On the Job Stress

Workplace stress effects and tips

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

With today’s fast-paced lifestyles, 24 hour news cycle, constant smartphone connection and ever-present deadlines, workplace stress can, for some, seem overwhelming.

By knowing what factors can contribute to work stress, and how stress at work can affect your health, you can stay in control and manage your workplace stress for the benefit of both yourself and your loved ones.

Stress Factors

Many variables can come into play and potentially cause emotional and physical harm to workers. These differ from job to job and person to person.

Some well-known causes of stress are issues like too heavy of a workload and long hours, but the American Psychological Association (APA) offers some potential stressors that are perhaps less obvious.

For one, not being in the right job for you, or not being in a job you enjoy can cause major emotional stress. The APA reports that on average people spend 25% of their adult lives at work, and “if you're the proverbial square peg and your job is a round hole, job stress hurts your productivity and takes a serious toll on your mind and body.”

People may stay in jobs they dislike for a variety of reasons, including pay and perks, but by figuring out what kind of work would make you feel most happy and fulfilled, you can ease this aspect of workplace stress.

Another potential stressor is a feeling of powerlessness in your job. This is often found in jobs with a high level of responsibility and a low level of authority.

“Secretaries, waitresses, middle managers, police officers, editors and medical interns are among those with the most highly stressed occupations marked by the need to respond to others' demands and timetables, with little control over events,” says the APA. Feeling no power at work can lead to depression and stress.

By negotiating with supervisors, employees can attempt to rectify situations like these and hopefully gain a little more control.

Work setting can also have a huge impact on employees’ happiness. Physical stress on the body can be created from bad lighting, noise and air quality issues, among others.

On the emotional side, the APA reports that psychological stress can be generated in “settings where there is organizational confusion or an overly authoritarian, laissez-faire or crisis-centered managerial style.”

Employee organizations can be a vehicle to solving all sorts of problems related to work environments, as can resources provided by the federal government and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Signs of Stress

When we experience stress, our automatic “fight or flight” system is activated. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) reports that though stress can be good for us when a dangerous situation presents itself, over long periods of time these fight or flight responses can harm the body.

Outcomes of long-term stress can include high blood pressure, problems with digestion, high cholesterol, blood clotting, inflammation and increased stomach acids. Stress can also cause problems with sleep, abuse of drugs or alcohol, depression or other emotional issues like anger.

CCOHS reports that they are many possible symptoms that may present themselves in people experiencing too much stress.

These include physical symptoms like muscle aches, headaches, chest pain, indigestion and insomnia. Psychosocial symptoms might include mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, low motivation and anxiety.

Someone undergoing high-stress at work may also show cognitive changes like forgetfulness, being easily distracted and displaying decreased attention and problem solving abilities. Behavioral changes like loss of appetite or overeating, increased drug or alcohol use, social withdrawal, changes in hygiene and neglect of responsibilities may occur.

Stress and the System

A 2011 study out of Concordia University in Canada examined how the effects of this workplace stress manifests itself and found that an increase in job stress was causing an increase in visits to health care professionals.

The study examined data on people 18 to 65 years old from the Canadian National Population Health Survey (NPHS). Some factors researched included marital status, number of healthcare visits, income level and smoking and drinking habits.

The study found that the number of visits to doctors for “physical, mental and emotional ailments linked to job stress” was 26% higher for people with high stress jobs.

Not only does this mean potential health issues for the stress sufferer, it could also mean stress to the health care system as visits increase.

"It is estimated that health care utilization induced by stress costs U.S. companies $68 billion annually and reduces their profits by 10%," according to Mesbah Sharaf, PhD candidate and co-author of the study.

The authors predict that by solving issues of stress in the workplace not only could the wellbeing and productivity of employees improve, but that rising governmental healthcare budgets could decrease.

Sharaf’s co-author, Sunday Azagba, PhD candidate, said, "Improving stressful working conditions and educating workers on stress-coping mechanisms could help to reduce health care costs. Managing workplace stress can also foster other economic advantages, such as increased productivity among workers, reduce absenteeism and diminish employee turnover."

Taking Control

CCOHS suggests a number of different strategies to take workplace stress into your own hands.

Starting your day by devoting ten minutes to prioritizing and organizing tasks that need to be tackled can help organize your day and make a large workload seem more manageable. CCOHS also emphasizes the importance of being honest with co-workers and making practical suggestions for improving life at work.

Taking stretch breaks throughout the day can help you relax and focus, as can taking a pause for long deep breaths.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can be a great resource for dealing with workplace stress. Many companies offer counseling for issues affecting job performance through EAPs.

CCOHS also recommends allowing yourself to take a break from worries and stresses, even if this simply means taking a few minutes every day to relax.

Though work will likely always cause a bit of stress for some, by making the effort to control personal stress levels, as well as being proactive in addressing potential problems in the work environment, its prevalence could be greatly diminished.

This could mean great things for the personal happiness of workers, and potentially for the health care system and productivity of the economy as well.

Review Date: 
June 26, 2012