The American Psychological Association has carried out stress surveys every year since 2007 to examine the state of stress across the United States and contribute to an understanding of its impact. In all of these surveys more than 60% of the respondents have rated work as a primary source of stress. In a study on work-related stress, anxiety and depression in Great Britain carried out by the Health and Safety Executive in 2018, these three factors accounted for 57% of lost working days and 44% of all work-related illness.
There is a general consensus that people are stressed at work, but there are different views on the primary cause of this stress: should we “blame” workers’ individual characteristics or organizations’ working conditions? The different views may lead us toward different interventions to prevent or manage work-related stress. Even though we can’t ignore the importance of individual characteristics, research suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people and stress in the workplace can be “contagious” in the sense that our stress will also affect the people around us. Scientific evidence states that stress-related issues cost organizations billions of dollars per year in accidents, lost productivity and absenteeism. Therefore, it ought to be in organizations’ best interest to prevent and manage employee stress.
The main work-related stressors are:
Task demands: this may have to do with an uncertainty about where the job will take you. Decisions might be made quickly (sometimes over your head) or you may not have access to sufficient information to make the decisions that you need to make for the job. These demands tend to be experienced as even more stressful when there is an increase in the task demands but not in the rewards.
Role demands: these tend to be divided into two groups: role ambiguity, which refers to an uncertainty and lack of clarity about what’s expected of you, and role conflict, which happens when you need to take on several, often incompatible roles to get the job done or when there is an incompatibility between your expectations and your role.
Interpersonal demands: these might include team dynamics, office politics, a negative leadership style (lack of management experience, poor communication, power struggles, etc.), emotional issues (abrasive or offensive co-workers), psychological or sexual harassment
Physical demands: including a strenuous activity, a lot of travel or working conditions such as excessive noise, small working space, poor lighting, inadequate temperature and hazards.
Workload: the most common problem when it comes to workload is having too much to do, resulting in too many work hours. This is also related to the information overload that many workers experience. However, we can also become stressed by having too little engaging work to do when our knowledge and abilities are not sufficiently utilized, resulting in feelings of inadequacy and boredom. This can often have a detrimental effect on our self-esteem, as we might feel overseen or not trusted.
Work-home conflict: this may happen when the demands from work and our personal life affect one another negatively. Maybe work and home demands are incompatible or you might be unable to disconnect from work when you get home.
Scientific evidence suggests that employees experience more stress when they lack control over how and when to perform their job tasks and over the pace of their work activity. People tend to mention working conditions, task ambiguity and interpersonal demands as the main sources for their stress at work, regardless of the sectors they work in.
Now that we know what causes work stress, we need to know how we can prevent it or manage it if it appears. Individual interventions have been found to show larger effects on individual outcomes such as depression and anxiety compared to organizational interventions. However, those individual interventions did not improve organizational outcomes such as absenteeism, which is considered the most important indicator of loss of productivity. Therefore, in order to reach sustainable positive outcomes, interventions need to be aimed both at the individual and the organization.
In previous posts we have gone through several stress management strategies for individuals, so we will just revisit the ones that are related to the job situation below:
- Use coping strategies: focus on problem solving.
- Apply a proactive behavior, don’t procrastinate (it’s not good to postpone what needs to be done!): it is often better to do something than to just sit and wait for things to happen. When we are active, we have much more control over the situation.
- Time management: schedule tasks and divide them into small steps.
- Self-management: set realistic short-term goals and reward yourself.
- Include short breaks for relaxation and recovery into your daily routine
- Exercise and stick to healthy routines regarding nutrition and sleep.
- Make sure that you are clear on what’s expected of you at
- Keep routines and try to get to work early in the morning.
- Seek help: talk to your boss, co-workers, or a counselor at work about your situation.
- Make sure that you have a social support network where you can rewind and disconnect from work.
- Look for a mentor: try to get a senior person to coach you.
- If you feel that you have tried everything and things still don’t get better, remember that it is better to change jobs (if possible) than to challenge your health.
- Intentional job design and person-job matching: employees need to have jobs that are meaningful and stimulating and create opportunities for them to use their skills. This is also associated with monitoring employees’ workload regularly to ensure that it’s in line with their capabilities and resources.
- Make sure that job descriptions are clear so that employees don’t need to guess what’s expected of them.
- Have a clear organizational structure and practices. Make sure that employees know the general purpose of what is being done so that they can fit their role into the general picture. This will give them a larger sense of meaning and it will also decrease the risk of rumors and office politics.
- Stress audits – look for sources of stress in the organization and also carry out regular surveys of staff satisfaction and health.
- Make sure that employees know who to turn to if they face any kind of difficulty.
- Assess the corporate culture and reward system (are we reinforcing positive behavior and effectively punishing harassment or bullying behavior?)
- Promote an open dialogue within the organization and avoid ambiguity at all costs. A clear communication also reduces uncertainty about career development and future employee prospects.
- Provide opportunities for social interaction and teamwork as this tends to increase employees’ commitment to work and the workgroup.
- Offer stress management training to staff and management training to supervisors and managers.
- Provide an environment that supports accountability and empowerment: give employees opportunities to participate in decisions and actions that affect their jobs.
- Work-life balance initiatives: flexible worktime (work schedules that are compatible with employees’ demands and responsibilities outside the job), job sharing, teleworking or telecommuting, childcare support or personal leave.
- Offer health and fitness plans apart from healthcare plans.
- Involve as many employees as possible, through a participative leadership style, in resolving stress-producing problems within the organization.
- Withdrawal from stressors: sometimes there needs to be a permanent withdrawal where employees are removed from jobs that are not aligned with their competencies. Sometimes employees only need short temporary withdrawals to wind down, such as coffee or lunch breaks, or longer temporary withdrawals such as a sabbatical or a study leave.
- It is important that you follow up on any measures that you have taken to confirm their effectiveness.
The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.