by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Melissa had been the ideal worker, always willing to take on new projects, work long hours and weekends — until last year. There were subtle changes at first. Her demeanor turned from always positive to a growing streak of negativism. She began to have problems sleeping. She felt frustrated with a lack of progress within the firm, and a growing sense of no longer being a part of the team. She started to use sick days for the first time — some for a nagging number of illnesses, some for “mental health” days. Luckily for Melissa, she had some friends who recognized the problem she was suffering from was job stress.
What is Job Stress?
Job stress is something we all face as workers — and we all handle it differently. There is no getting around it. But, not all stress is bad, and learning how to deal with and manage stress is critical to our maximizing our job performance, staying safe on the job, and maintaining our physical and mental health. For workers like Melissa, infrequent doses of job stress pose little threat and may be effective in increasing motivation and productivity, but too much — and too prolonged — can lead to a downward spiral — both professionally and personally.
Some jobs, by definition, tend to be higher stress — such as ones that are in dangerous settings (fire, police), that deal with demanding customers (service providers), that have demanding time pressures (healthcare), and that have repetitive detailed work (manufacturing) — but stress is not limited to any one particular job or industry.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states that job stress, now more than ever, poses a threat to the health of workers — and the health of organizations. NIOSH defines job stress 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. Stress also occurs when the situation has high demands and the worker has little or no control over it. Job stress can lead to poor health and injury.
Job Stress Statistics
Numerous studies examining job stress sound an alarming bell about the mental and physical health of American workers:
- A Northwestern National Life study found that 40 percent of workers report their job is “very or extremely stressful.” And that one-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
- A Families and Work Institute study found 26 percent of workers report they are “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”
- A Yale University study found 29 percent of workers feel “quite a bit or extremely stressed at work.”
- A Princeton Survey Research Associates study reports that three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
- A Gallup Poll found that 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job, and nearly half reported that they needed help in learning how to manage it.
- According to an article in Shape Magazine, women are 60 percent more likely to suffer from job stress than men.
Symptoms & Warning Signs of Job Stress
While the causes can be something other than job stress, here are the most common symptoms and early warning signs of job stress and burnout:
- Low morale
- Physical problems (headaches, stomach problems)
Are you approaching Job Burnout? Take our free assessment: Job Burnout Quiz: How Close Are You To Burning Out?
Causes of Job Stress
There are two schools of thought on the causes of job stress.
According to one theory, differences in individual characteristics, such as personality and coping style, are best at predicting what will stress one person but not another. The focus then becomes on developing prevention strategies that help workers find ways to cope with demanding job conditions.
The other theory proposes that certain working conditions are inherently stress-inducing, such as fear of job loss, excessive workload demands, lack of control or clear direction, poor or dangerous physical working conditions, inflexible work hours, and conflicting job expectations. The focus then becomes on eliminating or reducing those work environments as the way to reducing job stress.
Strategies for Managing Job Stress
While many of the methods of preventing job stress need to be developed and supported by the organization, there are things that workers can do to help you better manage job stress.
Here are 10 tips for dealing with the stress from your job:
- Put it in perspective. Jobs are disposable. Your friends, families, and health are not. If your employer expects too much of you, and it’s starting to take its toll on you, start looking for a new job/new employer.
- Modify your job situation. If you really like your employer, but the job has become too stressful (or too boring), ask about tailoring your job to your skills. And if you got promoted into a more stressful position that you just are not able to handle, ask about a lateral transfer — or even a transfer back to your old job (if that’s what you want).
- Get time away. If you feel the stress building, take a break. Walk away from the situation, perhaps walking around the block, sitting on a park bench, taking in a little meditative time. Exercise does wonders for the psyche. But even just finding a quiet place and listening to your iPod can reduce stress.
- Fight through the clutter. Taking the time to organization your desk or workspace can help ease the sense of losing control that comes from too much clutter. Keeping a to-do list — and then crossing things off it — also helps.
- Talk it out. Sometimes the best stress-reducer is simply sharing your stress with someone close to you. The act of talking it out — and getting support and empathy from someone else — is often an excellent way of blowing of steam and reducing stress. Have a support system of trusted people.
- Cultivate allies at work. Just knowing you have one or more co-workers who are willing to assist you in times of stress will reduce your stress level. Just remember to reciprocate and help them when they are in need.
- Find humor in the situation. When you — or the people around you — start taking things too seriously, find a way to break through with laughter. Share a joke or funny story.
- Have realistic expectations. While Americans are working longer hours, we can still only fit so much work into one day. Having unrealistic expectations for what you can accomplish sets you up for failure — and increased stress.
- Nobody is perfect. If you are one of those types that obsess over every detail and micromanage to make sure “everything is perfect,” you need to stop. Change your motto to performing your best, and leave perfection to the gods.
- Maintain a positive attitude (and avoid those without one). Negativism sucks the energy and motivation out of any situation, so avoid it whenever possible. Instead, develop a positive attitude — and learn to reward yourself for little accomplishments (even if no one else does).
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Job Stress
Okay, so it’s a cliche, but your health is everything. You need to take care of yourself, and no job, customer, or boss is worth putting yourself at risk. Find a way out through one or more of our 10 strategies. Take control of your situation — and fix it — and you will have better mental and physical health, as well as better relationships with the people around you.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
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