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Can "workplace stress" be defined?

We hear a lot about stress, but what is it? Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary defines stress as "the result produced when a structure, system or organism is acted upon by forces that disrupt equilibrium or produce strain". In simpler terms, stress is the result of any emotional, physical, social, economic, or other factors that require a response or change. It is generally believed that some stress is okay (sometimes referred to as "challenge"or "positive stress") but when stress occurs in amounts that you cannot handle, both mental and physical changes may occur.

"Workplace stress" then is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands. In general, the combination of high demands in a job and a low amount of control over the situation can lead to stress.

Stress in the workplace can have many origins or come from one single event. It can impact on both employees and employers alike. As stated by the Canadian Mental Health Association:

Fear of job redundancy, layoffs due to an uncertain economy, increased demands for overtime due to staff cutbacks act as negative stressors. Employees who start to feel the "pressure to perform" can get caught in a downward spiral of increasing effort to meet rising expectations with no increase in job satisfaction. The relentless requirement to work at optimum performance takes its toll in job dissatisfaction, employee turnover, reduced efficiency, illness and even death. Absenteeism, illness, alcoholism, "petty internal politics", bad or snap decisions, indifference and apathy, lack of motivation or creativity are all by-products of an over stressed workplace.

From: Canadian Mental Health Association, "Sources of Workplace Stress" Richmond, British Columbia.


I have heard stress can be both good and bad. Is this true?

Some stress is normal. In fact, it is often what provides us with the energy and motivation to meet our daily challenges both at home and at the workplace. Stress in these situations is the kind that helps you "rise" to a challenge and meet your goals such as deadlines, sales or production targets, or finding new clients. Some people would not consider this challenge a type of stress because, having met the challenge, we are satisfied and happy. However, as with most things, too much stress can have negative impacts. When the feeling of satisfaction turns into exhaustion, frustration or dissatisfaction, or when the challenges at work become too demanding, we begin to see negative signs of stress.


What are examples of things that cause stress at the workplace?

In the workplace, stress can be the result of any number of situations. Some examples include:

Categories of Job StressorsExamples of Sources of Stress
Factors unique to the job
  • workload (overload and underload)
  • pace / variety / meaningfulness of work
  • autonomy (e.g., the ability to make your own decisions about our own job or about specific tasks)
  • shiftwork / hours of work 
  • skills / abilities do not match job demands
  • lack of training and/or preparation (technical and social)
  • lack of appreciation
  • physical environment (noise, air quality, etc)
  • isolation at the workplace (emotional or working alone)
Role in the organization
  • role conflict (conflicting job demands, multiple supervisors/managers)
  • role ambiguity (lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, etc)
  • level of responsibility
Career development
  • under/over-promotion
  • job security (fear of redundancy either from economy, or a lack of tasks or work to do)
  • career development opportunities
  • overall job satisfaction
Relationships at work (Interpersonal)
  • supervisors (conflicts or lack of support)
  • coworkers (conflicts or lack of support)
  • subordinates
  • threat of violence, harassment, etc (threats to personal safety)
  • lack of trust
  • lack of systems in workplace available to report and deal with unacceptable behaviour
Organizational structure/climate
  • participation (or non-participation) in decision-making
  • management style
  • communication patterns (poor communication / information flow)
  • lack of systems in workplace available to respond to concerns
  • not engaging employees when undergoing organizational change
  • lack of perceived fairness (who gets what when, and the processes through which decisions are made). Feelings of unfairness magnify the effects of perceived stress on health.
Work-Life Balance
  • role/responsibility conflicts
  • family exposed to work-related hazards

Adapted from: Murphy, L. R., Occupational Stress Management: Current Status and Future Direction. in Trends in Organizational Behavior, 1995, Vol. 2, p. 1-14, and UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) "Managing the causes of work-related stress: A step-by-step approach using the Management Standards", 2007.


Can stress cause health effects?

Yes, stress can have an impact on your overall health. Our bodies are designed, pre-programmed if you wish, with a set of automatic responses to deal with stress. This system is very effective for the short term "fight or flight" responses we need when faced with an immediate danger. The problem is that our bodies deal with all types of stress in the same way. Experiencing stress for long periods of time (such as lower level but constant stressors at work) will activate this system, but it doesn't get the chance to "turn off". The body's "pre-programmed" response to stress has been called the "Generalized Stress Response" and includes:

  • increased blood pressure
  • increased metabolism (e.g., faster heartbeat, faster respiration)
  • decrease in protein synthesis, intestinal movement (digestion), immune and allergic response systems
  • increased cholesterol and fatty acids in blood for energy production systems
  • localized inflammation (redness, swelling, heat and pain)
  • faster blood clotting
  • increased production of blood sugar for energy
  • increased stomach acids

From: Basic Certification Training Program: Participant's Manual, Copyright© 2006 by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.

Stress can contribute to accidents/injuries by causing people to:

  • sleep badly
  • over-medicate themselves and/or drink excessively
  • feel depressed
  • feel anxious, jittery and nervous
  • feel angry and reckless (often due to a sense of unfairness or injustice)

When people engage in these behaviours or are in these emotional states, they are more likely to:

  • become momentarily (but dangerously) distracted
  • make errors in judgment
  • put their bodies under physical stress, increasing the potential for strains and sprains
  • fail in normal activities that require hand-eye or foot-eye coordination.

Stress can also lead to accidents or injuries directly by not giving the person the control necessary to stop the threat to their physical well-being.

Luckily, there are usually a number of warning signs that help indicate when you are having trouble coping with stress before any severe signs become apparent. These signs are listed below.


How do I know if someone is (or if I am) having trouble coping with stress?

There are many different signs and symptoms that can indicate when someone is having difficulty coping with the amount of stress they are experiencing:

Physical: headaches, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, chest pain, shortness of breath, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, increased perspiration, fatigue, insomnia, frequent illness.

Psychosocial: anxiety, irritability, sadness, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, hypersensitivity, apathy, depression, slowed thinking or racing thoughts; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or of being trapped, lower motivation.

Cognitive: decreased attention, narrowing of perception, forgetfulness, less effective thinking, less problem solving, reduced ability to learn; easily distracted.

Behavioural: overeating or loss of appetite, impatience, quickness to argue, procrastination, increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased smoking, withdrawal or isolation from others, neglect of responsibility, poor job performance, poor personal hygiene, change in religious practices, change in close family relationships.

Below is a quiz from the Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario you can take to help identify your stress levels:

DO YOU FREQUENTLY:  YES   NO 
Neglect your diet?    
Try to do everything yourself?    
Blow up easily?    
Seek unrealistic goals?    
Fail to see the humour in situations others find funny?    
Act rude?    
Make a 'big deal' of everything?    
Look to other people to make things happen?    
Have difficulty making decisions    
Complain you are disorganized?      
Avoid people whose ideas are different from your own?      
Keep everything inside?      
Neglect exercise?      
Have few supportive relationships?      
Use sleeping pills and tranquilizers without a doctor's approval?      
Get too little rest?      
Get angry when you are kept waiting?      
Ignore stress symptoms?      
Put things off until later?      
Think there is only one right way to do something?      
Fail to build relaxation time into your day?      
Gossip?      
Race through the day?      
Spend a lot of time complaining about the past?      
Fail to get a break from noise and crowds?      

Adapted from: What's Your Stress Index? Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (no date).

Interpretation of your score (based on the number of “Yes” selections):

0-5:  There are few hassles in your life.  Make sure though, that you are not trying to deliberately avoid problems.

6-10: You've got your life in fairly good control.  Work on the choices and habits that could still be causing you some unnecessary stress in your life.

11-15: You are approaching the danger zone.  You may be suffering stress-related symptoms and your relationships could be strained.  Think carefully about choices you've made and take relaxation breaks every day.

16-25: Emergency!  It is critical that you stop and re-think how you are living; change your attitudes and pay careful attention to diet, exercise and relaxation.


Do all of these signs or symptoms happen all at once and what level of help should be sought?

No, not normally. The signs and symptoms from stress tend to progress through several phases or stages. The phases can be described as below:

PhaseSigns/SymptomsAction
Phase 1 - Warning
Early warning signs are often more emotional than physical and may take a year or more before they are noticeable.
  • feelings of vague anxiety
  • depression
  • boredom
  • apathy
  • emotional fatigue
  • talking about feelings
  • taking a vacation
  • making a change from regular activities
  • taking time for yourself
Phase 2 - Mild Symptoms
Warning signs have progressed and intensified. Over a period of 6 to 18 months, physical signs may also be evident.
  • sleep disturbances
  • more frequent headaches/colds
  • muscle aches
  • intensified physical and emotional fatigue
  • withdrawal from contact with others
  • irritability
  • intensified depression
  • more aggressive lifestyle changes may be needed.
  • short-term counseling
Phase 3 - Entrenched Cumulative Stress
This phase occurs when the above phases continue to be ignored. Stress starts to create a deeper impact on career, family life and personal well-being.
  • increased use of alcohol, smoking, non-prescription drugs
  • depression
  • physical and emotional fatigue
  • loss of sex drive
  • ulcers
  • marital discord
  • crying spells
  • intense anxiety
  • rigid thinking
  • withdrawal
  • restlessness
  • sleeplessness
The help of medical and psychological professionals is highly recommended.
Phase 4 - Severe/ Debilitating Cumulative Stress Reaction
This phase is often considered "self-destructive" and tends to occur after 5 to10 years of continued stress.
  • careers end prematurely
  • asthma
  • heart conditions
  • severe depression
  • lowered self-esteem/self-confidence
  • inability to perform one's job
  • inability to manage personal life
  • withdrawal
  • uncontrolled anger, grief, rage
  • suicidal or homicidal thinking
  • muscle tremors
  • extreme chronic fatigue
  • over-reaction to minor events
  • agitation
  • frequent accidents
  • carelessness, forgetfulness
  • paranoia
Significant intervention from professionals.

From: Anschuetz, B.L. "The High Cost of Caring: Coping with Workplace Stress" in Sharing: Epilepsy Ontario. Posted 29 November 1999.


What are some general tips for dealing with stress at the workplace?

Since the causes of workplace stress vary greatly, so do the strategies to reduce or prevent it.

Where stress in the workplace is caused, for example, by a physical agent, it is best to control it at its source. If the workplace is too loud, control measures to deal with the noise should be implemented where ever possible. If you are experiencing pain from repetitive strain, workstations can be re-designed to reduce repetitive and strenuous movements. More detailed information and suggestions are located in the many other documents in OSH Answers (such as noise, ergonomics, or violence in the workplace, etc.) or by asking the Inquiries Service.

Job design is also an important factor. Good job design accommodates an employee's mental and physical abilities. In general, the following job design guidelines will help minimize or control workplace stress:

  • the job should be reasonably demanding (but not based on "sheer endurance") and provide the employee with at least a minimum of variety in job tasks
  • the employee should be able to learn on the job and be allowed to continue to learn as their career progresses
  • the job should comprise some area of decision-making that the individual can call his or her own.
  • there should be some degree of social support and recognition in the workplace
  • the employee should feel that the job leads to some sort of desirable future

What can the employer do to help?

Employers should assess the workplace for the risk of stress. Look for pressures at work which could cause high and long lasting levels of stress, and who may be harmed by these pressures. Determine what can be done to prevent the pressures from becoming negative stressors.

Employers can address stress in many ways.

DO

  • Treat all employees in a fair and respectful manner.
  • Take stress seriously and be understanding to staff under too much pressure.
  • Be aware of the signs and symptoms that a person may be having trouble coping with stress.
  • Involve employees in decision-making and allow for their input directly or through committees, etc.
  • Encourage managers to have an understanding attitude and to be proactive by looking for signs of stress among their staff.
  • Provide workplace health and wellness programs that target the true source of the stress. The source of stress at work can be from any number of causes – safety, ergonomics, job demands, etc. Survey the employees and ask them for help identifying the actual cause.  
  • Incorporate stress prevention or positive mental health promotion in policies or your corporate mission statement.
  • Make sure staff have the training, skills and resources they need.
  • Design jobs to allow for a balanced workload. Allow employees to have control over the tasks they do as much as possible.
  • Value and recognize individuals' results and skills.
  • Provide support. Be clear about job expectations.
  • Keep job demands reasonable by providing manageable deadlines, hours of work, and clear duties as well as work that is interesting and varied.
  • Provide access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for those who wish to attend.

DO NOT

  • Do not tolerate bullying or harassment in any form.
  • Do not ignore signs that employees are under pressure or feeling stressed.
  • Do not forget that elements of the workplace itself can be a cause of stress. Stress management training and counselling services can be helpful to individuals, but do not forget to look for the root cause of the stress and to address them as quickly as possible.

Is there anything I can do to help myself deal with the stress I am experiencing at work?

In many cases, the origin of the stress is something that cannot be changed immediately. Therefore, finding ways to help maintain good mental health is essential. There are many ways to be proactive in dealing with stress. In the workplace, you might try some of the following as suggested by the Canadian Mental Health Association:

Learn to relax, take several deep breaths throughout the day, or have regular stretch breaks. Stretching is simple enough to do anywhere and only takes a few seconds.

Take charge of your situation by taking 10 minutes at the beginning of each day to priorize and organize your day. Be honest with your colleagues, but be constructive and make practical suggestions. Be realistic about what you can change.

From: Canadian Mental Health Association, "Sources of Workplace Stress" Richmond, British Columbia.


Are there organizations that can help?*

Yes, there are many. Your family doctor can often recommend a professional for you. Other examples include the Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or associations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) or the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) to name just a few.

  • EAP programs are confidential, short term, counselling services for employees with problems that affect their work performance. The services of EAP providers are often purchased by your company. Check with your human resources department (or equivalent) for contact information.
  • CMHA's programs are meant to ensure that people whose mental health is endangered will find the help needed to cope with crisis, regain confidence, and return to community, family and job.
  • The CCSA promotes informed debate on substance abuse issues, and disseminates information on the nature, and assists organizations involved in substance abuse treatment, prevention and educational programming.

(*We have mentioned these organizations as a means of providing a potentially useful referral. You should contact the organization(s) directly for more information about their services. Please note that mention of these organizations does not represent a recommendation or endorsement by CCOHS of these organizations over others of which you may be aware.)

For more information on mental health, see the OSH Answers:


What else can I do to improve my overall mental health?

Good mental health helps us to achieve balance and cope with stressful times.

Ten general tips for mental health
1.build confidenceidentify your abilities and weaknesses together, accept them build on them and do the best with what you have
2.eat right, keep fita balanced diet, exercise and rest can help you to reduce stress and enjoy life.
3.make time for family and friendsthese relationships need to be nurtured; if taken for granted they will not be there to share life's joys and sorrows.
4.give and accept supportfriends and family relationships thrive when they are "put to the test"
5.create a meaningful budgetfinancial problems cause stress. Over-spending on our "wants" instead of our "needs" is often the culprit.
6.volunteerbeing involved in community gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction that paid work cannot.
7.manage stresswe all have stressors in our lives but learning how to deal with them when they threaten to overwhelm us will maintain our mental health.
8.find strength in numberssharing a problem with others have had similar experiences may help you find a solution and will make you feel less isolated.
9.identify and deal with moodswe all need to find safe and constructive ways to express our feelings of anger, sadness, joy and fear.
10.learn to be at peace with yourselfget to know who you are, what makes you really happy, and learn to balance what you can and cannot change about yourself.

From: Canadian Mental Health Association - National Office

Other mental fitness tips include:

  • Give yourself permission to take a break from your worries and concerns. Recognize that dedicating even a short time every day to your mental fitness will reap significant benefits in terms of feeling rejuvenated and more confident.
  • "Collect" positive emotional moments - Make a point of recalling times when you have experienced pleasure, comfort, tenderness, confidence or other positive things.
  • Do one thing at a time - Be "present" in the moment, whether out for a walk or spending time with friends, turn off your cell phone and your mental "to do" list.
  • Enjoy hobbies - Hobbies can bring balance to your life by allowing you to do something you enjoy because you want to do it.
  • Set personal goals - Goals don't have to be ambitious. They could be as simple as finishing a book, walking around the block every day, learning to play bridge, or calling your friends instead of waiting by the phone. Whatever goal you set, reaching it will build confidence and a sense of satisfaction.
  • Express yourself - Whether in a journal or talking to a wall, expressing yourself after a stressful day can help you gain perspective, release tension, and boost your body's resistance to illness.
  • Laugh - Laughter often really is the best medicine. Even better is sharing something that makes you smile or laugh with someone you know.
  • Treat yourself well - Take some "you" time - whether it's cooking a good meal, having a bubble bath or seeing a movie, do something that brings you joy.

Adapted from: Canadian Mental Health Association Mental Fitness Tips.

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Document last updated on June 7, 2012

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