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We hear a lot about stress, but what is it? As stated by the Canadian Mental Health Association:
“Stress is a reaction to a situation – it isn't about the actual situation. We usually feel stressed when we think that the demands of the situation are greater than our resources to deal with that situation. For example, someone who feels comfortable speaking in public may not worry about giving a presentation, while someone who isn't confident in their skills may feel a lot of stress about an upcoming presentation. Common sources of stress may include major life events, like moving or changing jobs. Long-term worries, like a long-term illness or parenting, can also feel stressful. Even daily hassles like dealing with traffic can be a source of stress.”
From: “Stress”, Canadian Mental Health Association, 2018
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. 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.
Stress is the body's response to real or perceived threats. Today most of our problems cannot be solved with a fight or flight response. We have to work through our problems and find constructive solutions.
Stress is about reactions people have to the situations they face. These reactions are not the same from person to person. Some stress is expected and can be a positive force in our lives. 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. This type of stress response is what 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.
Feelings of negative stress usually increase when people believe the demands of a situation are greater than their ability to deal with it. Stress may prevent them from being productive. In some cases, people avoid dealing with a problem entirely, which may make the situation worse and increase stress to them and others around them.
When under a lot of stress, some may find it hard to concentrate, make decisions, and feel confident. Many people experience physical sensations like sweating, a racing heart, or tense muscles.
Stress can also have long term impact on physical health. Headaches and fatigue are common symptoms of being under stress. People are also more likely to get sick or experience a decline in their health.
There is no one cause of stress in the workplace. Every worker is an individual with their professional and personal lives bringing different factors that may influence their reactions to conditions in the workplace. However, there are factors within workplaces that have been shown to influence feelings of stress in the workplace. Some examples include:
|Categories of Job Stressors||Examples of Sources of Stress|
|Task Design|| |
|Role in the organization|| |
|Career development|| |
|Relationships at work (Interpersonal)|| |
|Organizational structure/ climate/ management style|| |
|Work-Life Balance|| |
|Workplace Conditions/ Concerns|| |
Updated and 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.
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. 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".
Common effects of stress on the body include:
Stress can also affect your mood or thinking by:
Stress can contribute to incidents because people often:
When people engage in these behaviours or are in these emotional states, they are more likely to:
Untreated long term (chronic) stress has been reported to be associated with health conditions such as:
There are many strategies that can help control stress and reduce its impact to a person or in 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 and harassment 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:
Employers should assess the workplace for the risk of stress. Look for:
Determine what can be done to prevent the pressures from becoming negative stressors.
Employers can address stress in many ways.
There are many ways to be proactive when dealing with stress. Mental fitness, self help, taking healthy steps, stress management training, and counselling services can be helpful to individuals, but do not forget to look for the root cause(s) of the stress and take steps to address them.
However, in some cases, the origin of the stress is something that cannot be changed immediately. Therefore, finding ways to help maintain personal good mental health is also essential.
Please see the OSH Answers on Mental Health – Dealing with Stress in the Workplace for more information.
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 Use and Addiction (CCSA) to name just a few.
(*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 and workplace health, see the OSH Answers: