational psychologists have noted that a concern with stressor and strains studies is that they often neglect taking into account or considering the broader organizational context. For instance a study by Hurrel in 1995 noted these concerns clearly. [9]

Stress-related disorders

Stress-related disorders encompass a broad array of conditions, including psychological disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and other types of emotional strain (e.g., dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension, etc.), maladaptive behaviors (e.g., aggression, substance abuse), and cognitive impairment (e.g., concentration and memory problems). In turn, these conditions may lead to poor work performance, higher absenteeism, less work productivity or even injury.[8] Job stress is also associated with various biological reactions that may lead ultimately to compromised health, such as cardiovascular disease,[10] or in extreme cases death.


Categories associated with occupational stress are[8]

  • factors unique to the job,
  • role in the organization,
  • career development,
  • interpersonal work relationships,
  • organizational Structure/climate.

These individual categories demonstrate that stress can occur specifically when a conflict arises from the job demands of the employee and the employee itself. If not handled properly, the stress can become Distress (medicine).

The first category concerns with the ability of the employee coping with the specific hours worked, the level of productive rate expected, the physical environment, as well as the expectancy of the work desired by management. For instance, research shows that night shifts in particular has a high possibility of negative impact towards the health of the employee. In relation to this, approximately 20 percent of night shift workers have experienced psycho-physiological dysfunctions, including heart diseases. Extreme factors can affect the competence levels of employees.

The second category, role in the organization, is associated with the hierarchical ranking of that particular employee within the organization. Upper management is entitled to oversee the overall functioning of the organization. This causes potential distress as the employee must be able to perform simultaneous tasks.

With the third category, career development, other factors come into play. Security of their occupation, promotion levels, etc. are all sources of stress, as this business market in terms of technology of economic dominance is ever-changing.

The fourth category of workplace stress pertains to the interpersonal relationships within the workplace. The workplace is a communication and interaction based industry. These relationships (either developed or developing) can be problematic or positive. Common stressors include harassment, discrimination, biased opinions, hearsay, and other derogatory remarks.

Finally, the last category of workplace stress is the organizational climate or structure. The overall communication, management style, and participation among groups of employees are variables to be considered. In essence, the resultant influence of the high participation rate, collaborative planning, and equally dispersed responsibilities provides a positive effect on stress reduction, improved work performance, job satisfaction, and decreased psychosomatic disorders.


Distress is a prevalent and costly problem in today's workplace. About one-third of workers report high levels of stress.[6] One-quarter of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.[11] Three-quarters of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.[12] Evidence also suggests that distress is the major cause of turnover in organizations.[6] With continued distress at the workplace, workers will develop psychological and physiological dysfunctions and decreased motivation in excelling in their position.[8]

The Kenexa Research Institute released a global survey of almost 30,000 workers which showed that females suffered more workplace distress than their male counterparts. According to the survey, women's stress level were 10% higher for those in supervisory positions, 8% higher stress in service and production jobs than men, and 6% higher in middle and upper management than men in the same position.[13]

Gender and Occupational Stress

Higher stress levels at workplace promote more illnesses in working women versus working men like:

  • Sleeping problems

Abuse of substances like alcohol, cigarettes and drugs to cope with this stress related pressure are also more reported in women. Women also are more open about their experiences and seek more help, than man experiencing stress at workplace.[14]


Combining housework, childcare, shopping and cooking with an outside job and trying to do everything on time is one of the biggest factors of women being more stressed at work, characterized mainly by feelings of guilt and hostility. 60% of women who have children under age six have an outside job and cope with family problems; single or married most of duties at home fall on shoulders of a woman.[14]

Health and healthcare utilization

Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems.[15] Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.[16] On the basis of research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.[16] High levels of stress are associated with substantial increases in health service utilization.[6] Workers who report experiencing stress at work also show excessive health care utilization. In a 1998 study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were nearly 50% greater for workers reporting high levels of stress in comparison to “low risk” workers. The increment rose to nearly 150%, an increase of more than $1,700 per person annually, for workers reporting high levels of both stress and depression.[17] Additionally, periods of disability due to job stress tend to be much longer than disability periods for other occupational injuries and illnesses.[18]

Physiological reactions to stress can have consequences for health over time. Researchers have been studying how stress affects the cardiovascular system, as well as how work stress can lead to hypertension and coronary artery disease. These diseases, along with other stress-induced illnesses tend to be quite common in American work-places.[19] There are four main physiological reactions to stress:

  • Blood is shunted to the brain and large muscle groups, and away from extremities, skin, and organs that are not currently serving the body.
  • An area near the brain stem, known as the reticular activating system, goes to work, causing a state of keen alertness as well as sharpening of hearing and vision.
  • Energy-providing compounds of glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream.
  • The immune and digestive systems are temporarily shut down.

Drug Use at Workplace

According to Anne Fisher, author of “Drug Use at Work: Higher than we thought”, the statistics of drug use at workplace is disturbing. Even though recent results have shown that the number of Americans using cocaine while at work has declined sharply in the last few years, the drug testing of employees like pilots, airplane mechanics and train operators have revealed that twice as many employees are using heroin and the use of painkillers on the job is increasing. Results also show that the use of drugs like opiates like oxycodone and oxymorphone sold under different brand names are being abuse increasingly at the workplace. Another result shows that post-accident employee drug tests are four times as likely to show employee use of opiates than pre-employment drug screening, hinting that substance abuse has played a role in workplace accidents. Fisher further adds that, the drug intake may be a result of the stressful conditions at work, more commonly known as occupational stress. Personal factors such as job insecurity and physical factors such as long hours at work may be adding more stress at work, hence leading the employees to use drugs to de-stress. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that “ of the 20.3 million adults in the U.S. classified as having substance use disorders in 2008,15.8 million were employed either full or part-time”. One of the ways companies fight the abuse of drugs at workplace is to offer employee assistance programs including drug and alcohol counseling. The only problem with this type of program is that empoyees doubt the confidentiality of this program. No employee wants to be found with a substance abuse problem and have their job taken away. However, companies are still trying to assure employees of their EAPs being completely confidential.



Job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. The differing viewpoints suggest different ways to prevent stress at work. Differences in individual characteristics such as personality and coping skills can be very important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress. In other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. This viewpoint underlies prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions.[6]

Stress, by definition, is the interaction between an individual and the demands and burdens presented by the external environment. Stress occurs due to a demand that exceeds the individuals coping ability, disrupting their psychological equilibrium. Hence, in the workplace environment stress arises when the employee perceives a situation to be too strenuous to handle, and is threatening to their well being. There are many external stressors that contribute to an employee’s ability to adapt to the demands of the environment. For instance, our technologically inclined society can provide a source of workplace stress seeing that some individuals may not have the capacity and the resources to advance their skills.[8]

Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. Such evidence argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress, and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy.[6] Large surveys of working conditions, including conditions recognized as risk factors for job stress, were conducted in member states of the European Union in 1990, 1995, and 2000. Results showed a time trend suggesting an increase in work intensity. In 1990, the percentage of workers reporting that they worked at high speeds at least one-quarter of their working time was 48%, increasing to 54% in 1995 and to 56% in 2000. Similarly, 50% of workers reported they work against tight deadlines at least one-fourth of their working time in 1990, increasing to 56% in 1995 and 60% in 2000. However, no change was noted in the period 1995–2000 (data not collected in 1990) in the percentage of workers reporting sufficient time to complete tasks.[21]

A substantial percentage of Americans work very long hours. By one estimate, more than 26% of men and more than 11% of women worked 50 hours per week or more in 2000. These figures represent a considerable increase over the previous three decades, especially for women. According to the Department of Labor, there has been an upward trend in hours worked among employed women, an increase in extended work weeks (>40 hours) by men, and a considerable increase in combined working hours among working couples, particularly couples with young children.[22][23]

A person's status in the workplace can also affect levels of stress. While workplace stress has the potential to affect employees of all categories; those who have very little influence to those who make major decisions for the company. However, less powerful employees (that is, those who have less control over their jobs) are more likely to suffer stress than powerful workers. Managers as well as other kinds of workers are vulnerable to work overload (Primm, 2005).

Economic factors that employees are facing in the 21st century have been linked to increased stress levels. Researchers and social commentators have pointed out that the computer and communications revolutions have made companies more efficient and productive than ever before. This boon in productivity however, has caused higher expectations and greater competition, putting more stress on the employee(Primm, 2005).

The following economic factors may lead to workplace stress:

  • Pressure from investors, who can quickly withdraw their money from company stocks.
  • The lack of trade and professional unions in the workplace.
  • Inter-company rivalries caused by the efforts of companies to compete globally
  • The willingness of companies to swiftly lay off workers to cope with changing business environments.

Bullying in the workplace can also contribute to stress. This can be broken down into five different categories:[8]

  • Threat to profession status
  • Threat to personal status
  • Isolation
  • Excess Work
  • Destabilization i.e. lack of credit for work, meaningless tasks etc.[8]

This in effect can create a hostile work environment for the employees that, which in turn, can affect their work ethic and contribution to the organization.[24]

Sexual harassment as a cause of workplace stress

Sexual harassment in the workplace is an important cause to workplace stress. In the workplace, women are more likely to experience sexual harassment compared to men; especially for those working in traditionally masculine occupations. In addition, a study indicated that sexual harassment negatively affects workers' psychological well-being.[25] Another study found that level of harassment at workplaces lead to differences in performance of work related tasks. High levels of harassment were related to the worst outcomes, and no harassment was related to least negative outcomes. In other words, women who had experienced a higher level of harassment were more likely to perform poorly at workplaces.[25]


Workplace stress is quite normal, however if excessive symptoms of stress are shown then it interferes with productivity and performance and impacts physical and emotional health. Physical symptoms that may occur because of occupational stress include fatigue, headache, upset stomach, muscular aches and pains, chronic mild illness, sleep disturbances, and eating disorders. Psychological and behavioral problems that may develop include anxiety, irritability, alcohol and drug use, feeling powerless and low morale.[26] The spectrum of effects caused by occupational stress includes absenteeism, poor decision making, lack of creativity, accidents, organizational breakdown or even sabotage.[27] If exposure to stressors in the workplace is prolonged, then chronic health problems can occur including stroke. An examination was of physical and psychological effects of workplace stress was conducted with a sample of 552 female blue collar employees of a microelectronics facility. It was found that job-related conflicts were associated with depressive symptoms, severe headaches, fatigue, rashes, and other multiple symptoms.[28] Studies among the Japanese population specifically showed a more than 2-fold increase in the risk of total stroke among men with job strain (combination of high job demand and low job control).[29] Along with the risk of stroke comes high blood pressure and immune system dysfunction. Prolonged occupational stress can lead to occupational burnout.

The effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to ascertain because chronic diseases develop over relatively long periods of time and are influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that stress plays a role in the development of several types of chronic health problems—including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.[6]


A combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work.[6] Both organizations and employees can employ strategies at organizational and individual levels. Generally, organizational level strategies include job procedure modification and employee assistance programs (EPA). Individual level strategies include taking vacation. Getting a realistic job preview to understand the normal workload and schedules of the job will also help people to identify whether or not the job fit them.

How to Change the Organization to Prevent Job Stress[30]

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
  • Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
  • To reduce workplace stress, managers may monitor the workload given out to the employees. Also while they are being trained they should let employees understand and be notified of stress awareness.[31]
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
  • Improve communications-reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
  • Combat workplace discrimination (based on race, gender, national origin, religion or language).
  • Bringing in an objective outsider such as a consultant to suggest a fresh approach to persistent problems.[32]
  • Introducing a participative leadership style to involve as many subordinates as possible to resolve stress-producing problems.[32]
  • Encourage work-life balance through family-friendly benefits and policies

St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included (1) employee and management education on job stress, (2) changes in hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress, and (3) the establishment of employee assistance programs. In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities.[33]

Telecommuting is another way organizations can help reduce stress for their workers. Employees defined telecommuting as "an alternative work arrangement in which employees perform tasks elsewhere that are normally done in a primary or central workplace, for at least some portion of their work schedule, using electronic media to interact with others inside and outside the organization." One reason that telecommuting gets such high marks is that it allows employees more control over how they do their work. Telecommuters reported more job satisfaction and less desire to find a new job. Employees that worked from home also had less stress, improved work/life balance and higher performance rating by their managers.[34]

See also


Further reading

  • Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., & Frone, M. R. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of work stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Butts, M.; DeJoy, D.; Schaffer, B.; Wilson, M. & Vandenberg, R. (Apr 2009). Individual Reactions to High Involvement Work Processes: Investigating the Role of Empowerment and Perceived Organizational Support. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 14(2), 122-136,
  • Cooper, C. L. (1998). Theories of organizational stress. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Cooper, C. L., Dewe, P. J. & O'Driscoll, M. P. (2001) Organizational stress: A review and critique of theory, research, and applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Dov Zohar. (1999). When Things Go Wrong: The Effect of Daily Work Hassles on Effort, Exertion and Negative Mood. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72(3), 265-283.
  • Kossek, E. E., & Ozeki, C. (1998). Work–family conflict, policies, and the job–life satisfaction relationship: A review and directions for organizational behavior–human resources research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 139–149.
  • Minas, C. ( Feb 2000) Stress at Work: a Sociological Perspective: The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 37(1), 119
  • Saxby, C. (June 2008). Barriers to Communication. Evansville Business Journal. 1-2.
  • Temple, H. & Gillespie, B. (February 2009). Taking Charge of Work and Life. ABA Journal, 95(2), 31-32.
  • Baseline measurements for the evaluation of work-related stress campaign. By A Pilkington and others.(2000). Sudbury: HSE Books. (Contract Research Report No. 322/2000.)
  • IOSH

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