Here we are in 2021, another challenging year in which it became essential to talk about mental health and the causes of stress in the workplace.
As many of us have shifted to a remote work model, this raises the question: are we working from home, or living at work now? Spinning in a tornado of endless to-dos and being "on" nearly 24/7 is pretty overwhelming. So it’s no surprise that we are seeing growing concerns about escalating stress levels, especially stress in the workplace, where we spend so much of our time.
In this article, we'll take a closer look at the causes of stress that are connected to our work.
What does 'stress in the workplace' mean?
Stress is the strain or tension that we experience as a result of pressures. Even a job you love can have stressful components. If work stress becomes constant, however, it can harm your emotional and your physical health.
Though stress seems similar to fatigue, they are different. Fatigue is an ultimate form of tiredness, often referred to as exhaustion. Stress, on the other hand, is a physical or mental reaction to physical, mental, emotional or other pressures. You should also differentiate stress with a more long-term and much more harsh state - burnout, which has its own causes and treatment strategies.
What causes stress in the workplace? The sources are numerous, and we'll talk about them, but first, it’s important to point out that stress is not always negative. Let's take a closer look at its types.
Types of stress
There are actually two types of stress: positive and negative.
This describes a little shake-up, a feeling of nerves, that can encourage a person to be alert, take a fresh look at an issue, develop a smart solution, and make a leap forward. Called eustress, or positive stress, it may have a positive impact on a person’s mental and physical states, since it:
- Focuses energy
- Feels exciting
- Boosts performance
- Is short-term
The kind of stress we think of more often is negative stress or distress. Negative stress is closely related to work stress causes. It's associated with strong negative emotions and it:
- Causes anxiety
- Feels uncomfortable
- Results in a drop in work performance
- Can lead to or worsen mental and physical issues
Three stages of stress
Stress starts small. In order to eliminate the worst kind - exhaustion, consider the red flags your body and mind raise at the earlier stages, alarm and resistance.
Stage 1: Alarm
This is the stage that occurs right after your exposure to a stressor. Your heart rate increases and your body produces adrenaline, increasing your energy. People in this stage can be very focused, and working at full capacity to resolve whatever caused the stress. At the alarm stage, a person can demonstrate marvelous productivity - not eating, not sleeping, just working.
Stage 2: Resistance
In the second stage, your body tries to return to its normal state after the exposure to the stressor. If the stressor is strong enough or the stress lasts long enough, the initial stress response evolves into the second stage, resistance. If the stress is not resolved, a person adapts and gets used to the higher level of stress. They can feel as though they are functioning perfectly normally, and “handling it”, but in fact it is taking a toll on their body.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
Eventually, if the stress level doesn't decrease, a person will reach the exhaustion stage. Long-term stress causes physical, emotional, and mental resources to be drained, leaving your body without the resources to combat stress. In contrast to the energy of stage one alarm, in stage three, a person experiences less energy and motivation than usual. This can be followed by low productivity, feelings of hopelessness, and a negative impact not just on the individual, but on the team atmosphere as well.
Now, let's consider what causes stress in the workplace.
Common causes of stress in the workplace
Causes of stress at work may vary. Poor management is widely recognized as one of the top causes. However, there are effective strategies to deal with a "bad boss". Other common causes of stress in the workplace can involve personal or external reasons.
Causes of stress at work
Here are some common work-related causes of stress:
- Long working hours
- Tight deadlines
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear or unavailable path to promotion
- Biased or inconsistent payment
- Poor management
- Threat of job loss
Job and skills-related:
- Unclear responsibilities
- Inadequate expectations
- Monotonous or excessively active work
- Pressure to learn new skills just to stay employed
Physical work environment:
- Uncomfortable working environment
- Crisis incidents or instances of workplace injury or death
- Lack of proper resources and equipment
Relationships at work:
- Role conflict
- Lack of support from co-workers or management
- Excessive competitiveness within workgroups
Organization culture issues:
- Toxic environment
Causes of stress at work may also be influenced by factors outside the work environment, including the personality traits and personal experiences of the employee. Stress can be caused by family, financial, or other issues.
The general political, social, or economic situation at any given time can also affect a person's mental state.
How to understand whether you’re stressed: symptoms of stress at work
Regardless of work stress causes, it can have a variety of impacts. Just as you should have regular medical check-ups for your physical health, it's essential to keep your mental state on your radar as well. To do a quick stress self-assessment, check to see if you have any of the following physical, mental, or social stress symptoms.
Physical symptoms due to work stress causes
- Prolonged exhaustion
- Sleeping problems, including insomnia
- Digestive issues
- Muscular tension or pain
- Headaches or dizziness
- Chest pain or heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Jaw or tooth pain
- Mood swings
- Feeling unable to cope with even simple tasks
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty making decisions
- Other cognitive issues
Social symptoms of stress
- Increased absenteeism from work or other activities
- Avoiding work responsibilities
- Decreased work performance or increased errors
- Difficulty establishing or maintaining relationships
- Feelings of frustration and impatience
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
Anywhere People stories and insights
“Wanting to do everything all at once was the reason I got stressed a lot. Becoming a team leader meant that I took on a lot of new responsibilities, and I was eager to do them all. At the same time, I felt like I couldn't give up my QA tasks, so I kept them going also. And on top of that, I decided to take automation courses and started implementing automation on our project. "It would make our lives so much easier, I need to do it," I thought. First, I was excited and just a little overwhelmed. Work was so interesting, I contributed so much. I saw the results of my hard work. But in time, it became obvious that this was too much for one person. Stress became a part of my work-life and nothing good came out of it. From then on, I have tried to keep my eye on my workload, keeping in mind the lesson I learned from my experience.”
It seems to me that a certain routine is important for a person, and you need to develop one. In the past, on some days I slept very little, and on others, I slept unacceptably much. This negatively affects your physical and mental health, and can cause you to stress out about ordinary things. Beware of constantly doing someone else's work. I had to do a lot of support work when I was a PM, despite receiving constant reassurances that this was 'about to end' and I wouldn't have to do it much longer. Support itself is stressful, but if it’s not supposed to be your responsibility, then it’s double stress. Another cause of stress is a poorly balanced schedule, when you don't have time for yourself or for any activities that you might call 'rest'. And among the signs, I would add that if each new task makes you break out in a cold sweat and infuriates you, this is not okay and is a clear sign of stress.
Judging from the experience that my colleagues and I had, you can add inconsistency of life values to the list of non-obvious causes of stress and burnout. A discrepancy between the company’s values and your personal values, can, as you work in a company, cause an accumulation of internal discomfort, anxiety, stress, and even burnout. For example, an employee of a major international company like British American Tobacco (which has an excellent financial/social package, international standards and practices, career development opportunities, etc.), but the employee leads a healthy lifestyle and tries to bring those values to the company’s environment, which does not correspond to the values of the company. Another example is a company that lacks personnel development programmes (hard/soft skills), when personal growth and development are key values for the employee. Low emotional intelligence is another possible cause of burnout. Carrying a daily emotional load potentially increases the danger of stress associated with professional activities. People who have the skills to understand their own emotional states and those of others, and to manage their worries, know how to process rather than accumulate negative experiences, employ stress management tactics, and are more resistant to emotional exhaustion and, as a result, to burnout.
Work stress causes may vary, and the truth is that you are not likely to find a stress-free workplace. We hope the knowledge of crucial stress signs and causes will help you spot changes in your body, mind, and behavior early on. Catching signs of stress early allows you to take measures to eliminate or limit its harmful effects.
If you experience first or second stage stress, let yourself get some rest and make whatever changes you can to your work tasks and working conditions. Strengthen your resistance to stress by getting consistent and sufficient sleep, exercising regularly, and giving yourself the chance to have new opportunities and experiences. These practices can help you prevent the third stage of stress - exhaustion.
If you feel that it's getting difficult to cope with stress, this may be a sign of burnout. Burnout affects both your mind and body. To eliminate your risk, check in with yourself to see if you have any markers of stress at work regularly, at least once each quarter.