It is normal to feel stressed from time to time. When you are faced with demanding situations or events, your body begins to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These prepare our body for a ‘fight-or-flight’ response to cope with challenges or dangers.
In moderate amounts, stress can be beneficial. It can motivate and energise us, enhance our performance, and sharpen our focus. But when stress becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can have negative effects on both our physical and mental wellbeing.
In recent years, a number of studies have found that work is the number one cause of stress in our lives. One 2020 research project by Perkbox found that 79% of employed British adults commonly experience work-related stress. That was a 20% increase on 2018. The subsequent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, including lockdowns, remote working and social isolation certainly have not helped to reduce stress in the workplace.
A 2022 report by the ADP Research Institute found that 45% of UK workers say their work was suffering because of poor mental health.
If work is the top cause of stress in the UK, it is helpful to understand what factors make the workplace stressful. Once you know what triggers stress at work, then you can put measures in place to minimise or prevent it. To help give you these insights, we look at the top 10 causes of stress at work and how to address them.
According to research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), workload is the most reported cause of stress, depression and anxiety.
Having too much work to do, or feeling constantly under pressure to meet deadlines, can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. This is because when employees have too much work, they may feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. They could also feel like they are not meeting expectations, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
If employees are struggling in this way, you ideally need to foster a culture that encourages open communication with managers or others about workload. This allows people to work together to learn better delegation and time management techniques, as well as help them to set clear goals and prioritise tasks. British Red Cross Training’s Mental Health Awareness for Managers course is particularly valuable if you want to help your leaders foster a supportive work environment that prioritises employee wellbeing.
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2. Lack of support
According to The Workplace Health Report, 29% of UK employees have identified a lack of support as a cause of stress at work.
To help prevent workers feeling unsupported, it is wise for managers to encourage communication, provide constructive feedback and ensure that people have the resources they need to perform their tasks effectively. Where employees need to develop new skills, appropriate training can give them confidence in their work. Regular check-ins with employees can be beneficial, as can dedicated Stress Management at Work training for managers. The latter helps leaders explore strategies for managing and preventing stress in their teams.
3. Violence, threats and bullying
The third most common causes of workplace stress identified by the HSE are violence, threats and bullying. These cause stress by straining relationships, eroding trust and morale and – in extreme cases – can make people worry about their physical and psychological safety.
It is extremely important for employers and managers to do all they can to prevent these situations occurring in the first place. Employers should establish clear policies against such behaviours. Building Team Resilience at Work training can help all team members develop transparent communication and promote a supportive environment. It also equips individuals with the skills to adapt, recover, and thrive in the face of challenges.
4. Changes at work
Change can be a stressful experience, especially if it is sudden or unexpected. The HSE publication, Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2022, reports that change at work was the main factor in 11% of work-related mental ill-health cases. Triggers can include things like organisational restructuring, new job responsibilities or the introduction of new technology.
When employees are faced with change, they may feel anxious, uncertain, or overwhelmed. This can lead to problems with concentration and productivity and may encourage people to seek new roles elsewhere. How you manage change depends on the context, but employers and managers can help by being transparent and communicating openly, as well as giving workers support throughout the process.
5. Role uncertainty
Unclear job expectations and role ambiguity can lead to confusion and stress. Employees can become anxious if they have to meet undefined expectations or face conflicting instructions, making it difficult to identify and prioritise tasks. In addition, role uncertainty can lead people to go to work when they are unwell because they feel a poor attendance record makes them more vulnerable to redundancy. According to CIPR this phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’ was observed by 77% of employers during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help avoid stress caused by role uncertainty, employers and managers should ensure that job responsibilities and expectations are clearly communicated. Providing detailed job descriptions, holding regular meetings to clarify roles and responsibilities and encouraging open dialogue can help prevent stress caused by uncertainty. Ensuring employees know that working when unwell does not put their role at risk can also help boost overall wellbeing and decrease stress.
6. Lack of control
Feeling a lack of control over one's work can lead to significant stress. A US study over 20 years found that high stress at work and lack of control over one’s work were correlated with higher mortality rates.
Micromanagement, excessive rules and procedures, limited decision-making authority and lack of autonomy can contribute to a lack of autonomy. When employees believe that they have little say in how their work is done or that their opinions and ideas are not valued, it can lead to a loss of motivation and decreased job satisfaction.
Encouraging communication, involving employees in decision-making processes and allowing flexibility in schedules can help people feel they have more control over their work and reduce stress.
Looking for ways to reduce stress, or want to find new ways to increase resilience within your team?
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7. Poor work-life balance / long hours
The MIND Workplace Wellbeing Index 2021/22 found that 21% of employees do not feel they have a good work-life balance. Indeed, a 2021 study of UK workers found that 65% of job-seekers thought a good work-life balance was more important than better pay.
When employees feel like they are constantly working and never have any time for themselves, it can lead to stress. This stress can be caused not only by long hours, excessive overtime, or a lack of flexibility concerning where and when they work, but also by the demands and responsibilities outside of the workplace.
Balancing personal tasks like home management, attending to family needs, caring for pets, and handling various 'life admin' duties adds another layer of complexity. The juggling act between work and personal life, with its inherent challenges, often intensifies the sense of never-ending work, contributing significantly to overall stress levels.
How employers tackle this issue depends on the nature of the work they do: some jobs require employees to be on-site for specific periods, making flexible working more difficult. However, even if you cannot offer flexible hours or remote working, implementing policies that discourage after-hours work or limit excessive overtime can help maintain boundaries. Providing access to Stress Awareness at Work Training can also help employees build resilience at work and give them the ability to recognise signs of stress. This is important because, the less stressful a person finds their job, the less likely it is to make them feel their work-life balance is out of kilter.
8. Poor physical working conditions
A study in the British Medical Journal found that when a physical working environment is poor, it can lead to stress. Factors such as excessive noise, bad ventilation or too much (or too little) heat or light can make workplace stress worse. When a workplace is unhealthy, it can make it difficult to focus and concentrate, and it can also lead to physical problems such as headaches, fatigue, and nausea.
How employers can improve working conditions depends on their workplace. As a first step, though, they should conduct regular risk assessments and audits to identify and address potential hazards, such as noise, lighting, ventilation, and ergonomic issues. Implementing proper safety protocols, providing necessary personal protective equipment, and maintaining optimal temperature and air quality also contribute to a safer and healthier environment.
9. Lack of career opportunities
Research published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work found that a lack of further career opportunities is a significant risk factor for physical and psychological health. When employees feel their career progression has stalled or there are limited chances for professional development within their current role or organisation, they may experience dissatisfaction, frustration, and a sense of stagnation. The fear of being left behind or becoming less competitive in the job market can also contribute to stress.
To address this issue, employers can provide career development programmes, including training, mentorship and learning opportunities to help employees acquire new skills and develop professionally. Encouraging internal mobility and providing clear routes for promotion within an organisation can offer a sense of progress and growth. Offering regular performance feedback can also help employees feel supported in their growth and help them plan their careers.
10. Personal problems
Stress is not just about the workplace. All of us encounter problems and issues in our personal lives, and these can make us more susceptible to stress at work. Relationship problems, health issues, financial difficulties or other challenges can affect employees' well-being and performance. Research published by Statista found that 60% of respondents regularly feel stress about money, while 48% experience family-related stress. Another study discovered that 39% of UK adults say lack of sleep and money worries are among the main causes of stress in their lives.
Issues like these can easily disrupt an individual’s work-life balance, decrease job satisfaction, strain relationships with their colleagues, and lead to mental and physical health implications. Employers can help by encouraging open and supportive communication that makes workers feel comfortable discussing problems with managers or HR team members. Wellbeing initiatives such as mental health at work training can help individuals practise self-care, manage stress, build resilience and maintain wellbeing.
Need help supporting your team through mental health struggles and stress?
Enrol in our Mental Health Awareness for Managers course now.
How to address the top 10 causes of stress at work
As you have seen, you can address the top 10 causes of stress at work in a number of different ways. Some stressors are relatively simple to resolve. For example, poor physical working conditions can be improved by putting in place practical measures such as improved ventilation or adequate PPE. Other causes of stress can be more complex to deal with. While problems with workload are extremely common, not every workplace has a culture in which employees feel they can discuss these problems freely. This can stand in the way of resolving problems effectively.
One thing that the top 10 causes of stress have in common, though, is that the best approach is to work to prevent or minimise their effect. By addressing problems before employee stress becomes chronic or overwhelming, you can help people maintain their resilience – and prevent negative effects on their health, motivation and productivity.
British Red Cross Training’s Mental Health at Work courses take this approach.
Unlike courses that focus on recognising and dealing with problems after they occur, our training helps individuals practise self-care, manage stress and maintain wellbeing. Get in touch today to learn how our face-to-face, virtual and online courses can help reduce burn-out, boost productivity and improve the overall health of all your employees.