Cause and Effect of Stress at Work

Published 01 Aug 2016

The problem of work-related stress has been brought to the foreground by the changing nature of the very concept of a job in the global world, which imposes extra demands on employees. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provide the results of surveys among the US employees, which are really striking. Thus, over forty percent of the participants report their job is very or extremely stressful and one-fourth of employees claim that their jobs are the number one stressor in their lives. At the same time, the tendency to growth is getting more and more evident, as three-fourths of the questioned people believe that today’s worker has more occupational stress than it was the case a generation ago. So, there is no doubt about the relevance of the issue. In the current essay, I intend to prove that the main causes of on-the-job stress are a number of conditions affecting most employees in the same way despite their individual characteristics. Besides, I would like to show that stress effect is the progressive process, consisting of a few stages and including the physical, mental and communicational response.

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NIOSH gives quite a comprehensive definition of the concept in question: “Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury”. (Stress at work, 1998). One should not confuse the term “stress” with what we usually call challenge at work. The latter is highly positive and essential for employee motivation, the latter being also a natural but distressing reaction of an individual to excessive demands imposed on them.

At this point, we approach understanding the main causes of work-related stress. Some psychologists argue that it is the individual peculiarity of an employee’s mentality and temperament that influence stress response. Most of the research, however, shows that there are common factors that play the role of stressors irrespective of the personality of workers. All of these concern job conditions and management. Thus, UNISON Guide provides a whole list of factors, forming a stressful environment:

  • long hours,
  • shift work,
  • too much or too little work,
  • lack of control and conflicting demands especially amongst the lower grades),
  • poor management,
  • bad relations with other work colleagues,
  • repetitive work, boredom and lack of job satisfaction,
  • working alone,
  • job insecurity,
  • job or organizational change,
  • low pay,
  • jobs with heavy emotional demands,
  • either actual, or threatened, violence, bullying, and harassment, and
  • a poor working environment (such as excessive noise, the presence of dangerous materials, overcrowding, poor facilities, or extremities of temperature or humidity).

NIOSH Guide authors agree that working conditions excess worker characteristics in terms of their contribution to stress. They expand on the list of the stressors, presented above, by giving examples of each factor. It is important to note that the most significant stressors lie outside purely environmental conditions like crowding, noise or air pollution, which are in fact can be eliminated easiest of all. To these non-environmental factors belong such ones as management style and work roles. By poor management style, the experts understand “lack of participation by workers in decision- making, poor communication in the organization, and lack of family-friendly policies”.

For example, when an employee needs his or her superior permission to make any working step it both decreases productivity and increases stress reactions. A common example of work-roles stress is uncertain or conflicting job expectations or the absence of clear-cut duties when the responsibilities of a few workers intermingle. Also, an employee often faces a dilemma, when he or she tries to both meet the company’s expectations and satisfy the client’s needs. Human and management factors are obviously more difficult to eliminate that physical one because the former don’t catch the manager’s eye. People get used to their conventional management style and cannot identify its weak points.

All the above-mentioned factors lead to a number of distressing responses, which can be classified in at least two ways. First of all, we shouldn’t forget that most phenomena in life are progressive in their development. Likewise, stress symptoms vary and intensify throughout the three basic stages. Canadian Mental Health Association defines such stages of stress response as Mobilization of Energy, Exhaustion or Consuming Energy and Draining Energy Stores. With each stage, the warning signs get more intense and serious. At the first stage, a person faces such symptoms as :

  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • rapid breathing
  • sweating
  • decreased digestion rate, creating butterflies and indigestion

The second stage gives the following outcome:

  • feeling driven
  • feeling pressured
  • tiredness and fatigue * increase in smoking, coffee drinking, and/or alcohol consumption
  • anxiety
  • memory loss
  • acute illnesses such as colds and flu

Finally, if the two previous stages are not escaped, the third stage brings even more threatening prospect:

  • heart disease
  • ulcers
  • mental illness As well as:
  • insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
  • errors in judgment
  • personality changes

Sheila Hartman, Jaelline Jaffe, and others classify stress symptoms in a different way. I would call it “body-mind-communication” classification. They differentiate between three groups of symptoms such as physical, emotional and relational ones. A whole list of each of physical responses is provided by them: sleep disturbances, back, shoulder or neck pain, tension or migraine headaches, upset or acid stomach, cramps, heartburn, weight gain or loss, hair loss, high blood pressure ,sweaty palms or hands, cold hands or feet and so on, to name just a few. To emotional symptoms belong such ones as nervousness, anxiety, depression, moodiness, memory problems, and lack of concentration, phobias, and others. Finally, relational symptoms include increased arguments, isolation from social activities, conflict with co-workers or employers, frequent job changes, road rage, domestic or workplace violence.

The multitude of different acute manifestations of stress responses may grow into chronic diseases. There are a few, which are most likely to occur to employees, who undergo stress on a regular basis and apply no techniques to eliminate it. They are mental disorders like depression, cardiovascular disease and stomach problems like the ulcer.

To sum up, the list of possible stress outcomes of mental, physical and relational character is really striking. It indicates that nowadays the problem of work-related stress is excessively relevant. It is even more significant to consider because the experience proves that such stress is mostly caused by work-condition factors, irrespective of the individual characteristics of employees. One of the key tasks for modern managers is not only created favorable physical conditions of work but keep up-to-date in their management style to increase productivity and to transform the negative stressful atmosphere into the positive worker-friendly and motivating environment.


  • Hutman, Sheila, Jaffe, JaellineStress: Signs and Symptoms, Causes and Effects” April 2, 2005
  • “Stress at work – a guide for safety reps” April 2, 2005
  • “Stress at work” (1998) April 2, 2005
  • “Stress and Burnout at Work” April 2, 2005
  • “Stages of Stress” April 2, 2005
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