Understanding the Impact of Chronic Workplace Stress

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5 September 2023

Understanding the Impact of Chronic Workplace Stress

High stress levels are a common complaint of many workers in the modern day world. Stress can be described as 'perceived.' Some people respond to a particular situation with high levels of stress and others might feel quite calm about the same thing. Although it is 'perceived' it's important to recognize it as a problem that can have serious repercussions.

Stress is a modifiable risk factor, which means that it's something that can be changed. However it's not necessarily easy for a person to reduce their stress levels quickly. For example, if you tell someone to simply 'relax,' it could even cause them to get more wound up!

Understanding stress and its potential negative consequences is a good first step towards taking action to manage job stress.

The good stress and the not so good stress

Stress comes in two main forms, and in fact one of them can be highly beneficial in the workplace — it's called 'eustress.' This could be considered as 'just enough' stress because it can provide a surge of energy and push you to get things done. It's overall impact is positive in terms of general health, motivation and job performance.

The type of stress to be concerned about is distress. Distress is a more extreme level of stress. It causes a person to feel overwhelmed, anxious and unfocused. Overall the person feels out of control and it's a negative form of stress.

For the remainder of this article the generic term 'stress' will be used to refer to the negative form of stress.

Health concerns associated with chronic stress

A little bit of stress is probably not going to have too many lasting health implications. However, the concern is around chronic (long term) stress. At a far earlier period in history, our ancestors would experience plenty of stress, for example when out hunting for food. When they returned to safety, their body would ideally return to a stable resting state.

With modern day chronic stress, many people find it difficult to come out of their stressful state at all. This results in elevated stress hormones circulating throughout the body, and a high risk for associated health problems.

A few of the health concerns that are associated with chronic stress include:

  • Increased likelihood of falling ill with a cold or flu
  • Increased levels of inflammation in the body, which can be a precursor to many health conditions and diseases
  • Increased levels of cortisol in the body, which can lead to problems such as storage of belly fat. This can then create further health risks for the internal organs in that area of the body
  • Increased levels of anxiety which can affect sleep quality and overall mental health

The workplace as a major culprit

Stress can come from many areas in a person's life, from family concerns to health, finances and more. Workplace stress can be a big contributing factor to a person's overall stress status and can be compounded by the high percentage of time that most people spend at work.

There are a number of potential stressors in the workplace. These could be physical stressors such as improper workstation set up or exposure to contaminants. Additionally, colleague relationships, customer interactions, high workloads and imposing deadlines all have the ability to load up a person's stress levels.

One study looked at the effects of workplace stress on 2,300 employees and found that time pressure was a major stressor. Time pressure equated to working longer hours, which then resulted in decreased time with family.

Another study of employees in the banking sector determined a number of important sources of workplace stress. These included workload, task difficulties, discrimination issues, problems with customers and role ambiguity.

Implications of chronic stress for the company

Chronic workplace stress can decrease productivity levels and therefore hurt the company's bottom line. Research shows that high levels of stress in the workplace are linked to disengagement and absenteeism.

Ultimately, a healthy, happy and productive workforce consists of employees who obtain a certain level of work-life balance. They should be functioning regularly at the level of eustress rather than distress.

Suggestions for reducing workplace stress

There are a number of things you can do as an employer to help employees reduce their overall stress levels. Here are a few ways you can ultimately create a happier, healthier workforce:

  1. Encourage employees to finish tasks at work, and avoid taking anything home with them
  2. In instances when employees need to work overtime to meet a deadline, allow them to come in later the following day, or leave early another day
  3. Arrange workplace wellness days where a wellness coordinator can talk about workplace stress and provide tips for employees. These days could also include things like meditation or yoga classes, and massage
  4. Check in regularly with employees to find out how they are coping with things like workload and the workplace environment. This could be via 1:1 chats, or through regular evaluation surveys. Most of all, listen to them and use the results to create positive changes in the workplace
  5. Encourage employees to leave the workplace for lunch, and even do a workout or have a quick stretch and exercise break if practical. A workout session can help reduce levels immensely, and energize a person for a productive afternoon ahead
  6. Provide information about and access to mental health services. This could include contact with a psychologist or life coach as appropriate
  7. Make the workplace as fun and relaxing as possible. Provide a relaxation area for breaks and organize fun social outings for the team.
  8. Teach stress reduction techniques, or get a specialist in to do so. These might include breathing and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) methods.
  9. Ensure you act as a role model in the area of stress management. If employees notice their employer is relaxed and happy, they will pick up on this energy and find it easier to mirror this disposition.

Find out more great ideas in the five essential elements of wellbeing and creating a workplace culture of wellness.