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Workplace stress: Think it isn't getting to you? Think again

August 10, 2022 - 17 min read


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What is stress?

10 physical and psychological effects of workplace stress

How can workplace stress affect your family dynamics?

How to identify stress at work

How to prevent stress at work

7 common stressors at work

What affects your coping skills?

How does stress affect your performance at work?

Bottom line: Don't normalize stress

We all know what stress is — especially in the workplace.

In 2020, Gallup found that the COVID-19 pandemic brought workers’ daily stress levels from 38% to 43%

And according to a 2022 survey by the American Institute of Stress, only 5% of Americans said that they have low stress levels, and 76% report that stress harms their productivity. Studies have shown that higher stress often indicates lower productivity, which makes the effects of workplace stress everyone’s problem. Workplace stress impacts employees, managers, and the entire business. 

Plus, we can't forget that our job stress doesn't exclusively stay at work. Work-related stress follows us home and interferes with our personal lives.

But let's talk about what we can do about workplace stress. We can learn the impact of workplace stressors on our mental and physical health, how to identify them, and how to prevent them.


What is stress?

We feel stressed when our body responds to a threat of any kind. These threats are internal or external and can appear at any time. They make us overwhelmed, nervous, irritated, and on edge. And even though everyone reacts to stress differently, we generally feel distracted and have faulty decision-making abilities.

Our brains aren’t great at determining which stressors are life-or-death, either. That’s why an encounter with a grizzly bear triggers the same reaction as making a mistake in an important presentation. 

And there are various types of stress that can impact our well-being. Yes, different types of stressors — financial, workplace, familial — can interfere with every area of our lives. 

While we know that stress can have negative implications for us, it's important to highlight that good stress and bad stress exist. Good stress, known as eustress, motivates us to take action, increases our focus, and helps improve our work performance.

However, eustress is still a stress response, and too much eustress causes a problem. Stress can be acute stress or chronic stress, and both can have detrimental health effects.

As for workplace stress, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines job stress as a harmful physical and emotional response that happens when job demands don't match the employee's needs, resources, or capabilities. NIOSH explains that sometimes it's confused with a challenge, which can be positive — but job stress leaves employees with poor health and low productivity and job satisfaction. 

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10 physical and psychological effects of workplace stress

Recognizing the effects of workplace stress isn't easy, but stress can have long-term effects on our health. It impacts nearly every inch of our bodies, both mentally and physically. Learning how to identify these impacts is how we start to manage our stress. Some of these effects can help us track our stress, like constant worrying, low morale, and trouble sleeping

Here are 10 effects of workplace stress that impact us physically and psychologically:

  1. Lowers our job satisfaction and meaningfulness of work
  2. Increases our risk of cardiovascular diseases 
  3. Gives us high blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  4. Promotes musculoskeletal disorders like muscle strains
  5. Disrupts our eating habits and digestive patterns
  6. Intensifies mental health issues like anxiety and depression
  7. Weakens our immune systems 
  8. Causes long-lasting migraines and routine headaches
  9. Shortens our temper and makes us feel irritated
  10. Makes it difficult to focus and concentrate on tasks

Stress’s impact on our well-being is serious — and we should treat it accordingly. At BetterUp, our coaches are here to help you recognize when workplace stress is taking a toll on your well-being and learn the skills you need to keep it healthy.

How can workplace stress affect your family dynamics?

When we talk about the effects of workplace stress on employees, we have to talk about who else feels the impact of that stress. Our families, loved ones, and partners all feel it, too. All of the added tension leads to more fighting and strains relationships.

It's not just our well-being impacted by workplace stressors but our also families. This can lead to an unhealthy work-life balance and harm family dynamics. 

One study found that the pandemic is the most stressful time of their careers for more than two-thirds of surveyed Americans. It’s especially true for people who work remotely.

The Harvard Business Review explained that the added pressure that employees bring home because of their workplace stress leads to tension between partners. And one of the worst things that partners or family members can do is try to solve the other person's workplace stress. It causes even more stress.

Workplace stress doesn't disappear once you've logged off for the day or left the office — it lingers and contributes to your financial stress, emotional stress, and more. It follows you everywhere until it's managed.


How to identify stress at work

Perhaps, until now, you hadn’t thought about workplace stress. Your stress triggers could be right in front of you, but you haven't connected the dots that it's workplace stress. It's OK, because identifying the effects of workplace stress isn't always obvious right away.

We've compiled a list of eight ways you might be experiencing workplace stress. Take a moment to review them:

  1. Your working conditions force you to work long hours without breaks
  2. In your personal life, you can't stop thinking about work worries
  3. You notice that other employees are experiencing burnout 
  4. Big changes have happened at work, and you're unsure of them
  5. You have high expectations for yourself and don't accept failure
  6. You make more plans and commitments than your calendar allows
  7. Things feel like they're out of control and moving too fast
  8. You don't know what to do or how to handle your situation

How to prevent stress at work

Stress management at work is also about learning how to prevent stress — not just manage it. Although we can't always avoid stress or eliminate it from our lives, it’s possible to prevent it from becoming an overwhelming issue. We can learn how to prevent stress at work in various ways. 

Here are four ways to prevent workplace stress:

1. Don't be afraid to take time off

We need to be mindful of the negative energy and levels of stress we experience. Tracking our stress over time helps us do that. If exhaustion is catching up, you’ll probably need more than just the weekend to recuperate. Taking time to rest and recharge your body helps you return to work with better mental health.

2. Make an effort to learn new things

One study found that focusing on learning new things, either by picking up new skills or acquiring new information, helps us manage the effects of stress. Researchers have found that finding new learning opportunities helps us deal with negative emotions and burnout from stress. It even teaches us new perspectives on our work.

3. Stay as organized as you can

We can feel stressed because we lose our sense of control. Our responsibilities will remain clear if we stay organized. Try listing your tasks in order of priority and leaving detailed notes for yourself about what you need to do. Schedule what you need to do, including downtime or time for self-care, to better prioritize your well-being.

4. Talk about your stress levels with others

Employees who feel unsupported experience more stress. Reach out to your manager about your concerns through an employee assistance program (EAP) or human resources. 


7 common stressors at work

Stressors come from other people, unexpected life events, traumatic memories, and more. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) has found that workplace stress is consistently a significant source of stress for many Americans, with seven common workplace stressors:

  1. Low salaries that don't pay enough
  2. Heavy workloads to manage
  3. Little opportunity to grow or advance
  4. Work that doesn't challenge or engage
  5. Work environments lacking social support
  6. Not enough control over decision-making 
  7. Unclear or conflicting performance expectations


What affects your coping skills?

You might have a handy toolbox full of stress management techniques for much-needed stress relief, but some days, what you know might not cut it. Sometimes, stress can limit the efficacy of your coping skills. If that’s happening to you, it might be time to get inventive or try something new.

If you think stress is limiting your coping skills, here are five factors to consider:

  1. How we view change: Some people thrive off change, while others shrink back and wish things would stay the same. And some change is more overwhelming — like starting a new role at a new company in a new city. 
  2. Our experience with stress: This could be your first experience of job stress, and you don't know how to manage it. Or, you might be reminded of your former toxic workplace when you experience your first bad day at your new job.
  3. Talking it out or remaining silent: While some people aren't afraid to use their voice, others have issues with self-confidence and communication skills, and struggle to articulate their issues. This inconsistency across teams might increase tension.
  4. Experiencing stress elsewhere: Again, stress can stem from any part of your life. Job stress might be the type you’re experiencing, but you could be experiencing contributing stress in your personal life.
  5. How change impacts them directly: New work initiatives and changes affect everyone's roles differently. For some, it's pretty overwhelming, but for others, it doesn't involve them. A change in workflow might be the last straw for your coping abilities. 

How does stress affect your performance at work?

Job stress does both positive and negative things to your work performance. 

Potential health problems might derail your work performance completely, and other work-related stress issues harm your productivity. Stress impacts how alert you are, your problem-solving abilities, and how well you work with others.

You can’t collaborate very well if your stress is overwhelming and making you irritable. Plus, if stress impacts your sleep, you won’t have enough energy to work, and headaches make it hard to focus during the long hours we work. 

But let’s highlight the positive effects of stress in the workplace from eustress. With eustress, your motivation and productivity is high, and you’re intently focused on your work.

Having an adequate challenge helps you enter a flow state, where you can get lost in your tasks. We have to be careful that eustress doesn’t become the norm, as that might shift into distress — but we can be grateful for the inspiration when it comes.


Bottom line: Don't normalize stress

We said that stress is common, and it's true. But we shouldn’t normalize the effects of workplace stress on our lives. How stress affects the workplace is harmful to everyone on the team, and it needs addressing.

Everyone deserves to find stress relief. Whether we do shift work, contract work, or anything else, we need working conditions that value our health. That's why we need to demand that our employers prioritize our physical and mental health. There need to be resources available to manage stress and a company culture that prioritizes employee well-being.

Perhaps your workplace doesn't have anyone voicing those concerns yet. You could be the first. There's no time like the present to start advocating for stress relief.

Find someone to help you learn how to harness the power of your voice. BetterUp can help you strengthen your communication skills and build self-confidence to ensure that your workplace values stress relief and preventing stress.

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Published August 10, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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