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What is Workplace Stress?

Workplace stress is something we all feel at one time or another. It doesn’t matter what industry you work in or where you are in the hierarchy, there comes a time when workplace pressures and demands become too much. The result is stress. 

Research by Mind has found that work is the most stressful factor in people’s lives, more so than financial problems and health. A further study by Perkbox found that 79% of employees commonly experience work-related stress, with just 1% saying they never feel stressed at work

In this, the first article in our Managing Business Stress series, we’re going to explore what workplace stress is, what the common causes of workplace stress are and how we respond to those triggers. 

What is the Definition of Workplace Stress?

The most widely accepted definition of stress can be attributed to the psychologist Richard S. Lazarus. In his book ‘Psychological Stress and the Coping Process’, he defines stress as:

A condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that the demands placed on them exceed the personal and social resources they are able to mobilise’. 

More simply, stress is the adverse reaction we have when excessive pressures or demands are placed on us. In the workplace, that can take lots of different forms. 

For example, a worker might feel stressed if they don’t have the skills or knowledge to do a job properly. They may also feel stressed if they don’t have the time to meet tight deadlines or have difficult relationships with colleagues or superiors.  

All of these have one thing in common – a loss of control.

Is Workplace Stress an Illness?

A common mistake people make when talking about stress is thinking about it as an illness. Stress in itself is not an illness. It is a natural reaction to something unexpected or that frustrates our goals. Even when your workplace is well-designed, organised and managed, you can still feel stressed from time to time. It’s when the feeling of being stressed is prolonged and exceeds your ability to cope that it starts to become a problem. 

At this point, stress can become a significant cause of physical and mental illness. If left unchecked, it can lead to increased alcohol intake, trouble sleeping, feelings of anxiety and depression, chest pains, headaches and more. It’s also linked to high levels of sickness absence, staff turnover and a lack of productivity at work. To emphasise this point, Research by HSE found that a total of 12.8 million working days were lost in the UK due to stress.   

What are Some of the Common Causes of Workplace Stress?

People often associate workplace stress with pressure – being pressured to hit a deadline, pressured to take on more tasks or pressured to deliver results. However, there’s a big difference between stress and pressure. 

Pressure can be a positive and motivating factor at work and is often essential in a job. It helps us to perform well and reach our goals. However, there’s a fine line between pressure and stress. Stress is a natural reaction to too much pressure. It occurs when the pressure becomes excessive and you no can longer cope with the demands being placed on you.  

HSE’s research revealed that workload is the biggest cause of workplace stress, sitting at 44%. However, there are also plenty of other common causes of workplace stress. That includes:

  • Pressure to meet rising expectations but with no reward
  • Pressure to work at optimum levels all of the time
  • Not having adequate time to complete a task
  • The inability to make decisions about your job or specific tasks
  • Having skills and abilities that do not match the demands of a job 
  • A lack of training or preparation to perform a task
  • A lack of appreciation 
  • Feeling isolating in the workplace
  • The constant fear of being laid off
  • Long working hours and not being able to achieve a healthy work-life balance
  • Not receiving enough support from supervisors, managers and/or co-workers
  • Work that is emotionally disturbing or requires high emotional involvement
  • Poorly managed change
  • Discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality 

What makes stress particularly difficult to manage is that it affects people very differently. What causes stress in one person may not cause stress in another, and that’s all down to factors such as age, experience and resilience. What is known, however, is that stress can hit anyone, regardless of their age or seniority, or the sector, job or industry they work in. 

How do we Respond to Stress?

The human performance curve is a simple way to illustrate how people respond to varying degrees of pressure. When there is no pressure or incentive to complete a task, performance is low. As that pressure increases, so does performance until it reaches an optimal level. If that pressure lasts for a sustained period or continues to increase, performance starts to decrease and stress begins to build. 

Individuals have varying tolerance levels and the point at which pressure turns into stress is different for everyone. However, if the pressure continues past the optimal point, then workplace stress, potentially leading to ill-health and poor performance is the result. 

When a person is presented with a new situation, task or challenge, they will decide whether they have the resources to cope and that will determine how they respond i.e. whether they start to feel stressed. Their appraisal of the situation will depend on factors such as their:

  • Skills and experience
  • Personality traits
  • Background and culture
  • Personal circumstances
  • Individual characteristics
  • Other demands inside and outside of work
  • Health status
  • Age, gender and ethnicity

As a manager or business owner, you have a duty to make sure your work does not make your team ill. By understanding the triggers for your team and how they respond to certain pressures, you can start taking steps to reduce them.