Workplace Stress

Whether it’s the job you always dreamed of or just a way to cover school costs, anyone can experience workplace stress. Most of us have to hold a job to eat, have a home, and enjoy the things we love, like going on holiday or buying cool shoes. So what are the potential causes of workplace stress, how can we spot the symptoms, and what are some ways to manage stress in the workplace? This article will answer these questions and more. 

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Table of contents
    • First, let’s discuss workplace stress causes.
    • Then, look at what some of the workplace stress symptoms are.
    • We’ll then list a few types of workplace stress scales.
    • As we continue, we’ll understand the consequences of workplace stress.
    • Finally, the 5 ways to manage stress in the workplace will be discussed.

    Workplace Stress: Causes

    Workplace stress is one of the UK’s most significant sources of stress. According to one study, approximately 79% of adults aged 25 to 34 in the UK faced work-related stress in 2020.

    Workplace stress includes the aspects of the workplace that constitute as causing a stress response in the body, such as never-ending deadlines or an overly competitive environment (leading to increased workload).

    There can be many causes of workplace stress, such as physical stressors (noisy environment, long working hours or work overload, uncomfortable working conditions) or physiological stressors (relationship with peers, perceived control at work).

    However, psychologists often relate the causes of workplace stress to perceived control and workload demand.

    Perceived control is the level of freedom an individual believes they have in taking and implementing decisions independently.

    Fox et al. (1993) unveiled that high-demand professions like nurses had little decision-making control and were more likely to develop stress-related illnesses like high blood pressure.

    In many working atmospheres where, for example, the leadership is centralised (top management taking and approving decisions), employees’ freedom to make decisions is limited, and work patterns are pre-defined.

    Other sources of workplace stress, in addition to high workloads and a reduced sense of control, include:

    • Unclear performance expectations.

    • Employee conflict.

    • Low salaries.

    • Lack of social support.

    • Little to no opportunities for growth.

    • Work is not challenging or engaging enough.

    High demand + low control = increased workplace stress

    Low demand + high control = decreased workplace stress.

    Workplace Stress, woman biting pencil staring at laptop, StudySmarterFig. 1 Workplace stress can have significant psychological effects.

    Workplace Stress: Individual Differences

    When evaluating workplace stress causes, it’s important to consider individual differences in vulnerability to stress. For example, it may be the type of personality that causes more stress than less control.

    According to Meier et al. (2008), people with low self-efficacy may automatically attract more stress even when they have more control at work. However, individuals with high self-efficacy scores perceived having less control at work and were more stressed.

    Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to perform and complete actions successfully.

    Workplace Stress: Cultural Considerations

    Other cultural considerations should be made as well. Liu et al. (2007) found that workload as a stressor has no significant differences across cultures.

    Hence it can be a generalisable workplace-related stressor in every culture.

    However, including perceived control as a source of stress might differ across cultures. Gyorkos et al. (2012) argued that workers in collectivist cultures (such as China) have less desire for control at work (not a strong stressor). This finding suggested that including control as a source of stress for all cultures may not be practical.

    Workplace Stress Symptoms

    Everyone handles and experiences stress differently. However, there are a few tail-tell signs to look out for. Here are some physical, behavioural, and psychological workplace stress symptoms a person may experience.

    Physical symptoms
    • Headaches
    • Debilitating fatigue
    • Insomnia
    • Gastrointestinal issues
    • Heart palpitations
    • Muscle tension
    Behavioural symptoms
    • Decreased work performance
    • Short tempered/impatience
    • Mood swings
    • Aggression
    • Absenteeism (calling out sick)/Tardiness
    • Isolation
    • Interpersonal relationship problems
    • Lack of motivation
    Psychological symptoms
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Difficulty coping
    • Cognitive challenges/delays
    • Pessimism

    Workplace Stress Scale

    We know the causes and symptoms of workplace stress. But exactly how are we able to measure it? Several researchers do so by using some workplace stress scales. Let’s take a look at a few types of workplace stress scales.

    The Workplace Stress Questionnaire (WSQ) developed by Holmgren et al. (2009) is a self-administered questionnaire meant to identify workers at risk of experiencing work-related stress and being sick.

    Stress Satisfaction Offset Score (SSOS), originally developed by Shain (1999), is a four-item scale designed to assess how workplace stressors impact an individual’s health.

    However, studies have shown that SSOS should not be used as an initial measure of workplace stress as it is unreliable.

    The HSE Management Indicator Tool has 35 items in a questionnaire that covers six primary stressors using a Management Standards approach. The questionnaire is meant to link workplace design to health outcomes.

    Job Stress Scale (JSS) is a workplace stress scale that offers information on specific sources of a particular work environment that may be causing work-related stress. The individual taking the test is asked how often a stressor event has occurred in the past six months.

    Consequences of Workplace Stress

    The physical consequences of workplace stress can be severe enough to cause disease. These consequences have not only an impact on the workers’ health but also on the overall success of the company.

    Physical Consequences of Workplace Stress

    Workplace stress can have severe physical consequences on a person’s health. Any excessive stress is dangerous to the body as it is linked to weakened immune systems and increased inflammation. Take Marmot et al. (1997), for example, a longitudinal study designed to investigate the relationship between workload or control with developing coronary heart disease (CHD).

    Researchers grouped participants into three groups according to their work as administrators, executives, and clerical staff.

    After five years, the researchers found that participants with a high workload had no significant likelihood of developing CHD. However, participants who perceived having little control over their job elements had an increased chance of developing CHD at the end of the experiment.

    Consequences of Workplace Stress on Company Success

    The consequences of workplace stress have a physical, psychological, and behavioural impact on individual workers and a company’s overall success. As we’ve discussed, workplace stress can increase illness and absenteeism. If workers get sick frequently due to stress, this will impact the company’s production. People must be well enough to work.

    Workplace Stress, man sleeping next to laptop at work, StudySmarterFig. 2 Workplace stress that causes job burnout can reduce productivity.

    Additionally, job burnout is a major consequence of workplace stress.

    Job burnout is a psychological syndrome in which chronic workplace stress causes severe physical and psychological exhaustion, resulting in hopelessness and a reduced sense of accomplishment.

    Employees may be more likely to call out of work simply because they can no longer handle the stress they experience while there. And even if they do show up to work, the psychological impact of workplace stress can impact employee productivity, focus, and quality of work.

    The good news is that a good manager can help a company avoid the consequences of workplace stress as they are responsible for assigning tasks and setting the tone and pace of their team. Managers should be careful to be aware of any stress-inducing decisions affecting workplace stress.

    This will result in a better-functioning team and greater success within the company.

    5 Ways to Manage Stress in the Workplace

    Here, we’ll list 5 ways to manage stress in the workplace that both employees and managers should consider.

    1. Set clear boundaries: Try not to bring work home with you. Set clear boundaries within your life that are off-limits to work-related issues. Set a time when you stop checking emails and making phone calls each day.
    2. Develop healthy response strategies -- when you feel overwhelmed, find healthy ways to problem solve or delegate more responsibilities that others can help you take care of.
    3. Keep track of stressors: Track what is causing you stress and when. Try to reduce that particular stressor or find coping strategies to deal with that stressor when it comes up.
    4. Take time to recharge: Life cannot be all about work. This is a quick path to job burnout. Find the things that help you relax and unwind, and regularly incorporate these activities into your life.
    5. Talk to a supervisor: Being open and honest with your supervisor can be a helpful way to eliminate a stressor. Perhaps there is a solution they can offer, or, at the very least, they may offer emotional support.

    Workplace Stress - Key takeaways

    • Two leading causes of workplace stress are the level of control and the degree of workload.

    • Workplace stress symptoms can be physical, psychological, and behavioural.

    • Types of workplace stress scales include the workplace Stress Questionnaire (WSQ), Stress Satisfaction Offset Score (SSOS), HSE Management Indicator Tool, and Job Stress Scale (JSS).

    • Job burnout is a psychological syndrome in which chronic workplace stress causes severe physical and psychological exhaustion, resulting in hopelessness and a reduced sense of accomplishment.

    • 5 ways to manage stress in the workplace are to:

      • Set clear boundaries.

      • Develop healthy response strategies.

      • Keep track of stressors.

      • Take time to recharge.

      • Talk to a supervisor.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Workplace Stress

    What is workplace stress?

    Workplace stress includes the aspects of the workplace that constitute as causing a stress response in the body, such as never-ending deadlines or an overly competitive environment (leading to increased workload).

    What are the signs of stress in the workplace?

    Some signs of workplace stress include increased absenteeism, aggression, mood swings, and anxiety. 

    What are three types of stress at the workplace?

    There are many types of stressors in the workplace. Some examples are:

    1. Workload level.

    2. Work-life balance.

    3. Cultural expectations and goal alignment.

    What causes stress in the workplace?

    Two leading causes of stress in the workplace are heavy workloads and low perception of control. 

    How to reduce stress in the workplace?

    You can reduce stress in the workplace by:

    • Setting clear boundaries.
    • Developing healthy response strategies.
    • Keeping track of stressors. 
    • Talking to supervisor. 
    • Taking time to recharge.
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