16 Causes of Workplace Stress & How to Prevent Its Effects

  • Workplace StressAre you falling behind with your work commitments?
  • Snappy with loved ones and having trouble sleeping?
  • Are you working long hours yet not getting enough done?

If your job demands more than you can deliver, you could be experiencing workplace stress (Schwartz & McCarthy, 2014). According to the American Psychological Association (2018), “everyone who has had a job has, at some point, felt the pressure of work-related stress.”

While seemingly inevitable, we can do much to prevent stress and reduce its effects. This article explores many of the causes and introduces practical measures that help.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and your clients with tools to better manage stress and find a healthier balance in your life.

The Psychology of Workplace Stress

“Stress is one of the major reasons employees cite for their absence from work, and stress-related absence is increasing.”

Neenan, 2018, p. 92

Unfortunately, chronic stress is all too common in the workplace. According to the American Psychological Association’s (2020) annual Stress in America survey, work is consistently cited as one of the top sources of stress in people’s lives.

 

What is stress?

It is important to begin by understanding what we mean by the term stress.

Definitions of stress typically fall into three categories (Gross, 2020, p. 199):

  1. “Stress as a stimulus.
  2. “Stress as a response.
  3. “Stress as an interaction between an organism and its environment.”

Each category is a good match for the three models of stress most often used in research (Gross, 2020):

  • Engineering model
    Suggests that external stressors (stimuli) produce a stress reaction in the individual. Stress is what happens to the person, not within the person.

  • Physiological model
    Focuses on what happens within the person in response to the stress.

  • Transactional model
    A blend of the other two models concerned with the relationship between the person and the environment.

This article mainly focuses on the transactional model, looking at what causes workplace stressits effects, and how we cope.

 

Workplace stress

According to former associate director of the Centre for Stress Management and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist Michael Neenan (2018), stress is the result of pressures exceeding our ability to cope with them.

If we experience too much stress in the workplace, we become psychologically overwhelmed and unable to avoid the tensions found in our jobs (American Psychological Association, 2018).

 

Resilience and stress

Psychology literature broadly agrees that resilience offers a buffer against stress (Rutter, 1985, 2012).

While the popular view of resilience concerns bouncing back from adversity or stressful situations, Neenan (2018) suggests that building resilience requires us to face adversity, handle it, and ultimately return stronger.

Most importantly, resilience and the capacity to handle stress are for everyone, not just the extraordinary few (Neenan, 2018). Crucially, resilience can be learned and grown using lessons from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

CBT’s strength in handling stress and difficult situations involves recognizing what can be changed and what cannot (yet), as follows (modified from Neenan, 2018):

  • If you can change some, or all, of the situation, then take the required steps to do so.
  • If you cannot change any aspect of the situation, then make every effort to change your emotional reaction to it.
  • If you can change some or all of the situation, but your degree of emotional distress means you can’t see that as an option, then moderate that distress before taking practical problem-solving steps.

This CBT approach (along with other therapeutic treatments) has proven successful in managing difficult situations while handling and reducing stress.

After all, “you can’t always avoid the tensions that occur on the job. Yet you can take steps to manage work-related stress” (American Psychological Association, 2018).

 

Symptoms of Workplace Stress: 3 Examples

Symptoms of workplace stressUnfortunately, workplace stress doesn’t remain in our place of work; it follows us home.

With more people working remotely and able to work anytime and anywhere, there is even more spillover of workplace stress into our home lives (Stitch, 2020).

“A stressful work environment can contribute to problems such as headache, stomachache, sleep disturbances, short temper, and difficulty concentrating.”

American Psychological Association, 2018

Over time, the symptoms of workplace stress may become chronic, damaging physical and mental health.

Prolonged occupational stress resulting from extended, frequent, or intense stressors leads to distress, occurring in one or more of the following forms (Quick & Henderson, 2016).

 

Medical distress

The impact of long-term stress on the body is profound and well documented. Research has linked shift work, hazardous working conditions, and social hazards (all factors known to increase stress) with cardiovascular disease.

Other studies indicate that stress is an important factor in “the onset of cancers and having an indirect role in worsening the disease and limiting recovery” (Quick & Henderson, 2016, p. 3).

Surprisingly, an increased risk of physical injuries – the fourth leading cause of death – has also been linked to stress.

 

Psychological distress

Two of the leading and most severe psychological impacts of stress include the increased likelihood of anxiety and depression (Quick & Henderson, 2016).

Depression is ranked as one of the most significant factors in illness, disease, and loss of productivity in the workplace, affecting around 16% of adults (Quick & Henderson, 2016). Prolonged stress can also lead to anxiety disorders and burnout, with high costs to the individual and the organization.

 

Behavioral distress

Stress is also a significant factor in behavioral distress, increasing drug use, including reliance on tobacco, alcohol, and prescription and illicit drugs.

While directly affecting employee health and wellbeing, smoking and alcohol also cost the employer dearly with lost productivity and healthcare expenditure. Alcohol and other drugs can also lead to workplace aggression, an increased likelihood of industrial accidents, and in extreme circumstances, death (Quick & Henderson, 2016).

 

16 Possible Causes of Stress at Work

Stress at work has many causes, often specific to the individual and the workplace. Common workplace stressors include (American Psychological Association, 2018; Neenan, 2018):

  • Longer working hours impacting work–life balance
  • Job insecurity
  • Low salary
  • Excessive and tiring commutes
  • Increasing work demands
  • Unrealistic deadlines
  • Limited opportunities for growth, development, or advancement
  • Challenging or difficult colleagues
  • Too many meetings
  • Email overload
  • Incompetent or uncaring managers and supervisors
  • Meaningless targets
  • Constantly changing technology
  • Lack of social support
  • Insufficient control over job-related decisions
  • Conflicting job demands and unclear performance expectations

In most cases, multiple stressors combine to produce our work-related stress, differing in severity through the day and even our career.

 

5 Negative Effects of Workplace Stress

Unhealthy eatingProlonged and excessive stress can have many and various negative impacts on our mental and physical wellbeing.

While the highest performers can often survive and thrive in stressful environments, stress remains overwhelming and damaging for the rest of us (Kovacs, 2007).

The adverse effects of workplace stress can take many forms, including the following (Contrada & Baum, 2011):

 

Unhealthy eating

Research shows that stress impacts not only our physiology, but also our behavior. High levels of stress can be associated with both increased (e.g., saturated fat consumption) and decreased (e.g., overall calories) food intake (Contrada & Baum, 2011).

Studies in adolescents and adults have also shown they consume more snacks when stressed (Contrada & Baum, 2011).

 

Recreational drug use

Stress is associated with a marked increase in recreational drug use – legal (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) and illegal (e.g., heroin and cocaine). While the exact reasons for the association may vary, they may include the belief that drug use can reduce stress. Further complicating matters, physical and psychological reactions to abstaining from previously self-administered drugs can increase stress as a symptom of withdrawal (Contrada & Baum, 2011).

 

Burnout & workplace stress

Prolonged stress in the workplace often leads to burnout and is particularly likely in suppliers of critical services to the public. During natural disasters or health crises, healthcare and emergency service workers often work long hours over many days and weeks, reporting severe psychological distress (Moss, 2021).

 

Can workplace stress cause depression?

Workplace stress has a significant impact on the incidence and duration of depression. However, research has found that improving workers’ ability to cope and manage stressful situations through stress management programs (including cognitive-behavioral approaches) reduces absence rates due to sickness and staff turnover, and eases depressive symptoms (Mino, Babazono, Tsuda, & Yasuda, 2006).

 

Negative effects at the company level

While stress can be harmful to the employee, it also has the potential to damage the company due to increased staff absence due to sickness, poor productivity, high turnover, low morale, poor motivation, and increased employee complaints (Attridge, 2017).

The American Institute of Stress estimates the cost of stress to U.S. industry to be over $300 billion annually.

 

How to Manage Stress According to Research

The American Psychological Association (2018) offers several research-based techniques for managing stress, at work and beyond:

  • Track your stressors.
    Keep a journal and track situations that create the most stress over several weeks and how you handle them.
    What are you thinking?
    How does it feel?
    In what environments do the stressors (people, circumstances, physical) appear?
    You are looking for patterns in what is causing stress and how you react.

  • Develop healthy, helpful, and positive responses.
    We often rely on unhealthy choices to cope with stress: fast food, alcohol, or a cigarette. Look for healthy ways to de-stress, such as exercising (even a fast walk will help), getting into nature, meeting with friends, meditation, or yoga. Good sleeping habits are also essential.

  • Establish boundaries.
    In our always available online world, it is increasingly important to set clear work–life boundaries. Don’t check emails after your evening meal or over the weekend. Agree to only talk (or vent) about work for 30 minutes when at home.

  • Recharge and switch off.
    We need time to reach our pre-stress balance. Walking after work (whether working remotely or in the office) or using the commute to listen to music or an audiobook can encourage the transition between work and home life. Such practices can help by bookending the workday, disconnecting, and focusing on non-work activities.

  • Learn how to relax.
    While it sounds easy, learning to relax may take practice until it becomes a habit. Find ways to experience the present moment, perhaps using breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, savoring a meal, or listening to music.

  • Talk to your supervisor.
    It is in your boss’s interest for you to be happy, healthy, and in a positive and productive working environment. Talk to your manager to develop a realistic plan for managing or removing stressors. Being given more meaningful tasks may help.

  • Seek support.
    Support is often all around us when we look. Friends, family, and employee support programs can help you manage stress and adopt more healthy coping mechanisms.

Stress doesn’t always need to be bad. By encountering stress and learning how to cope, we can grow and develop greater resilience to make future situations less difficult. Remember, “resilience is about managing emotions, not suppressing them” (Neenan, 2018, p. 9).

 

9 Tips to Prevent Workplace Stress

Self-compassionPreventing and reducing workplace stress is preferable to finding ways to cope or recover.

The following tips help reduce the likelihood of feeling overloaded and overwhelmed (modified from Halvorson, 2014):

  • Practice self-compassion, permitting yourself to make mistakes. Rather than dwell on the past, learn from it and improve your performance.

  • Picture the overall goal or purpose and reflect on the why behind your behavior. You will be more likely to stop and plan rather than burn too much energy on being busy.

  • Use routines whenever possible. Each new task and choice takes time and creates mental tension, so find ways to reduce the number of decisions.

  • Interesting activities replenish energy. Being curious and finding something that captivates you will help you recharge.

  • Add when and where to every item on your task to avoid the week slipping away without getting everything done on time.

  • Consider situations and events that trigger stress. Come up with a set of if–then plans (e.g., “If X happens, I will do Y.”). Planning for the worst will leave you prepared and less stressed if it happens.

  • Striving for perfection can lead to procrastination and even burnout. Focus on being good and on improving, rather than setting standards you can’t meet.

  • Reflect on past successes and the progress you have already made. You have come a long way; give yourself the credit you deserve.

  • Recognize what motivates you. Life is full of opportunities; find what excites you and apply yourself to the challenge.

 

Our Stress-Relief Resources & More

Before looking at a sample of the many worksheets and exercises we have available, you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and your clients with tools to better manage stress and find a healthier balance in your life.

Some of these tools were sourced from our Positive Psychology Toolkit©, an online collection of over 370 mindfulness based exercises, interventions, and tests.

Stress-relief tools to help you or your client better manage stress include:

  • Stress Management Emergency Plan
    This tool helps clients build emergency stress management plans, exploring four types of stressors: time, situational, anticipatory, and encounter.

  • Visualization for Stress Reduction
    This exercise guides the client through visualization, helping them connect with peaceful imagery at times of stress.

  • S.O.B.E.R. Stress Interruption
    This short-term stress interruption technique can reduce habitual reactive behaviors and encourage mindful choices.

  • Stress Diary
    Keeping a stress diary can identify patterns regarding causes of stress and identify beneficial coping strategies.

  • Coping With Stress
    This helpful two-part plan connects users’ stress triggers with practical coping strategies.

  • Coping: Stressors and Resources
    Identify past, present, and possible future stressors and link them to available coping resources.

  • 17 Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others manage stress without spending hours on research and session prep, check out this collection of 17 validated stress management tools for practitioners. Use them to help others identify signs of burnout and create more balance in their lives.

 

A Take-Home Message

Stress affects us all. While a certain amount of pressure in the workplace can be invigorating and even exciting, too much for too long can damage our physical and mental wellbeing.

Increased stress potentially leads to cardiovascular disease, cancer, poor sleep, difficulty concentrating, damage to relationships, and more (American Psychological Association, 2018; Quick & Henderson, 2016).

Psychological distress is also a significant factor in burnout and can lead to depression and other mental health issues.

For employers, having a stressed staff results in lost productivity, absenteeism, and the risk of accidents and legal proceedings.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Stress can be managed and even become positive by addressing, reducing, or removing some of the causes; establishing boundaries between work and life outside; and allowing staff to recharge.

Review the theoretical background to stress, understand its causes (for you or your client), and adopt tools and techniques that reduce feelings of being overloaded and overwhelmed. Over time, it is possible to form helpful habits, discard old negative ones, and change our relationship to stress.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.

  • American Psychological Association. (2018). Coping with stress at work. http://www.apa.org/topics/healthy-workplaces/work-stress
  • American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress in America: A national mental health crisis. Retrieved August 26, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/sia-mental-health-crisis.pdf
  • Attridge, D. (2017). Effects of work-related stress. University of Cambridge Human Resources. Retrieved August 26, 2021, from https://www.hr.admin.cam.ac.uk/policies-procedures/managing-stress-and-promoting-wellbeing-work-policy/policy-statement/effects
  • Contrada, R. J., & Baum, A. (2011). The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health. Springer.
  • Gross, R. D. (2020). Psychology: The science of mind and behaviour. Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Halvorson, H. (2014). Nine ways successful people defeat stress. In HBR guide to managing stress at work (pp. 1–11). Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Kovacs, M. (2007). Stress and coping in the workplace. The British Psychological Society. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-20/edition-9/stress-and-coping-workplace
  • Mino, Y., Babazono, A., Tsuda, T., & Yasuda, N. (2006). Can stress management at the workplace prevent depression? A randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 75(3), 177–182.
  • Moss, J. (2021). Rethinking burnout. In HBR guide to beating burnout (pp. 1–13). Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Neenan, M. (2018). Developing resilience: A cognitive-behavioural approach. Routledge.
  • Quick, J., & Henderson, D. (2016). Occupational stress: Preventing suffering, enhancing wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(5), 459.
  • Rutter, M. (1985). Resilience in the face of adversity: Protective factors and resistance in psychiatric disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 147(1), 598–611.
  • Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24(2), 335–344.
  • Schwartz, T., & McCarthy, C. (2014). Manage your energy not your time. In HBR guide to managing stress at work (pp. 53–80). Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Stitch, J. (2020). A review of workplace stress in the virtual office. Intelligent Buildings International, 12(3), 208–220.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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