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Occupational stress

File:Lewis Carroll - Henry Holiday - Hunting of the Snark - Plate 7.jpg
Workplace stress caused by an unsuitable work environment
(Illustration by Henry Holiday in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark" )
For other kinds of stress see stress.

Occupational stress is stress involving work. According to the current World Health Organization's (WHO) definition, occupational or 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."[1]


Stress can be factored in by a number of different variables, but results from the complex interactions between a large system of interrelated variables.[2][3](1998). The diathesis-stress model is a psychological theory that aims to make clear of behaviors as a susceptibility burden together with stress from life experiences.[4] Theories of organizational stress. New York: Oxford.[5] It is useful to distinguish stressful job conditions or stressors from an individual's reactions or strains.[6] Strains can be mental, physical or emotional. Occupational stress can occur when there is a discrepancy between the demands of the environment/workplace and an individual’s ability to carry out and complete these demands.[7][8] Often a stressor can lead the body to have a physiological reaction that can strain a person physically as well as mentally. A variety of factors contribute to workplace stress such as excessive workload, isolation, extensive hours worked, toxic work environments, lack of autonomy, difficult relationships among coworkers and management, management bullying, harassment and lack of opportunities or motivation to advancement in one’s skill level.[9] A concern with stress research is that studies often neglect to consider the broader organizational context.[10]


Categories associated with occupational stress are[9]

  • factors unique to the job
  • role in the organization
  • career development
  • interpersonal work relationships
  • organizational structure/climate.

These individual categories demonstrate that stress can occur specifically when a conflict arises from the job demands of the employee and the employee itself. If not handled properly, the stress can become distress.[11]

  1. the ability of the employee coping with the specific hours worked, the level of productive rate expected, the physical environment, as well as the expectancy of the work desired by management. For instance, research shows that night shifts in particular has a high possibility of negative impact towards the health of the employee. In relation to this, approximately 20 percent of night shift workers have experienced psycho-physiological dysfunctions, including heart diseases. Extreme factors can affect the competence levels of employees.
  2. role in the organization, is associated with the hierarchical ranking of that particular employee within the organization. Upper management is entitled to oversee the overall functioning of the organization. This causes potential distress as the employee must be able to perform simultaneous tasks.
  3. with career development, other factors come into play. Security of their occupation, promotion levels, etc. are all sources of stress, as this business market in terms of technology of economic dominance is ever-changing.
  4. interpersonal relationships within the workplace. The workplace is a communication and interaction based industry. These relationships (either developed or developing) can be problematic or positive. Common stressors include harassment, discrimination, biased opinions, hearsay, and other derogatory remarks.
  5. organizational climate or structure. The overall communication, management style, and participation among groups of employees are variables to be considered. In essence, the resultant influence of the high participation rate, collaborative planning, and equally dispersed responsibilities provides a positive effect on stress reduction, improved work performance, job satisfaction, and decreased psychosomatic disorders.


Distress is a prevalent and costly problem in today's workplace. About one-third of workers report high levels of stress.[7] 20-30% of workers in different sectors of the European Union reported in 2007 that they believed work-related stress was potentially affecting their health.[12] Three-quarters of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.[13] In Great Britain, a sixth of the workforce experiences occupational stress every year.[12] Evidence also suggests that distress is the major cause of turnover in organizations.[7] With continued distress at the workplace, workers will develop psychological and physiological dysfunctions and decreased motivation in excelling in their position.[9] Increased levels of job stress are determined by the awareness of having little control but lots of demands in the work area.[14] Occupational stress and its sequelae represent the majority of work-related illnesses causing missed work days.[12] 26-52% of workers have moderate to high levels of stress related to their jobs.[15]

The Kenexa Research Institute released a global survey of almost 30,000 workers which showed that females suffered more workplace distress than their male counterparts. According to the survey, women's stress level were 10% higher for those in supervisory positions, 8% higher stress in service and production jobs than men, and 6% higher in middle and upper management than men in the same position.[16]

Related disorders

Stress-related disorders encompass a broad array of conditions, including psychological disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and other types of emotional strain (e.g., dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension, etc.), maladaptive behaviors (e.g., aggression, substance abuse), and cognitive impairment (e.g., concentration and memory problems). In turn, these conditions may lead to poor work performance, higher absenteeism, less work productivity or even injury.[9][12] Job stress is also associated with various biological reactions that may lead ultimately to compromised health, such as cardiovascular disease,[12][17] or in extreme cases death. Due to the high pressure and demands in the work place the demands have been shown to be correlated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders. In New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is well acknowledged.[18]


Men and women are exposed to many of the same stressors.[19] However, women may be more sensitive to interpersonal conflict whereas men might be more sensitive to things that waste time and effort. Furthermore, although men and women might not differ in overall strains, women are more likely to experience psychological distress, whereas men experience more physical strain. Desmarais and Alksnis suggest two explanations for the greater psychological distress of women. First, the genders differ in their awareness of negative feelings, leading women to express and report strains, whereas men deny and inhibit such feelings. Second, the demands to balance work and family result in more overall stressors for women that leads to increased strain.[19]


Combining housework, childcare, shopping and cooking with an outside job and trying to do everything on time is one of the biggest factors of women being more stressed at work, characterized mainly by feelings of guilt and hostility. 60% of women who have children under age six have an outside job and cope with family problems; single or married most of duties at home fall on shoulders of a woman.[20]

Health and healthcare utilization

Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems.[21] Occupational stress accounts for more than 10% of work-related health claims.[22] Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Research indicates that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.[23] Other disorders that can be caused or exacerbated by occupational stress include sleep disorders, headache, mood disorders, upset stomach, hypertension, high cholesterol, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety. Stress at work can also increase the risk of acquiring an infection and the risk of accidents at work.[15]

High levels of stress are associated with substantial increases in health service utilization.[7] Workers who report experiencing stress at work also show excessive health care utilization. In a 1998 study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were nearly 50% greater for workers reporting high levels of stress in comparison to “low risk” workers. The increment rose to nearly 150%, an increase of more than $1,700 per person annually, for workers reporting high levels of both stress and depression.[24] Health care costs increase by 200% in those with depression and high occupational stress.[15] Additionally, periods of disability due to job stress tend to be much longer than disability periods for other occupational injuries and illnesses.[25]

Physiological reactions to stress can have consequences for health over time. Researchers have been studying how stress affects the cardiovascular system, as well as how work stress can lead to hypertension and coronary artery disease. These diseases, along with other stress-induced illnesses tend to be quite common in American work-places.[26] There are four main physiological reactions to stress:[27]

  • Blood is shunted to the brain and large muscle groups, and away from extremities, skin, and organs that are not currently serving the body.
  • An area near the brain stem, known as the reticular activating system, goes to work, causing a state of keen alertness as well as sharpening of hearing and vision.
  • Energy-providing compounds of glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream.
  • The immune and digestive systems are temporarily shut down.


Job stress results from various interactions of the worker and the environment of the work they perform their duties. Location, gender, environment, and many other factors contribute to the buildup of stress. Job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. The differing viewpoints suggest different ways to prevent stress at work. Differences in individual characteristics such as personality and coping skills can be very important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress. In other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. This viewpoint underlies prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions.[7] In general, occupational stress is caused by a mismatch between perceived effort and perceived reward, and/or a sense of low control in a job with high demands. Low social support at work and job insecurity can also increase occupational stress.[12] Psychosocial stressors are a major cause of occupational stress.[15]

Working conditions

Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. Such evidence argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress, and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy.[7] Large surveys of working conditions, including conditions recognized as risk factors for job stress, were conducted in member states of the European Union in 1990, 1995, and 2000. Results showed a time trend suggesting an increase in work intensity. In 1990, the percentage of workers reporting that they worked at high speeds at least one-quarter of their working time was 48%, increasing to 54% in 1995 and to 56% in 2000. Similarly, 50% of workers reported they work against tight deadlines at least one-fourth of their working time in 1990, increasing to 56% in 1995 and 60% in 2000. However, no change was noted in the period 1995–2000 (data not collected in 1990) in the percentage of workers reporting sufficient time to complete tasks.[28]


Main article: Workload

In an occupational setting, dealing with workload can be stressful and serve as a stressor for employees. There are three aspects of workload that can be stressful.

Quantitative workload or overload: Having more work to do than can be accomplished comfortably.
Qualitative workload: Having work that is too difficult.
Underload: Having work that fails to use a worker's skills and abilities.[29]

Workload has been linked to a number of strains, including anxiety, physiological reactions such as cortisol, fatigue,[30] backache, headache, and gastrointestinal problems.[31]

Workload as a work demand is a major component of the demand-control model of stress.[32] This model suggests that jobs with high demands can be stressful, especially when the individual has low control over the job. In other words control serves as a buffer or protective factor when demands or workload is high. This model was expanded into the demand-control-support model that suggests that the combination of high control and high social support at work buffers the effects of high demands.[33]

As a work demand, workload is also relevant to the job demands-resources model of stress that suggests that jobs are stressful when demands (e.g., workload) exceed the individual's resources to deal with them.[34]

Long hours

A substantial percentage of Americans work very long hours. By one estimate, more than 26% of men and more than 11% of women worked 50 hours per week or more in 2000. These figures represent a considerable increase over the previous three decades, especially for women. According to the Department of Labor, there have been a rise in increasing amount of hours in the work place by employed women, an increase in extended work weeks (>40 hours) by men, and a considerable increase in combined working hours among working couples, particularly couples with young children.[35][36]

File:My Boss Is A J-E-R-K! (cropped).jpg
Evidence of occupational stress due to an individual's status in the workplace


A person's status in the workplace can also affect levels of stress. While workplace stress has the potential to affect employees of all categories; those who have very little influence to those who make major decisions for the company. However, less powerful employees (that is, those who have less control over their jobs) are more likely to suffer stress than powerful workers. Managers as well as other kinds of workers are vulnerable to work overload.[37]

Economic factors

Economic factors that employees are facing in the 21st century have been linked to increased stress levels. Researchers and social commentators have pointed out that the computer and communications revolutions have made companies more efficient and productive than ever before. This boon in productivity however, has caused higher expectations and greater competition, putting more stress on the employee (Primm, 2005).

The following economic factors may lead to workplace stress:

  • Pressure from investors, who can quickly withdraw their money from company stocks.
  • The lack of trade and professional unions in the workplace.
  • Inter-company rivalries caused by the efforts of companies to compete globally
  • The willingness of companies to swiftly lay off workers to cope with changing business environments.


Main article: Workplace bullying

Bullying in the workplace can also contribute to stress. This can be broken down into five different categories:[9]

  • Threat to profession status
  • Threat to personal status
  • Isolation
  • Excess work
  • Destabilization i.e. lack of credit for work, meaningless tasks etc.[9]

This in effect can create a hostile work environment for the employees that, which in turn, can affect their work ethic and contribution to the organization.[38]

Narcissism and psychopathy

Thomas suggests that there tends to be a higher level of stress with people who work or interact with a narcissist, which in turn increases absenteeism and staff turnover.[39] Boddy finds the same dynamic where there is corporate psychopath in the organisation.[40]

Workplace conflict

Main article: Workplace conflict

Interpersonal conflict among people at work has been shown to be one of the most frequently noted stressors for employees.[41][42] Conflict has been noted to be an indicator of the broader concept of workplace harassment.[43] It relates to other stressors that might co-occur, such as role conflict, role ambiguity, and workload. It also relates to strains such as anxiety, depression, physical symptoms, and low levels of job satisfaction.[43]

Sexual harassment

Main article: Sexual harassment

Women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment, especially for those working in traditionally masculine occupations. In addition, a study indicated that sexual harassment negatively affects workers' psychological well-being.[18][44] Another study found that level of harassment at workplaces lead to differences in performance of work related tasks. High levels of harassment were related to the worst outcomes, and no harassment was related to least negative outcomes. In other words, women who had experienced a higher level of harassment were more likely to perform poorly at workplaces.[44]


Stressful working conditions can lead to three types of strains: Behavioral (e.g., absenteeism or poor performance), physical (e.g., headaches or coronary heart disease), and psychological (e.g., anxiety or depressed mood).[45] Physical symptoms that may occur because of occupational stress include fatigue, headache, upset stomach, muscular aches and pains, chronic mild illness, sleep disturbances, and eating disorders. Psychological and behavioral problems that may develop include anxiety, irritability, alcohol and drug use, feeling powerless and low morale.[46] The spectrum of effects caused by occupational stress includes absenteeism, poor decision making, lack of creativity, accidents, organizational breakdown or even sabotage.[47] If exposure to stressors in the workplace is prolonged, then chronic health problems can occur including stroke. An examination was of physical and psychological effects of workplace stress was conducted with a sample of 552 female blue collar employees of a microelectronics facility. It was found that job-related conflicts were associated with depressive symptoms, severe headaches, fatigue, rashes, and other multiple symptoms.[48] Studies among the Japanese population specifically showed a more than 2-fold increase in the risk of total stroke among men with job strain (combination of high job demand and low job control).[49] Along with the risk of stroke comes high blood pressure and immune system dysfunction. Prolonged occupational stress can lead to occupational burnout.[12] Occupational stress can also disrupt relationships.[15]

The effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to ascertain because chronic diseases develop over relatively long periods of time and are influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that stress plays a role in the development of several types of chronic health problems—including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.[7][12]

Occupational stress has negative effects for organizations and employers. Occupational stress is the cause of approximately 40% of turnover and 50% of workplace absences. The annual cost of occupational stress and its effects in the US is estimated to be over $60 billion to employers and $250-300 billion to the economy.[15]


A combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work.[7][12] Both organizations and employees can employ strategies at organizational and individual levels.[12] Generally, organizational level strategies include job procedure modification and employee assistance programs (EAP). Individual level strategies include taking vacation. Getting a realistic job preview to understand the normal workload and schedules of the job will also help people to identify whether or not the job fit them.

How to Change the Organization to Prevent Job Stress[50]

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
  • Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
  • To reduce workplace stress, managers may monitor the workload given out to the employees. Also while they are being trained they should let employees understand and be notified of stress awareness.[51]
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
  • Improve communications-reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
  • Combat workplace discrimination (based on race, gender, national origin, religion or language).
  • Bringing in an objective outsider such as a consultant to suggest a fresh approach to persistent problems.[52]
  • Introducing a participative leadership style to involve as many subordinates as possible to resolve stress-producing problems.[52]
  • Encourage work-life balance through family-friendly benefits and policies

An insurance company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included (1) employee and management education on job stress, (2) changes in hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress, and (3) the establishment of employee assistance programs. In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities.[53]

Telecommuting is another way organizations can help reduce stress for their workers. Employees defined telecommuting as "an alternative work arrangement in which employees perform tasks elsewhere that are normally done in a primary or central workplace, for at least some portion of their work schedule, using electronic media to interact with others inside and outside the organization." One reason that telecommuting gets such high marks is that it allows employees more control over how they do their work. Telecommuters reported more job satisfaction and less desire to find a new job. Employees that worked from home also had less stress, improved work/life balance and higher performance rating by their managers.[54]

See also


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Further reading

  • Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., & Frone, M. R. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of work stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Butts, M.; DeJoy, D.; Schaffer, B.; Wilson, M. & Vandenberg, R. (Apr 2009). Individual Reactions to High Involvement Work Processes: Investigating the Role of Empowerment and Perceived Organizational Support. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 14(2), 122-136,
  • Cooper, C. L. (1998). Theories of organizational stress. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Cooper, C. L., Dewe, P. J. & O'Driscoll, M. P. (2001) Organizational stress: A review and critique of theory, research, and applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Zohar, Dov (1999). "When Things Go Wrong: The Effect of Daily Work Hassles on Effort, Exertion and Negative Mood". Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 72 (3): 265–283. doi:10.1348/096317999166671. 
  • Kossek, E. E.; Ozeki, C. (1998). "Work–family conflict, policies, and the job–life satisfaction relationship: A review and directions for organizational behavior–human resources research". Journal of Applied Psychology 83: 139–149. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.83.2.139. 
  • Minas, C. (2000). "Stress at Work: a Sociological Perspective". The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 37 (1): 119. 
  • Saxby, C. (June 2008). Barriers to Communication. Evansville Business Journal. 1-2.
  • Temple, H.; Gillespie, B. (2009). "Taking Charge of Work and Life". ABA Journal 95 (2): 31–32. 
  • Baseline measurements for the evaluation of work-related stress campaign. By A Pilkington and others. (2000). Sudbury: HSE Books. (Contract Research Report No. 322/2000.)
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  • Stress ToolkitIOSH