The Awareness of Stress in the Workplace

A leader’s guide to create a culture of wellbeing

Stress can cause behavioral, emotional, and even physical problems in the workplace. But how do you know when it’s affecting you and your team? 

We all know that stress is one of the toughest challenges to overcome, not just in the workplace but in life in general. Stress causes all kinds of behavioral, emotional, and also physical problems that can affect our lives. It will impact everything from our personal relationships to our productivity at work, and it often happens without us even being aware of it in the first place. 

That’s why developing self-awareness is important. Understanding that you are stressed and identifying the most prominent signs will help you overcome stress before it has a chance to negatively affect you. Unfortunately, that’s a lot easier said than done, especially if you’re already held down by work-related constraints. In this guide, we’ll take look at stress awareness in the workplace and help you understand how to identify it, overcome it, and ultimately encourage your team to fight it. 

Shot of stressed business woman working from home on laptop looking worried, tired and overwhelmed while sitting in the kitchen at home.

What exactly is workplace stress?  

Before trying to fight off a threat, it’s important to understand the enemy and how it functions. Let’s start with a definition of stress. In the most technical sense, stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” It can also be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or even psychological strain. It’s essentially your body’s response to anything demanding that requires your attention. 

Everyone can experience stress. Regardless of how mentally stable or positive you are, certain situations will cause stress and can have a huge impact on your overall well-being. 

What are the signs of stress? 

The signs of stress can often last several months, but there are times when they only last a few minutes. They can occur only when you’re facing a stressful event, or they can occur every single day during work hours. Regardless of the frequency, stress is still stress. It can negatively impact your ability to work and will harm your emotional state. Here are some of the most common signs of stress to look out for. 

  • Anxiety 

  • Irritability 

  • Depressive thoughts 

  • Panic attacks 

  • Lack of positivity 

Stress can also lead to physical symptoms: 

  • Aches and pains across the body 

  • Chest pains 

  • Exhaustion 

  • Trouble sleeping 

  • Headaches 

  • Dizziness 

  • High blood pressure 

  • Muscle tension 

  • Digestive problems 

  • Weakened immune system 

While the physical symptoms can be hard to identify in other people, the behavioral and emotional symptoms are usually very easy to tell. If some team members are acting very differently, then it’s usually a sign that they’re facing a stressful situation or are being held down by stressful thoughts, resulting in reduced productivity and difficulties coping with their work. 

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Is there a difference between workplace stress and regular stress? 

The only difference with workplace stress is that it occurs because of job-related demands and actions. Unfortunately, stress is not isolated to the workplace. This means that stressful situations could be occurring at home for an employee, but those emotions and behavioral changes could be affecting their work. 

As such, it’s possible to deal with workplace-related stress as a team leader or manager. However, you’ll need to gain the trust of each team member in order to help them resolve stressful situations outside of the workplace that are affecting them. 

In general, stress is something that will affect us no matter where we are. Whether you’re in the office or at home, stressful situations can negatively impact us and will eventually bleed into other aspects of our life. While it’s difficult for you to help employees with home-related stress or personal issues, it’s possible to at least reduce the amount of stress they experience at work to stop their problems from getting worse. 

Is all stress bad? 

There are actually different types of stress that can affect us. Negative stress (also known as distress) is usually what reduces our productivity in the workplace and can lead to physical, emotional, and behavioral problems. Positive stress, also known as eustress, is usually something that takes a conscious effort to create. 

However, it’s important not to confuse distress and eustress. There is nothing positive about experiencing typical workplace stress and managers should not incorrectly use eustress as a reason for subjecting their employees to a stressful situation. Eustress is outside the scope of this guide, but it’s still important to keep in mind that typical workplace stress and positive stress have no connection. 

Shot of a young man looking stressed out at home

The negative effects of stress in the workplace 

Stress can affect people in many ways. Everyone reacts to stress differently, but it’s important to understand what the most common effects of stress are in the workplace. It’s also a good idea to understand why a lot of stress is bad and why we need to actively reduce the amount of stress that we face in the workplace. 

Stress: productivity’s enemy 

One of the most common signs of stress in the workplace is reduced productivity. If you feel that your employees aren’t performing at their optimal levels or if some employees are starting to work slowly and inefficiently, then it could be a sign of stress. 

Employee performance takes the biggest hit when your team is faced with stress. It’s important to recognize when their performance is suffering by using data and analytics, but you can also tell if an employee is stressed by their behavior and ability to work within deadlines and limitations. 

The long term impact of long term stress 

Most employees are perfectly fine when facing stressful situations temporarily. This is natural as part of our workplaces. Whenever there’s a crunch time or a situation occurs that is out of our control, we’re expected to pick up the pace and put in a little extra effort to keep our businesses running smoothly. These situations are normal and are considered a part of any workplace culture. Unfortunately, there are times when this can happen a little too often, resulting in some dangerous long-term effects. 

When people are subjected to stressful situations over a long period of time, it can negatively impact their sense of morale and lead to job dissatisfaction. In fact, a NIOSH report on stress revealed that 40% of workers feel that their job is very or extremely stressful. This usually means that the workers are subjected to stressful situations at all times and not just temporarily whenever the business is going through a tough period. 

Being subjected to stressful situations over a long period of time can also lead to serious health conditions. This can include anxiety, depression, insomnia, or even recurring headaches and body pains.  

What causes stress in the workplace? 

There are multiple different causes of stress in the workplace. In fact, every individual in your workplace may experience multiple different sources of stress in a single day. In order to improve your stress awareness, it’s important to understand where you and your employees may encounter stressful situations. 

Work processes 

Perhaps the most common form of workplace stress is caused by work processes. For example, if you’re subjecting yourself or your employees to a massive load of work every day, then it’s going to eventually cause stress because you’re constantly working and are afforded no breaks. 

How meaningful your work feels can also affect stress levels. Employees that repeat the same task over and over again with little progress to their skills or low utilization of their knowledge will eventually feel stressed. It’s important to create workflows that are challenging and allow employees to use their skills and expertise instead of subjecting them to mundane tasks. 

A lack of training can also be a huge problem for both employees and managers. If someone feels that they’re not qualified for a task, then they’ll be subjected to harsh situations and the fear of failure whenever they work. This can cause productivity issues in addition to undue stress on the employee. 

Career development 

Another area that can cause stress is career development. Promotions and demotions are a common process in most workplaces, but they can also lead to stress in the workplace if used incorrectly. For example, an employee that has not been given a chance of promotion may eventually feel stressed because their talents aren’t being recognized. This isn’t the case for every employee, but some may feel inclined to leave the workplace and seek other opportunities if they don’t feel appreciated or valued. 

A lack of job security can also cause stress in employees. If your business isn’t doing very well or you’ve noticed that you’ve hired too many people, then it can lead to a situation where your employees fear redundancy. They’ll come to work feeling like they could lose their job at any moment, forcing them into stressful situations that will affect their productivity and mental state. 

Workplace relationships 

It’s also important to consider workplace relationships and how they affect employees. For example, some supervisors and managers may have a negative relationship with their employees for a variety of reasons. These negative relationships can cause stress because workers will not enjoy listening to requests from their management team if they don’t have a good relationship. 

Threats, harassment, and violence can also cause undue stress. If this is caused by employees then it’s relatively easy to identify and solve. However, if it’s caused by customers and clients, then this can cause a lot of stress on your team and will need to be resolved by someone in a management position. Sometimes, it’s best to cut contracts and relationships with clients or customers that are causing trouble for your employees. Protecting your team like this shows that you care for their well-being which can be a great way to reduce stress. 

Stress is unique to each company 

It’s important to remember that these are the most common areas where workplace stress can occur. Stress awareness relies on you to identify the different ways in which you might experience stress. However, as each company is different, some of these common triggers might not be relevant to your organization. 

A middle-aged man in front of a computer.

Handling stress as a leader 

Leadership is no doubt one of the most stressful positions to have in a workplace. Since you’re responsible for many different things in the workplace, it can be difficult to overcome all of the different challenges that you might face on a regular day. Subjecting yourself to these stressful situations day after day can be taxing on your mental state, hence why it’s important to build stress awareness so you can identify different ways to lighten the load. 

Studies have shown that 88% of leaders report that their workplace is a primary source of stress. This is a staggering number of leaders and it shows that leadership roles will generally increase the amount of stress that somebody faces. In addition, 60% of leaders in the same survey cited their organizations as being unable to provide them with the tools to combat and manage their stress. 

As a business leader, it’s important to identify the situations in which you may face stress. This can be a massive help when it comes to handling leadership stressors and will increase the overall productivity of your entire team if you’re able to handle your responsibilities. 

Sources of stress 

Studies show that the most common sources of stress as a result of leadership demands are the following: 

  • Resources and time 

  • Developing other employees 

  • Establishing and maintaining relationships 

  • High expectations 

  • Personal insecurities 

  • Teamwork and collaboration 

  • Management changes 

  • Lack of clarity from above stressors 

This list shows that resource and time management is one of the biggest sources of stress that leaders face. Considering the responsibility that a leader has, this would be consistent with what a leader is expected to do. Developing other employees also takes its toll on leaders, especially if they are not trained for it. 

Self-care and management 

The same study also showed a number of different ways that leaders successfully managed their own stress. 

  • Exercise and physical workouts was one of the top strategies that leaders employed to manage their stress. This is a general strategy that is suggested to anyone that experiences stress on a regular basis and has been proven to be an effective way to combat stress

  • Boundary maintenance is another common strategy employed by leaders to help maintain their stress levels. Boundary maintenance is a method of unplugging from the workplace and maintaining your distance from other leaders, seniors, and employees. 

  • An outdoor hobby can actually reduce stress and anxiety. Being outside is shown to have a positive impact on your physical, emotional, and mental health. Commonly-cited outdoor hobbies included fishing, gardening, and golfing. 

  • Support networks can also help you reduce the amount of stress that you face. Having friends and family members to talk with and hang out with can help reduce the amount of stress that you face outside of the workplace. 

The survey showed that leaders tend to use a number of sensory pursuits in order to manage stress. There’s a trend of both physical and social activity in stress management techniques. However, organizations can also help leaders reduce the amount of stress they face. This typically involves the following: 

  • Wellness training 

  • Options to telecommute to work 

  • Flexible work schedules 

  • Helping leaders achieve a greater work-life balance 

  • Gym facilities and exercise programs 

Surprisingly, 12% of leaders surveyed said that their organization offered no support to help them manage their stress. This is certainly a trend that needs to change, especially considering the impacts it can have. 

Managing stressed employees 

Leaders should be responsible for helping their employees overcome stressful situations and cope with their stress levels. This requires you to develop stress awareness to help you easily identify when your employees are being affected by common sources of stress. 

Identifying your team’s stress levels 

The common signs of stress should always be considered when looking at your employees. If their productivity or performance has been reduced, or if they’re exhibiting irritability and anxiety, then it’s a good idea to try and identify what could be causing stress. 

Workplace stress can often be broken down into different categories; 

  • Work processes – Involves anything related to the employee’s tasks in the workplace. 

  • Career development – The employee’s future prospects or job security. 

  • Workplace relationships – Conflicts in the workplace or a lack of trust between employees and leaders. 

  • Work-life balance – Tackling family or home responsibilities in addition to work. Can also be related to family and friends being exposed to work-related hazards. 

  • Workplace conditions – Being exposed to unpleasant conditions in the workplace or potential hazards. 

Since every workplace is different, it’s difficult to determine the exact stressors that are affecting your employees. In addition, every employee tends to experience different stressors due to their position or responsibilities. By balancing the load and sharing the responsibility between different team members, you can reduce the load that a single employee experiences. 

This can be a great help in reducing the overall stress that your team faces, but there are also a number of other considerations to keep in mind. 

Dealing with team stress 

By taking the stressors above, we can devise a plan to help our employees reduce the amount of stress they face during day-to-day activities. 

Work processes need to be streamlined in order to make it easy for your employees to get their tasks done. Employees should be able to handle their tasks without much difficulty, but it’s acceptable if they occasionally need to put in extra effort or time to do something. They should also be given a variety of tasks to ensure that they’re not repeating the same mundane tasks over and over again. 

Employees should also feel like their talents are being appreciated. This means giving employees opportunities to advance, but also means allowing them to give feedback and suggestions on how to improve on work processes and projects. Respecting employees and allowing them to shine is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and make them feel like they’re an integral part of your organization. 

Workplace conditions must also be taken into consideration. If you are subjecting your employees to hazardous, dangerous, or unpleasant workplace circumstances, then this needs to be resolved as quickly as possible to help maintain your team’s stress levels. 

Be the solution, not the problem 

Leaders should develop stress awareness that helps to identify when their team is feeling stressed, but there are times where leaders may overstep their boundaries and make things worse for their team. 

For example, it’s important to take an interest in the difficulties that your employees face outside of the workplace, but there is a limit to how much your employees are willing to tell you about their personal life and related stressors. If you push too hard and try to develop strategies for your employees in this way, then they won’t appreciate the invasive approach and may feel even more stressed or agitated. 

This is just one example of knowing when to step in as a leader and when you should give your employees some space to help cope with their own stressors. While a leader should be responsible for helping their team cope, it’s important not to overdo it and make things worse. 

Stress awareness is extremely important for leaders. It helps to identify stressors in the workplace and how to deal with stress before it can negatively affect you and your team. While creating a stress-free environment is almost impossible due to the challenges that a business can face on a regular basis, it’s vital that you gain a deeper understanding of what causes stress, how to cope with it, and also to pay more attention to the signs of stress so that you can address the worst symptoms before they impact your – and your team’s – effectiveness. 

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