Stress is the most common work-related illness in the UK and this already significant challenge has worsened through the COVID-19 pandemic.

And shockingly, employee stress statistics reveal that as many as 69% of workers experienced moderate to high-levels of stress in 2020.

Stress in work is often unavoidable and a certain amount of stress may be perceived as acceptable, or even healthy, by an individual. However, when that pressure becomes unmanageable, it becomes an issue which can damage both an employee’s health and their performance.

The prevention and management of work-related stress requires action on behalf of both the individual and the organisation, and managing the causes and spotting the signs of poor mental health are an integral part of this process.

To help you to be proactive about supporting those who are struggling, read this guide to find out the top 10 causes of stress at work. You’ll also learn how to identify the signs of stress at work.

  1. What is work-related stress?
  2. Why do organisations need to manage work-related stress?
  3. Top 10 causes of stress at work
  4. Signs of work-related stress

1. What is work-related stress?

Work-related stress is the response people have to work demands and pressures which exceed their knowledge and ability, or which are beyond their capacity to cope.

Stress in work is often unavoidable and a certain amount of stress may be perceived as acceptable, or even healthy, by an individual.

However, when that pressure becomes unmanageable it can cause burnout, damaging both an employee’s health and their performance.

2. Why do organisations need to manage work-related stress?

It is in employers’ interests to protect their employees from work-related stress for moral, legal and financial reasons.

Firstly, the moral angle. The wellbeing of their employees should be a priority for every organisation, as should providing every one of their employees with an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of their mental health.

Then there are the legal considerations. Work-related stress is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on the day-to-day activities of your employees. If this is the case, then it is the legal duty of organisations to provide reasonable adjustments to support those employees.

Finally, there is the business angle. Work-related stress is a huge cost for organisations, causing the loss of over 15 million days of work, and costing UK organisations over £5 billion annually.

By taking the right steps to support your employees, you can significantly reduce these costs, while cultivating a happier, more productive workforce.

3. Top 10 causes of stress at work

1. Excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines

According to CIPD, workload is the most common cause of work-related stress. If the work volume or the deadlines are outside of your capability, that is likely to become a major source of pressure.

2. Lack of support

Work-related stress is worsened if you (or your employees) are not receiving enough support from colleagues supervisors or managers.

3. Lack of control

Stress is strongly linked to the perception of control. Work-related stress is made worse when you feel that you have little control. Common areas beyond our control at work are:

  • Work processes
  • Decision-making
  • Performance targets

4. Poor working conditions

Your employees (and you) can become stressed if their work environment is uncomfortable, or influences unhealthy behaviours – like minimal movement.

Examples of poor working conditions may include:

  • High levels of noise
  • Lack of personal space
  • Ergonomically unhealthy work stations

5. Work relationships

Difficult or unsupportive relationships with colleagues can become a source of pressure at work. Examples include:

  • Feelings of isolation
  • Feelings of being unfairly treated
  • Being subject to bullying, harassment, or discrimination

6. Work/life balance

Enjoying a good quality of life outside of work is key to build a buffer against work-related stress.

When work/life balance is poor, this buffer is missing. Causes of a poor work/life balance commonly include:

  • Long hours
  • Taking work home
  • Working away from home

7. Job security and development

Stress around job security is a constant source of pressure for many. Issues around job security and performance may include:

  • Worries around the permanence of the role
  • Concerns surrounding development opportunities
  • Concerns surrounding level of pay

8. Organisational change

Change is very common within a workplace, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, you should never underestimate the effects of these changes on your wellbeing and your employees’.

Even seemingly small changes can significantly impact morale and level of work-related stress.

9. Organisational culture

Your organisational culture plays a huge role in the wellbeing of your team, and how comfortable people feel about opening up when they are struggling.

Examples of cultural problems which may cause work-related stress include:

  • An expectation that you will deal with your own issues
  • A culture of presenteeism (working even when you are not healthy enough to do so)
  • A culture of blame (where people are afraid to make mistakes)

10. Management style

Managers play an important role in the mental health of their employees. Managers who are critical, overly-demanding, over-bearing, unsupportive or bullying will inevitably be an enormous source of stress.

4. Signs of workplace stress

1. Working longer hours

Look out for colleagues who are starting early, working late, and working through breaks. You may even notice these coping strategies within your own behaviours.

These are often signs of somebody who is struggling with their workload.

2. Visibly looking tired

It’s not unusual for people who are stressed to have difficulty sleeping at night. If a colleague regularly appears exhausted, it could be a tell-tale stress signal.

3. Increased absence

Look out for colleagues who suddenly start booking more time off than usual. Taking regular, short-term absences for an ongoing problem may be reflective of underlying stress.

4. Uncharacteristic behaviour

It is common for stressed individuals to act out of character. For instance, they might start turning up late, acting aggressively or being unusually quiet.

5. Decline in work performance

It’s incredibly difficult for anyone to perform at their peak if they are experiencing work-related stress. Lack of concentration, indecision, and an inability to complete tasks are all signs to be aware of.

6. Irritability

Irritability and stress often go hand-in-hand. Snappiness, bluntness and being overly-aggressive are symptoms to look out for, particularly if these behaviour patterns are out of character.

7. Withdrawal from work socials

If work is the cause of someone’s stress, then they may begin to withdraw from anything to do with work, including out-of-office events like work socials.

8. Lack of punctuality

Timekeeping often becomes an issue where work-related stress is concerned. If a colleague suddenly starts missing deadlines, then it could be a sign that their workload is getting on top of them.

9. Increased sensitivity

If a colleague is stressed due to work, they may be more sensitive than usual, particularly when it comes to conversation surrounding work.

For example, they may find comments or jokes about their performance more upsetting than they normally would.

10. Lacking energy

Stress can take both a mental and physical toll. If you notice a colleague suddenly seems slow and lethargic, this could be a sign of work-related stress affecting their physical wellbeing.

Be proactive about supporting struggling employees

Now you know the top 10 causes of stress at work, but supporting employees doesn’t always have to be a reactive process.

The best employers will implement both proactive and reactive initiatives to support struggling employees.

By being on the lookout for potential causes or signs of work-related stress, you can stand yourself in good stead to be able to proactively support employees or colleagues with stress.

Once you have identified cases of work-related stress, you can work on the best way to support each individual employee.

By being proactive about supporting your employees, you can drive a compassionate culture throughout your organisation, which will play a significant role in helping employees to perform at their best.