Top 10 causes of stress at work (and what you can do about them)

We all have to contend with workplace stress, and according to the evidence — it’s at an all-time high right now. The proof? 83% of workers in the US now suffer from work-related stress, and businesses regularly lose up to $300 billion annually due to its negative effect on productivity.

When stress levels become too high, it can impact an employee’s physical and mental health in several detrimental ways.

For instance, ‘burnout’ is a workplace phenomenon brought on by work stress that can wreak havoc on one’s personal life and has been linked to several physical health conditions. These include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease

  • Depression

Burnout has become so prevalent that the World Health Organization (WHO) included it in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. Yet, burnout is only one of the significant causes of stress at work, as there are many others.

Whether you’re stressed out over financial issues, a lack of job opportunities, or a particularly toxic coworker – there are almost too many stressors at work to count.

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We’ve put together a list of the top 10 causes of stress at work, as well as ways to mitigate them. So let’s look at ways to improve your work environment and reduce job stress for both yourself and all employees at your organization.

Why Managing Work-Related Stress is a Must for any Organization

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There are many reasons why organizations should care about the stress levels of their employees, which is why stress management is crucial.

First, there’s the moral issue.

Every organization should invest in the well-being of its employees not only to ensure better work performance but also because it’s the right thing to do. It’s no secret that your employees want to know that you care about them and not just about the work they provide.

Beyond that, stressed-out employees that are experiencing burnout are far less productive. According to this study published in the International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, elevated stress levels lead to reduced productivity, while increased satisfaction leads to increased productivity.

As stated before, US companies lose $300 billion each year due to the adverse effects of high levels of stress.

One significant cause is absenteeism, where employees continue to show up each day but get very little work done. There’s also the money companies lose from having to provide time off and treatment for stress-related health problems. So if you want to gain a reputation as a fair organization while earning more revenue annually, you need to take stress management seriously.

There’s also the issue of high employee turnover.

If employees are routinely leaving your company in droves, it’s often a sign that the work environment is particularly stressful, which is precisely what this study found.

Last but not least, it’s your legal duty to ensure the effects of stress aren’t causing employee health problems. If they are, it’s your responsibility to treat the health issues of those employees, as well as make adjustments to make the work environment less stressful.

The Top 10 Causes of Stress at Work

Many stressful situations can arise at work, such as a difficult coworker or a heavy workload that you can’t keep up with. From unrealistic deadlines to a lack of support from managers, there are many ways that work-related stress can begin to manifest.

Without further ado, these are the 10 most common causes of stress that employees report dealing with the most.

#1: A Toxic Work Environment

Many of us have had to deal with a ‘toxic’ workplace at one time or another, much to the detriment of our physical and mental health.

But what makes a workplace toxic?

A toxic work environment or culture is one where drama, chaos, and dysfunction reign supreme — instead of teamwork, accountability, and order. Regular bullying, micromanaging, and harassment are all hallmarks of a toxic workplace.

This type of environment can wreak havoc on employees’ morale, well-being, and overall health. It can be incredibly frustrating to have to continually show up to an office that has such palpable negative energy, which can lead to high-stress levels and burnout.

Beyond its detrimental effect on staff, a toxic workplace does no favors for the business, either.

In fact, toxic work environments cost businesses $44 million per year due to high turnover and lost productivity. Not only that, but the Society of Human Resources Management estimates that 1 in 5 employees have left a toxic workplace at some time in their careers.

Fixing a Toxic Work Environment

With all this evidence, it’s clear that toxicity is a leading source of stress for employees. That’s why you should take measures to improve the quality of your work environment.

How can you do that?

There are several ways, including:

  • Audit your managers and get rid of any fear-based techniques.

  • Communicate meaningfully and effectively while congratulating employees when they do good work.

  • Encourage a feedback culture to combat workplace bullying and harassment.

  • Live by your core values while enforcing them.

These are all candid ways to clean up a toxic office.

#2: An Excessive Workload

76% of employees state that their heavy workload is their most significant stress factor on the job. It’s easy to understand why, as long hours and unrealistic deadlines are bound to cause anyone stress after a while.

In particular, excessive work volume can throw employees’ work-life balance out of whack.

Not only will they have less time to spend with loved ones, but they’re also more likely to worry about deadlines and upcoming tasks when they are at home. That can lead to depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, and other adverse conditions.

There’s also the stigma that burnout only happens to disengaged employees that aren’t passionate about their work. It turns out that’s not the case.

Deloitte conducted a survey on Workplace Burnout, and their findings were surprising. Of the 87% of professionals that claimed they had a burning passion for their work, 64% still reported experiencing elevated levels of stress and burnout. That puts to bed the notion that passionate employees are robots capable of working 100-hour weeks indefinitely.

Managing a Heavy Workload at Your Organization

What can you do to help employees with excessive workloads at your company?

First, it’s crucial to assess the workload of each staff member. That way, if you find employees that have a lot of free time, you can use them to help spread out the heavy workload of another employee.

Also, do your best to evaluate how well each employee is handling their work assignments. It could be that an employee feels overwhelmed by the volume of work, but in actuality, they only need to practice better time management.

The best thing you can do is provide each employee with adequate support so they can speak up and ask for help if they need it.

#3: Overly Demanding/Micro Managers

35% of employees reported their boss was their primary source of stress at work. Reasons included micromanaging, critiquing their work too heavily, or being too demanding. It’s crucial for senior staff to realize the impact they can have on employee well-being and mental health.

Besides managers that engage in bullying or are too demanding, unsupportive managers also cause significant signs of stress in their employees. In fact, an overall lack of support is another leading cause of stress at work, so it goes without saying that an absentee manager can cause some severe anxiety.

Nothing is worse than feeling completely lost on a task while feeling that no one will help you figure it out.

As a manager, how can you ensure that you don’t stress out your employees while keeping them motivated simultaneously?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Communicate and listen. Do your best to keep the lines of communication open with your staff. Listen to their problems and concerns when they arise.

  • Lead by example. Instead of only demanding things all the time, employees will respect that you’re getting your hands dirty and doing the work with them.

  • Give credit where it’s due. Did one of your employees exceed a deadline? If so, go out of your way to congratulate them and reward them to encourage similar behaviors in the future.

#4: Bullying and Harassment

Workplace bullying can cause increased stress and damage to one’s self-esteem. It’s also a more prevalent problem than most think. In fact, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CPID) reports that a quarter of employees believe that bullying in the workplace gets overlooked far too often.

Besides toxic coworkers, managers are also largely guilty of bullying, especially when it comes to aggressive deadlines and heavy workloads.

It’s essential to enact a no-tolerance policy to end bullying and harassment in your organization. Remember, not all bullying will take the form of obvious abuse, name-calling, and the like. Often times it may be more subtle but very real. Thus, you should also have open lines of communication with your employees, where they can discretely report incidents of bullying and harassment.

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#5: A Less Than Ideal Work-Life Balance

7 out of 10 employees in the US feel they don’t dedicate enough time to their personal lives. As such, poor work-life balance is a significant cause of stress for many employees and can cause serious health problems.

Enjoying a high-quality life outside of work is a great way to put a buffer in place to protect you from work-related stress. When we don’t have time to dedicate to the things and people we love, it’s natural to feel depressed or trapped at your job.

If this sounds like you, it may be time to think about switching jobs to something that provides more free time. You can always speak up and tell your manager about your situation if that’s not an option.

It’s essential to check their work-life balance to keep the employees at your organization happy. If they have no free time at all, you either need to hire more staff or better delegate work tasks amongst other employees.

#6: Change at the Workplace

Both short-term and long-term changes to working conditions can cause work-related stress, especially if you don’t implement proper change management.

It’s only natural for us to be wary of changes in our environment, something which dates back to our ancestors. Back then, it was crucial to be able to detect the slightest environmental change to avoid danger. Modern office workers face a similar type of change anxiety, albeit about different things.

For example, implementing a complicated new piece of software can cause stress and anxiety in employees. The same is true for introducing new executives (especially managers) and presenting new initiatives and goals.

How do you fight the resistance to change in your organization?

You can by communicating the change early on, providing proper training tools, and regularly engaging with key stakeholders. First, however, is just the step of acknowledging that change can appear alarming to employees. Start in a place of empathy and you’ll get a lot further.

#7: Tough Coworker Relationships

As the saying goes, you don’t get to choose who you work with — which often leads to conflicting personalities having to collaborate.

This can lead to frustration, arguments, and, you guessed it, workplace stress.

Other issues that can arise include jealousy and an unhealthy level of competitiveness, which can not only cause stress but also negatively affect productivity.

It can be incredibly stressful to continue to show up to a position where you’re forced to interact with people that ignore you, get on your nerves, or don’t pull their fair share of the weight.

Training your managers to stay on the lookout for signs of tension between workers to reduce this type of stress is crucial. Should they arise, sometimes bringing in a mediator can help ease the tension and lead to better working relationships. Ensure that you have an open and comfortable communication policy, so that employees feel comfortable bringing such issues to your attention.

#8: Poor Communication and a Lack of Support

In a study conducted by Perk Box, they found that poor interdepartmental communication was one of the leading causes of stress at work. Without proper communication, employees cannot know which tasks to focus on, which can lead to missed deadlines and unnecessary scolding.

Lack of support is another common cause of stress in the office. If your staff doesn’t have anyone to turn to if they have questions, they’ll get stressed and are more likely to make mistakes. That’s why you need to ensure each department has clear communication in place and someone they can turn to for support.

It’s also integral for departments to communicate with one another to avoid confusion and improve efficiency.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to put a formal communication process in place, such as using project management software, or having recurring meetings. However, before doing this, make sure to get feedback from involved employees. A solution should properly address the concerns of everyone involved.

#9: Financial Concerns and Job Security

Thanks partly to the pandemic of 2020, financial and job security concerns are at an all-time high. In fact, as of February 2022, 65% of Americans reported being stressed out by money and the economy.

Job security is also a growing concern, as COVID-19 meant the end of many businesses and damaged countless others. Add this to conversations about inflation and recession, and employees are understandably concerned.

Be sure to communicate clearly with employees. Let them know how the company is doing. Even if you had a few bad months, they’ll appreciate being in the know, and trust that they won’t be caught off guard by any unexpected news.

#10: A Lack of Future Opportunities

Lastly, working at a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement can be a significant cause of stress for some. It’s important to remember that all your employees will have ambitions and dreams. As such, creating a development culture is a great way to remove this source of stress in your employees.

How do you do that?

You can start by implementing a policy that focuses on promoting from within before looking for outside talent. After that, you can focus on providing opportunities for continued education, such as certification courses that will help employees qualify for positions higher up the corporate ladder.

Concluding thoughts: Top 10 causes of stress at work

Those are the top 10 causes of stress at work that affect the most employees (according to the studies I looked at). From overbearing managers to out-of-control workloads, these 10 stressors can cause severe mental and physical health problems if not kept in check.

Don’t suffer in silence if you’re feeling too much stress at your job. Take action by speaking up to your boss or supervisor. If you’re in charge and you see signs of employee stress, then doing wait till they bubble up. Take action to address them now. You can also consult with coworkers, friends outside of work, and therapists specializing in stress and anxiety.