Stress in the Workplace

See also: Workplace Bullying

Stress is broadly defined as a reaction to too much pressure or too many demands. It can arise both at home and at work. However, there is no question that stress in the workplace, or work-related stress, is a major issue both for individuals and for organisations. Unchecked, it can lead to both physical and mental health problems for individuals, and significant losses for organisations through sickness absence.

In many countries, employers have a legal responsibility to recognise and deal with stress in the workplace. Whether or not this applies, however, it is important to tackle the causes of stress in the workplace to avoid problems for individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.

Managing stress in the workplace is therefore an essential part of both individual and corporate responsibility.

Understanding Work-Related Stress

The World Health Organization has set out a definition of work-related stress that is widely used by organisations around the world (see box).

Defining Work-Related Stress

“Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope. Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.”

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization also notes that many people confuse ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ or ‘challenge’.

  • Pressure is unlikely to be completely avoidable in most workplaces.

    The demands of working with and for other people, coupled with environmental and economic pressures, mean that almost all workplaces challenge some or all workers at some point. Some pressure is acceptable, because it keeps people alert and motivated.

  • Stress is caused by excessive or unmanageable pressure.

    It can therefore be a matter of environmental demands. For example, working with customers is often inherently difficult, because people are not always polite, and may make unreasonable demands. Repetitive work can also be challenging, because it is boring.

    However, stress can also be caused by poor management and organisation. Good work design and organisation can help to overcome some elements of pressure. For example, in a café, you might have people employed to serve behind the counter, clear tables, and wash up. If you allow people to move between those jobs—either fluidly, as the work needs doing, or on a shift basis—they are likely to be more engaged than if each person always does the same work.

    By definition, therefore, poor work design and organisation can add extra pressure to an already challenging environment. This can be exacerbated by lack of support from managers or colleagues, poor working conditions, and poor management more generally.

    The most stressful working conditions are when:

    • Excessive demands are seen as ‘good’ or ‘normal’;
    • Pressures are not matched to employees’ skills and knowledge;
    • Employees are not able to make their own choices or control their own work; and
    • There is little support available from other people, including both peers and managers.

It is also possible to divide stress-related hazards (elements that may cause stress) into two categories:

  1. Work content is defined as everything covered by your job description

    It therefore includes issues connected to job content, such as whether you have the right type of tasks, sufficient variety, and enough stimulation. It also covers your workload and how hard you are expected to work, and your working hours, including whether they are flexible, shift working or unsociable hours, and how much they vary from day to day. It also includes how much opportunity you have to get involved in decision-making about your work and how you carry it out.

  2. Work context is everything around your job: how your job is connected to the rest of the organisation

    It therefore includes issues related to your career development, pay and promotion opportunities, performance evaluation, your role within the organisation, and your relationships with the people around you. It can also cover work–life balance, organisational culture, and organisational policies.

    Content and context both matter

    Elements of both work content and work context can cause stress. It also doesn’t matter if one side is ‘perfect’ if the other is a problem. After all, you often hear statements like:

    I really like what I do, but the organisation is awful.
    My job is really dull, but the people are great.

    Each of us will have different aspects that are more stressful to us as individuals, or in particular situations.

The Effects of Workplace Stress

Workplace stress affects individuals, but it also has knock-on effects on relationships within teams and with customers.

Unchecked stress can therefore have major effects on organisations, including on their bottom line.

High levels of stress in the workplace can lead to:

  • Poor decision-making by individuals.
  • An increase in mistakes, which in turn may lead to customer or client complaints. This is likely to produce more stress.
  • Increased sickness and absence, with ongoing costs to the organisation.
  • High staff turnover.
  • Poor employee/workplace relationships.

Stress in the workplace also has a knock-on effect on individuals’ relationships at home: with their partners and children, and wider family and friends. These effects, in turn, ripple outwards, affecting more people via other relationships. It can also have effects on both physical and mental health and well-being (see box).

Panic Attacks

In cases of extreme or continual stress, people can suffer what is known as a panic attack.

A panic attack is a brief but extremely frightening spell of severe anxiety. Lasting only a few minutes, the symptoms can include:

  • Feeling faint;
  • Trembling;
  • Dizziness;
  • Pounding, fast heart rate;
  • Feeling hot and sweaty;
  • Legs turning to jelly;
  • Butterflies (a 'fluttery' feeling) in the stomach;
  • Shortness of breath; and
  • Dry mouth.

Panic attacks often occur when the person is unaware of being particularly anxious. Recognising panic attacks for what they are, learning how to cope with them, and dealing with the underlying problems of stress are essential to the sufferer.

Anyone who experiences such an attack, or thinks that they may have done so, should seek medical advice.

More about Stress and Pressure

Stress and pressure affect people differently. Some people seem to thrive on extremely high-pressure lifestyles, and don’t find this stressful. However, others struggle to cope with everyday life.

Everyone has an optimum level of pressure. Too little excitement and too few challenges may lead to boredom. However, too much pressure can lead to stress, and potentially to health problems.

As a rule of thumb, a certain amount of pressure tends to be good for most people.

The right level of pressure can act as a spur to achieve better results than would otherwise be attained.

Plenty of situations are potentially stressful but also enjoyable: think about the birth of a child, forming new relationships, and undertaking new and stretching challenges. These are situations with the ‘right’ level of pressure or challenge. However, if the pressure rises too high, these can tip into ‘stressful’: for example, if your new baby won’t sleep, and you don’t have any support available.

Feeling stressed can be a useful warning that you are entering an area or situation that might be a problem or even dangerous. It is therefore an signal that something is wrong, allowing individuals to take action to address issues before they become major problems.

Feeling stressed is therefore not necessarily always a bad thing. However, too much stress, and especially prolonged stress, is almost always bad.

Every individual has a different level of tolerance of stress and pressure, and organisations and individuals have a responsibility to ensure that nobody is exposed to too much stress.

Monitoring and Reducing Workplace Stress

In the UK, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has issued a guide entitled Tackling stress: The Management Standards Approach (2005) and a workbook to help. These outline six key areas of the workplace that should be monitored to assess levels of stress:

  • Demands - Including such issues as workload, work patterns and work environment. See our page Work–Life Balance for more information.

  • Control - How much say individuals have about how they do their work. Research shows that feeling that we are not in control is perhaps the biggest cause of stress, so it is helpful to assess the levels of control available to individuals.

    Top Tip!

    If you are a manager, a good way to give people control of their work is to word tasks in a way that explains what they need to achieve, but leaves them to decide how to achieve it. This avoids micro-managing, and gives them to freedom to use their initiative.

    Flexibility on hours in the office/workplace or remote working can also help to give individuals more control over how they work.

  • Support - Includes encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues (our pages on Coaching and Mentoring provide more ideas here).

  • Relationships - Includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour. See our pages on Mediation Skills and Workplace Bullying for more.

  • Role - Whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles.

  • Change - How organisational change is managed and communicated within the organisation. (Our pages on Change Management explain organisational change in more detail.)

As an employee (in the UK), you are entitled to support for workplace stress. It may be useful for you to check your own working environment to see if any of these areas is a cause for concern. You can find more detailed information about the HSE guidelines on stress on the organisation’s website.

The UK Government, through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has introduced management standards for stress in work-related situations.

Further information on these standards, and other issues related to stress and how to manage it, can be found on their website at

Coping with Stress

There are a number of things that individuals can do to help them to cope with workplace stress.

These include:

  • Exercising regularly and eating well. ‘A sound mind in a sound body’ may be a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. It is much easier to deal with stress if you are physically well. Looking after yourself, and particularly making sure that you take time to exercise and eat well, is a good way to ensure that you remain fit and healthy. Exercise also helps to remove stress hormones from your body.

  • Talk to someone. Admitting that you may have a problem is a good start to solving it. Your manager has a responsibility to ensure that you are not suffering from too much stress, but it harder for them to act if you don’t tell them that you are struggling to cope.

  • Be prepared to say ‘no’. An awful lot of workplace stress is the result of people taking on too much. Be prepared to say ‘no’ to demands that you do more—or at least to negotiate deadlines.

There are more ideas to help you to manage workplace stress in our pages on Stress and Stress Management, including Tips to Manage Stress.

There are also behaviours that may be tempting, but which ultimately do not help at all.

These should therefore be avoided if possible (see box).

Unhelpful stress management behaviours

When stressed, individuals often indulge in behaviours which may relieve the immediate feelings of anxiety in the short-term, but which only add to their problems in the longer term.

For example, people may turn to alcohol, drugs, smoking and/or over-eating. Avoiding, ignoring or failing to recognise underlying problems is also a common occurrence.

When too many work demands are placed upon people, they may work harder for longer hours and attempt to keep up with an impossible schedule instead of trying to reduce the demands.

In the long term, these behaviours will only serve to increase the physiological symptoms of tension and deplete physical energy reserves.

Taking Control and Managing Your Life

Ultimately, the best thing that any of us can do to reduce and manage workplace stress is to take control.

If possible, you should try to take responsibility for your working life, and also for maintaining a healthy and appropriate Work–Life Balance. If you can, try some job crafting or job enrichment to better tailor your job to your skills, or to give yourself new opportunities and experiences. Taking these steps is not always easy, but talking to your manager, and asking for help when needed is a very good start.

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life

Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.