Work Stress: Common Sources and How to Handle Them

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⏱ Reading Time: 10 minutes

Do you know how many faces does work stress have?

John graduated college last year, and he enjoys his new marketing job. He wants to impress his boss, so whenever they ask him to take on a new assignment he agrees. But John can’t keep up with the workload…and now he has trouble sleeping.

Mary is a single mother who struggles to make ends meet. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she loses this job, but there’s all this new technology and young hires around the office lately. Mary spends her lunch break in her car, too nauseous to eat, too exhausted to do anything but cry.

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Debbie is also a single mother. But, in addition to raising two teenage daughters, Debbie also cares for her elderly father. His health is declining, which demands more of Debbie’s time, but she’s already spread thin at work. She’s forced to spend less time with her daughters, and worries about asking to leave work early next Tuesday for Dad’s doctor appointment. She’s taken so much time off already…

Pedro knows he’s smart, but he doesn’t feel that way at work. English isn’t his native language and he struggles with accurate translation — by the time he figures out the meaning of things, his colleagues have a head start. Pedro feels like he’ll never catch up, ill-equipped to handle his job demands. Everyday at work makes him feel worse, and he begins to hate his job, calling in sick more frequently. It’s not a lie…he feels sick all the time now.  

Seems like something that can happen anywhere and any time? That’s because it can.

Studies of Stressed Out Workers

Work stress is the biggest source of stress for adults, according to the World Health Organization. Anyone who has ever held a job will likely tell you the same thing.

No matter who you are or what your profession, there are stress factors at work. You’re getting paid to succeed, but there are always obstacles standing in your way. 

Clearing obstacles leads to pressure, and unresolved pressure leads to stress. Effectively coping with job pressures is key to reducing and eliminating job stress.

The most common source of work stress is when you’re presented with a task that doesn’t match your skills and abilities. 

You don’t know how to do this! 

You want to ask for help but don’t want to appear incompetent.

Job stress gets worse when you feel you lack the support of management and colleagues. If you lack control over your work process you can feel a loss of control. That leads to a downward spiral of work stress.

Many factors contribute to a stressful work environment. Poor management is probably the biggest offender. If employees don’t have a clear idea of goals and work processes, you can’t expect them to succeed. 

Disorganized and poorly designed workflow also contributes to job stress. So does the physical location and appearance of your office. Working in a rundown, out-of-date environment is stressful.

Read 7 Ways Organizational Culture Influences Employee Productivity

Poor management leads to work stress

Picture 1. Poor management leads to feelings of anxiety and stress

How Stress Affects Health

According to Canada’s Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, stress is a reaction to a situation. As a result, everyone’s reaction is different. What may emotionally devastate one employee may mean nothing to another. To that degree, stress is entirely dependent on how different people react to the same pressures.

At the same time, there are certain on-the-job stress factors that can’t be ignored. Any job that involves a personal safety risk — like police officers and firefighters — comes with inherent stressors. Likewise, professions that deal with the safety and wellbeing of others — from emergency room employees to crossing guards — also come with a built-in level of stress. 

People are counting on you for their well being, and that’s a lot of pressure. 

Stress takes its toll on the body.

Common Effects of Stress

Some of them are:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood sugar
  • Digestive issues
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Chest pains
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches

Stress affects your mind as well, making you more forgetful, irritable, and emotionally unstable. Unchecked chronic stress can lead to insomnia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity, and a host of other medical issues.

Work stress isn’t only bad for you, it’s bad for the workplace too

If you’re stressed out, you make poor decisions, neglect responsibilities, and lose focus. Not only are you less productive, you could be jeopardizing your safety or the safety of your coworkers.

Read Why Employee Satisfaction Is Important and How to Improve It

Health issues resulting from work stress

Picture 2. Health issues resulting from work stress

Practical Ways To Handle Work Stress

Start Each Day Off Right

All too often, mornings are zeitnot and hectic, fighting traffic or mass transit just to get to work. You’re stressed out before you even get to your job! A good day starts with a good night’s sleep. Breakfast helps too.

Listen to Music Coming and Going

Music heals. It soothes. And it can also set the tone for the start of your day, and ease your tension at the end of day. You’ve probably already got “workout” and “chill out” playlists. Create a “commuting” playlist and fill it with music that makes you feel good about yourself. 

Walk During Lunch Hour

And during your break too. This will not only relieve the tension in your muscles, fresh air and exercise clears your mind and relaxes you. Plus, it’s good to get away from your desk periodically and recharge. 

Don’t Multitask…Mindful task

Zen is all about mindfulness, which is about focusing solely on one task, and one task only. Clear your mind of all other thoughts — there’s just you and that pile of laundry, or a head of lettuce, or a quarterly report, or whatever task lies ahead of you. Focus wholly on the task at hand. When you’re finished go back and check your work, taking pride in a job well done. Too often people try to multitask work assignments and end up with subpar, sloppy work. Be more mindful and you’ll be happier. 

Read How Employee Engagement Can Keep Your Business Alive and Kicking

Stay Organized

Knowing everything’s “in its right place” means one less thing — sometimes a bunch of things — to worry about. Being organized will save you time, making you more productive at work and happier at home. Get rid of things you don’t need, things that clutter your office space.

Dispose of your big old printer (make sure you don’t go Office Space on it, safely dispose it of as a piece of e-waste), remove that pile of paper you last touched two years ago. To feel even better, try not just trash, but sell off things you don’t need. This will give an extra boost to your self-esteem by demonstrating how smart and rational you are in your work (and relieve some portion of your work stress as a side-effect).

Put On A Happy Face

We’re not asking you to pretend to be something you’re not, but would it kill you to smile? Everyone likes positive people, and positivity is contagious. Don’t be the office mope, always complaining about problems. Be positive and be part of the solution.

Being positive is a great stress relief

Picture 3. Being positive is a great stress relief

Combating Work Stress

There are several ways for employers to create a less stressful workplace. Let’s look at how the stressed workers mentioned in the opening are doing: 

Stressor 1: John’s Workload

He’s a young and eager marketing professional but overwhelmed. Omnichannel marketing means stress factors multiply with each new platform or format. If John doesn’t get proper support and training, he’s going to crack, quit, and toss away an opportunity as a satisfying marketing career.

Solution: John — like all new employees — needs training so that he can keep up with the tasks assigned to him. Everything has a learning curve, so give John time to get up to speed. Make sure John knows what to do, and has the skills to do it. Then back off and let John make his own decisions.

Stressor 2: Mary’s Job Insecurity

Mary fears new technology and younger employees will put her out of a job.

Solution: Poor Mary! Dealing with a demanding boss or nasty customers is a challenge for many employees. Add the sense of uncertainty that comes with possible unemployment and Mary’s on an emotional rollercoaster! Mary needs to start by working smarter, not working harder. She needs to keep her spirits up at work, proving her worth to her supervisors and coworkers. But she needs to leave her stress at the office and take care of herself once she gets home.

Eat right and get some exercise, Mary! You’ll feel better body and soul. Mary should talk to a professional to help her sort through the pressures in her life. At the very least Mary should confide her family and friends. Don’t keep those negative emotions bottled up inside. A good support network is a blessing. So is an up-to-date resume, Mary.

Stressor 3: Debbie’s Work-Life Balance

Good employers look for signs of employee stress and react before it becomes an issue.

Solution: Provide access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for those who wish to attend. Many of these programs can offer employees a better work-life balance through respite services and other forms of assistance. In order to maintain a proper work-life balance, Debbie should keep close track of her time, prioritize, and stick to a set schedule. This will allow her to accomplish more in less time and focus on the things in life that are truly important — family and friends. Don’t forget to make time for yourself, Debbie! 

Read Effective Problem Management Techniques

Stressor 4: Pedro’s Frustration

Be grateful for your bilingual employees because they bring cultural diversity (as well as international marketing leads) into the workplace.

Solution: Make sure your staff has the skills and training they need to succeed, especially if it improves communication skills. Consider sending ESL employees to technical English classes, help them to improve their language skills online and/or make your training materials and work signage bilingual. Always consider more effective ways to communicate with co-workers and staff, especially if you’ve got a multilingual or remote workforce.

Find balance at work

Picture 4. Find balance at work

Finding Balance At Work

Be a good boss. Listen to your employees and tell them when they’re doing a good job. Employee engagement keeps your business alive and vital. Even when your employees aren’t hitting the mark, it’s nice to recognize their efforts. 

Respect is a basic human need, and it’s essential for keeping your workforce operating smoothly. Your employees are looking for acceptance and approval. Show your appreciation and it will lessen your staff’s overall stress level. 

An appreciated employee is a motivated employee.

Changing Yourself, Not The Situation

Sure, it’s easy to find simple solutions to simple problems. If your coworker chews too loudly at lunch, move to another table. If your boss demands timeliness, set up a system where you deliver everything five minutes early.

But not everything is simple, and not everything can be avoided or ignored. Sometimes you “just have to deal” with stressful work situations.

According to the American Institute Of Stress, it is not the job but the person/work environment fit that matters.

Even if you can’t change a situation, you can change the way you react to it. Staff meetings give you IBS? Take control. Get there early and come prepared. You have nothing to worry about as long as you’re doing your job to the best of your abilities.

Don’t let stress grind you down to a nub. 

Put your best effort out there in the workplace and then let it go. Hopefully the powers that be will recognize your work ethic and get you additional support if needed.

Worry is 99% wasted energy. 

More than that, it’s detrimental to your health. Put your workplace challenges in perspective and narrow your focus. Don’t allow unnecessary worry to ruin what could be a satisfying career.


Work stress is no joke. The American Institute Of Stress, the Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, and the World Health Organization have all weighed in on the toll of workplace stress and how to combat it.

It’s important to know that you are not alone. Many — if not most — employees report workplace stress.

The onus falls on employers to ease stress in the workplace. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by listening to your employees and responding to their concerns. 

According to the Institute of Stress, employees who felt respected and appreciated reported the lowest levels of work stress.

Nick Huss is a digital entrepreneur and business enthusiast who is constantly seeking and testing new ways for doing business better. When not doing business he plays soccer, travels the world and writes books.

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Work Stress: Common Sources and How to Handle Them was last modified: December 3rd, 2020 by Martina Pranjic
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