Understanding Work Stress: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions

Posted September 4, 2015 | By Tricia Hussung

Illustration of character buried under work papers

Based on an annual survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), 60 percent of people in the United States consider their job a major source of stress. In fact, job stress ranked higher than the economy, family responsibilities and even personal health concerns. Other studies report similar findings: A quarter of surveyed employees view their job as the No. 1 stressor in their lives. The same survey found that 40 percent of employees report their job to be “very” or “extremely” stressful. And according to Princeton Survey Research Associates, three-fourths of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.

It is clear that work-related stress affects a large number of Americans, but why? The answer may lie in social change. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the nature of work is changing at a rapid pace. Employees are expected to work long hours and, in lean economic times, to do so for less pay. The results of this environment include fear, uncertainty and, of course, stress. Stress is the result of emotional, physical, social, economic or other factors that require a response to change. Workplace stress, then, refers to the harmful responses that can occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the employee.

Job stress should not be confused with challenge, which motivates the employee to learn and master new skills. Challenge is an important aspect of productive work. Some stress is OK. But when it occurs rapidly and in large amounts, mental and physical health can be negatively affected. The ability of employees to deal with job stress can determine their success or failure in a role. Fortunately, as more research is completed, employers and leadership have a greater understanding of job stress and how to prevent it. For employees, finding ways to manage stress in the workplace is key.

Causes of Job Stress

Character being overwhelmed in the office.

Stress on the job can have various origins or come from just one aspect of a worker’s responsibilities. And its effects are far-reaching: Workplace stress can affect both employers and their employees. The economy is currently on the upswing, but job security was uncertain in not-so-distant years. Downsizing, layoffs, mergers and bankruptcies occur in industries and companies of all types; this means big changes for workers. Even when job loss does not occur, employees may face increased responsibility, higher production demands, fewer benefits, pay cuts and more. In general, this creates an environment of stress around the office. Some of the causes of job stress identified by the CDC and APA include the following:

  • Low morale: When morale is low, workers often feel powerless. This in turn makes them complacent, and productivity suffers. Some of the most stressful jobs include secretary, waiter, middle manager, police officer and editor. These occupations are all marked by the service aspect of responsibilities: These professionals must respond to the demands and timelines of others with little control over events. Common to these types of careers are feelings of too little authority, unfair labor practices and inadequate job descriptions.
  • Management style: Another factor in stressful work situations is management style. When a workplace has poor communication and employees are not included in decision-making processes, workers don’t feel supported by their coworkers and employers. In addition, a lack of family-friendly policies can lead to increased stress due to effects on work-life balance.
  • Job responsibilities: How tasks are assigned and carried out is a big contributor to workplace stress. This includes heavy workload, infrequent breaks, long hours and shifts, unnecessary routine tasks, ignoring workers’ skills and more. When job expectations are uncertain or conflicting, employees feel they have too much responsibility and too many “hats to wear.”
  • Career concerns: Another factor in workplace stress is career concerns such as job insecurity or lack of advancement opportunities. Rapid changes with little or no learning curve are also identified by the CDC as problematic.
  • Traumatic events: While not ideal, it is true that some jobs are more dangerous than others. Many criminal justice professionals, firefighters, first responders and military personnel experience stressful situations and personal risk every day. Occasionally, this can cause ordinary responsibilities to become difficult. For that reason, positions such as those listed above are particularly stressful.
  • Work environment: Most of the previous causes of workplace stress are emotional; however, a subpar work environment can create physical stress as well. Whether this is related to noise, lack of privacy, poor temperature control or inadequate facilities, work setting is critical in lowering workplace stress.

Work Stress Symptoms

Although it’s easy to pinpoint the causes of stress in life, narrowing down the effects is not as simple. Understanding what stress is lets us see how it can negatively affect both the mental and physical health of employees. According to the CDC, stress “sets off an alarm” in the brain that prepares the body to defend against the stressor. The nervous system is put on alert, and hormones are released that sharpen senses, increase pulse, deepen respiration and tense muscles. This is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. It’s biologically programmed, which means humans have little or no control over it. When stressful situations are ongoing or unresolved, this response is constantly activated, causing wear and tear on different biological systems. Eventually, fatigue occurs and the immune system is weakened. This increases the risk of disease or injury.

In recent decades, researchers have studied the relationship between job stress and physical illness. Examples include sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, as well as compromised relationships with family and friends. Other symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Indigestion
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Short attention span
  • Loss of appetite
  • Procrastination
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Poor job performance

These signs are easy to recognize, but the effects of stress on chronic disease are less obvious because these ailments develop over time and can be caused by many different factors. However, data is beginning to show that stress plays an important role in many common but serious health problems. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, health care costs are nearly 50 percent higher for workers who report high levels of stress. The following are some of the long-term negative effects of stress.

  • Cardiovascular disease: Psychologically demanding jobs that give employers little control over work processes increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders: It is believed that stress increases the risk of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Psychological disorders: Several studies suggest that differences in mental health problems for various occupations are due to differences in job stress levels. Such problems include depression and burnout.
  • Workplace injury: There is also a concern that stressful working conditions can interfere with safety practices and increase the risk of injury at work.
  • Suicide, cancer, ulcers and immune function: Some studies suggest that there is a relationship between workplace stress and these health problems, but more research is needed to draw firm conclusions.

Solutions for Managing Workplace Stressors

Illustrated character in a zen pose.

Some employers and employees assume that high levels of workplace stress are normal, or that pressure to perform is the only way to stay productive and profitable. However, research tends to challenge these assumptions. The CDC points to studies that show “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.” In addition, the CDC cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Workers who must take time off work because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder will be off the job for about 20 days.” A healthy workplace is defined as one that has low rates of illness, injury and disability in its workforce while remaining competitive in the marketplace. Some characteristics of such organizations include:

  • 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

There are actions that reduce job stress as well. Stress management training and employee assistance programs (EAP) can improve workers’ ability to deal with difficult work situations through understanding the sources of stress, the effects of stress on health and strategies to eliminate stressors. Such strategies might include time management or relaxation exercises. This type of training may quickly decrease stress symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia. It is also a relatively inexpensive and simple way to address the problem. Another way to mitigate workplace stress is by hiring a consultant who can recommend ways to improve the work environment. This is a direct way to reduce stressors at work and involves identifying stressful factors and then reducing them as much as possible. It can also change work routines for the better, increasing productivity.

Other leadership strategies that can prevent job stress include:

  • Ensuring that workload is aligned with employee capabilities and resources
  • Designing jobs that provide meaning and opportunities for workers to succeed
  • Clearly defining roles and responsibilities
  • Providing opportunities for professional development and participation in decision-making
  • Improving communication concerning the overall health of the company
  • Providing opportunities for social interaction among workers
  • Establishing schedules that make sense for demands and responsibilities outside of work (work-life balance)

These efforts may vary due to the size and complexity of the organization, along with available resources and the specific stress-related problems in the workplace.

Employees also have the ability to maintain good mental health and reduce stress in their own lives. There are many ways to do this, such as learning to relax, taking short breaks throughout the day, prioritizing, managing time well and communicating effectively with coworkers. Lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise and making healthy food choices are other ways that employees can decrease stress, as these good habits will carry over into the workplace. Though job stress will never be completely eliminated, strategies like these are effective in reducing its occurrence and improving the productivity and morale of employees in all types of organizations.

Learn how to successfully manage stressors and develop a highly functioning workplace with an online degree from Concordia University, St. Paul. We offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, psychology, organizational leadership and more. Discover what a flexible, affordable, valuable degree from CSP can mean for your career.