Work-related Stress and What Causes It
In the workplace, the primary ways in which stress and mental ill-health manifest are anxiety and depression, which although not always caused directly by work, can be exacerbated by it.
In some cases, the causes of stress do originate at work and this is referred to as work-related stress. Employers have a legal duty to protect their people from this.
What Work-Related Stress Is
If stress is ‘the feeling or state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from perceived adverse or demanding circumstances and the subsequent feeling of not being able to cope’, then work-related stress is when the perceived adverse or demanding circumstances are related specifically to the work environment.
Work-related stress can be defined as ‘the harmful physical and emotional response that occurs when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker’.
Whilst work is good for our mental health, when it is well organized and managed, and whilst a certain level of demand at work is desirable (because demands can motivate us and result in greater application and output), when a person is unable to cope with the demands being placed on them, it can result in work-related stress, which can cause both physical and mental ill-health and can increase work-related incidents, accidents and injuries.
Who It Affects
Work-related stress can affect anyone in any role, at any level of the organisation and when it does, if it is not identified and managed, it can also impact on others who work with the person affected which impacts the wider organisation.
What Causes It
We’ve previously shared the physiological impact that stress has on the brain and body as well as some common causes of stress and some of the more serious mental health issues that stress can result in.
There is evidence that in the context of work, poor organisation of work plays a significant role in the development of mental health issues and here, we explore some of the risk factors most frequently associated with mental health issues in the workplace.
Many of these risk factors can also be attributed to the six areas of work design defined by the HSE.
The level of influence over, or the ability to adjust one’s work has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that a person feels unable to participate in decisions that affect their work, or to choose how to plan, prioritise or carry it out.
The amount of, or type of work that a person has on their plate has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that the workload is greater than the person can reasonably manage, so either too many things to do, or be responsible for, too short deadlines, without enough resources, time or support) and/or things that require excessive complexity and/or difficulty.
Equally, it may be that the workload is significantly less than the person can cope with, so either not enough things to do, or be responsible for, and/or things that underutilise the persons knowledge or skills.
The content of a persons’ work tasks has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that they are un-stimulating or overly monotonous, that they lack variety, or that they are unpleasant.
Role conflict and ambiguity at work has been associated with mental health issues.
It may be that the person experiences incompatible demands from managers or colleagues (role conflict) or that they are unsure of what is expected of them, either because of lack of information or because of poor communication (role ambiguity). Equally, it may be that the person is not clear about how their role impacts the wider organisation.
Reward and a persons’ perception of their ‘worth’ at work has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that the persons perception of their worth is linked to their salary or benefits package, but it is often more broadly linked to the esteem in which the person feels they are held by managers, colleagues, suppliers and clients, and the level of respect, or the treatment they experience as a result. Equally, it may be that the person lacks a sense of job security.
A persons’ sense of being treated fairly at work has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that a persons’ workload, role title, salary, or promotion opportunities, or a perceived lack of consultation in relation to changes or key decisions leads them to feel like they are not being treated fairly, either in comparison to others, or in relation their perception of what they have contributed to the organisation.
The quality of a persons’ relationships at work has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that they feel they receive inadequate support, experience conflict or poor management, or worse, suffer harassment and/or bullying. Equally, it may be that they feel that there is anger amongst colleagues and/or that conflict is not handled appropriately by management.
The environment in which a person works has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that the physical working environment (seating position, noise, light, pollution etc), or that the working hours are not conducive to working effectively and having a personal/family life or maintaining health.
The ethos (values) and culture (behaviours) of an organisation has been associated with mental health issues. It may be that the leadership and management approach, including how work is planned and prioritised, distributed and measured, or how decisions are made and how change is communicated, is not conducive to working effectively and maintaining health. Equally, it may be that conflicting demands of home and work are not supported.
When considering these factors, it is important to acknowledge that people are individuals, and may experience stress due to different reasons and whilst many of the above are possible work-related causes of stress, what creates stress and therefore mental health issues for people is far more complex than this.