What is Work-Related Stress?

Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health (mental and physical) and even injury.

Consider These Facts

"25% of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives."
--Northwestern National Life

"75% of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago."
--Princeton Survey Research Associates

"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."
--St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co.

The idea of job stress is often confused with challenge, but these concepts are not the same. Challenge energizes us psychologically and physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. Challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work. When a challenge is successfully met, we feel relaxed and satisfied. The importance of challenge in our work lives is probably what people are referring to when they say "a little bit of stress is good for you.

But for too many people, the situation is different. Healthy and desirable work challenge has turned into job demands that cannot be met, relaxation has turned to exhaustion, and a sense of personal pride and satisfaction has turned into feelings of stress. In short, the stage is set for illness, injury, and job failure.

What Causes Job Stress?

Job stress results when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. While just about any work situation can be a potential source of stress, and differences in an individual s personality and coping style are certainly important in predicting whether certain job conditions will cause stress, research also suggests that certain working conditions are bound to be stressful to most people. Workplaces with excessive workload demands or conflicting expectations on behalf of employers and employees are good examples. Current evidence argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress, and for job re-design as a primary prevention strategy.

Workplace conditions that may lead to stress include:

The Design of Tasks

One person works to the point of exhaustion; another is tied to the computer, allowing little room for flexibility, self-initiative, or rest other examples would include such conditions as heavy workloads, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shift-work; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers skills, and provide little sense of control.

Management Style

Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, and lack of family-friendly policies would all indicate a need to work on a more effective management style. A specific example of less-than-ideal management style would be a case of micro-managing in which employees need to get the boss s approval for everything.

Interpersonal Relationships

Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors can be real sources of stress. An example would be when an employee s physical isolation reduces his/her opportunities to interact with other workers or receive help from them.

Work Roles

Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, and too many hats to wear are just some of the cases in which employees can feel caught in difficult, seemingly no-win, and ultimately stressful situations during the course of their work day.

Career Concerns

Rapid changes for which workers are unprepared, job insecurity situations in which employees have reasons to feel worried about the stability of their future with the firm/company/business--and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion can contribute significantly to employee stress.

Environmental Conditions

Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems are all examples of environmental conditions that can directly contribute to stress on the job.

Job Stress and Health

Stress sets off an alarm in the brain, which sets off a response of preparing the body for defensive action. The nervous system is then aroused and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse and respiration, and tense the muscles. This response (sometimes called the fight or flight response) is important because it helps us defend against threatening situations. The response is biologically pre-programmed. Everyone responds in much the same way, regardless of whether the stressful situation is at work or home.

Short-lived or infrequent episodes of stress pose little risk. But when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of hyper-alert activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of injury or illness (mental or physical, e.g., depression or high blood pressure) escalates.

In the past 20 years, many studies have looked at the relationship between job stress and a variety of ailments. Mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems that are quick to develop and are commonly seen in these studies. These early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize. But the effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, current evidence strongly suggests that stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems-especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.

You don t have to wait until you become sick, anxiety-ridden, depressed, or completely stressed out to benefit from the insight, care and objectivity therapy can provide! If you think your workplace is a current or potential source of stress for you, you might consider consulting with a therapist to determine ways you can either minimize or avoid altogether work-related stress.

What Research Tells Us:

Cardiovascular Disease

Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Musculoskeletal Disorders

It is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.

Psychological Disorders

Research consistently indicates that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels.

Suicide, Cancer, Ulcers, and Impaired Immune Function

Research suggests a critical relationship between stressful working conditions and these serious health problems.

Stress, Health, and Productivity

Recent studies of "healthy organizations" suggest that policies benefiting worker health also benefit the bottom line. A healthy organization is defined as one that has low rates of illness, injury, and disability in its workforce and is also competitive in the marketplace. Examples of organizational characteristics associated with both healthy, low-stress work and high levels of productivity include the following:

  • Recognition of employees for good work performance

  • Opportunities for career development

  • An organizational culture that values the individual worker

  • Management actions that are consistent with organizational values

Some employers assume that stressful working conditions are a necessary evil and that companies must turn up the pressure on workers and set aside health concerns to remain productive and profitable in today's economy. But current research findings challenge this belief. Studies show that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs--all of which have a negative effect on the bottom line objective of a thriving workplace.