Job Stress Article prepared and published
by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health).
Job Stress Article, NIOSH Publication
What is job stress?
Stress in the workplace can be defined as the
harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the
requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or
needs of the worker. Workplace stress can lead to poor health and even
The concept of job stress is often confused with
challenge, but these concepts are not the same. Challenge energizes us
psychologically and physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills
and master our jobs. When a challenge is met, we feel relaxed and
satisfied. Thus, challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and
productive work. The importance of challenge in our work lives is
probably what people are referring to when they say "a little bit of
stress is good for you".
What are the Causes of Job Stress?
Nearly everyone agrees that job stress results
from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views
differ, however, on the importance of worker characteristics versus
working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. These differing
viewpoints are important because they suggest different ways to prevent
stress at work.
According to one school of thought, differences in
individual characteristics such as personality and coping style are
most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result
in stress - in other words, what is stressful for one person may not be
a problem for someone else. This viewpoint leads to prevention
strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with
demanding job conditions.
Although the importance of individual differences
cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests that certain working
conditions, such as excessive workload demands and conflicting
expectations, are stressful to most people. Such evidence argues for a
greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of workplace
stress, and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy.
Job Conditions That May Lead to Stress
The Design of Tasks.
Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shiftwork;
hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not
utilize workers' skills, and provide little sense of control.
Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication
in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.
Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and
Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too
many "hats to wear".
Career Concerns. Job
lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid
changes for which workers are unprepared.
Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise,
air pollution, or ergonomic problems.
Job Stress and Health
Stress sets off an alarm in the brain, which
responds by preparing the body for defensive action. The nervous system
is aroused and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the
pulse, deepen respiration, and tense the muscles. This response
(sometimes called the fight or flight response) is important because it
helps us defend against threatening situations. The response is
preprogrammed biologically. Everyone responds in much the same way,
regardless of whether the stressful situation is at work or home.
Short-lived or infrequent episodes of stress pose
little risk. But when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is
kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of
wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage
results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can
become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of injury or
In the past 20 years, many studies have looked at
the relationship between job stress and a variety of ailments. Mood and
sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed
relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related
problems that are quick to develop and are commonly seen in these
studies. These early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize.
But the effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to
see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be
influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, evidence is
rapidly accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in
several types of chronic health problems - especially cardiovascular
disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.
Health care expenditures are nearly 50%
for workers who report high levels of stress.
- Journal of
Occupational and Environmental Medicine
Early Warning Signs of Job Stress
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Short temper
- Upset stomach
- Job dissatisfaction
- Low morale
Job Stress and Health: What the Research Tells Us
Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow
employees little control over the work process increase the risk of
On the basis of research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is
widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of
back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health
problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are
due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle
differences between occupations may also contribute to some of these
Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that
stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set
the stage for injuries at work.
Suicide, Cancer, Ulcers, and
Impaired Immune Function
Some studies suggest a relationship between stressful working
conditions and these health problems. However, more research is needed
before firm conclusions can be drawn.
- Encyclopaedia of Occupational Safety and Health
Stress, Health, and Productivity
Some employers assume that stressful working
conditions are a necessary evil - that companies must turn up the
pressure on workers and set aside health concerns to remain productive
and profitable in today's economy. But research findings challenge this
belief. Studies show that stressful working conditions are actually
associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by
workers to quit their jobs - all of which have a negative effect on the
Recent studies of so-called healthy organizations
suggest that policies benefiting worker health also benefit the bottom
line. A healthy organization is defined as one that has low rates of
illness, injury, and disability in its workforce and is also
competitive in the marketplace. NIOSH research has identified
organizational characteristics associated with both healthy, low-stress
work and high levels of productivity.
Steps Toward Prevention
Low morale, health and job complaints, and
employee turnover often provide the first signs of job stress. But
sometimes there are no clues, especially if employees are fearful of
losing their jobs. Lack of obvious or widespread signs is not a good
reason to dismiss concerns about job stress or minimize the importance
of a prevention program.
As a general rule, actions to reduce job stress
should give top priority to organizational change to improve working
conditions. But even the most conscientious efforts to improve working
conditions are unlikely to eliminate stress completely for all workers.
For this reason, a combination of organizational change and stress
management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at
The excerpts of this job stress article were
reprinted with permission by NIOSH.
here to contact us for information or a free, no obligation