Workplace stress can be a significant threat to a business. By being aware of the signs and trigger points, you can better support your staff and avoid the consequences of failing to uphold your duty of care as an employer. In this post, I will be diving into the six key causes of workplace stress as outlined by the Health and Safety Executive’s standardised definition.

1.    Unrealistic workload

The first risk factor of workplace stress is being unable to cope with the demands of a job, specifically when the assigned workload is unreasonable.

In a business, this could look like “restructuring” resource when someone leaves the company, requiring other staff to absorb the extra workload without assessing if it is manageable.

Case study

Diana is an Area Manager. She has responsibility for a large team of people. A fellow manager leaves the business and instead of rehiring, the company assigns their team to Diana.

Diana now has a much wider geographical territory, and her team is significantly larger. As a result, this means more travel, more people to manage, and more problems to resolve without any additional resources or adjustments to her workload.

While it can be tempting to save on budget by not filling a role, the long-term cost of Diana’s potential burnout is going to be much higher. A realistic analysis of an employee’s capacity could avoid this issue.

2.    Lack of control at work

The second cause of workplace stress is having no control over how work is carried out.

It is reasonable to accept that you can’t control everything when you are at work. However, staff have the right to expect some autonomy. Lack of control in a work environment might look like this:

  • Being in an office where you have no control over your own comfort.
  • Being micromanaged about how you complete a job.
  • Not having any flexibility with a role and how you carry out the work.

Case study

Dion is assigned to a big project which they are told will affect their career prospects. Dion feels confident about how they will carry out the work, but they soon learn that another manager is in charge of the project.

The manager prescribes how Dion must complete the project, giving them no chance to explain how they would prefer to work. Dion knows they don’t have the ability to complete the work this way, but they have no choice but to comply – they are being set up to fail.

As business leaders and managers, we need to trust our employees and maintain open and clear communication with them. We can hold people to account if they do not meet objectives but removing all control from someone is a recipe for workplace stress.

3.    Ineffective support

The third cause is a lack of clear communication and support in the workplace.

This might look like managers belittling or marginalising staff who express struggles or concerns. Or it could be an organisation talking a big game when it comes to offering support, but when raising concerns, there is no follow-through or action.

Case study

Persephone has a full-to-bursting caseload. She expresses to her manager that she is at capacity. To give her a break and allow her to complete her work, the manager suspends all new cases for a month.

A week later, new cases inexplicably start rolling in again; when Persephone asks why – she is told that the manager has left and there is no record of her caseload being paused.

She gets told to complete her assigned work, and after the call, Persephone receives a link to the company Employee Assistance Programme suggesting she look at stress management. Very helpful…?

This scenario is a classic case of management being ignorant of the real problem. Changing management without informing people and backtracking on what support was offered is a sure-fire way to cause workplace stress.

4.    Difficult relationships and bullying

Another cause of workplace stress is how relationships at work affect the individual.

Not fitting in with a cliquey team, colleagues leaving you out of social activities, and your boss being chatty with colleagues but cold to you will all contribute to workplace stress.

Case study

Orion is a new employee who has joined a close-knit team and is keen to fit in. On his first day, the team leader makes a “jokey” comment about Orion being a bit strange. Orion notices that the team all go to lunch together, but he never gets invited. He gets the distinct feeling that he is not welcome.

Orion brings his worries up in a 121 with the team leader, hoping to get some acknowledgement. The leader dismisses Orion’s concerns, saying “You’re just not the fit we expected.” Afterwards, the leader tells the whole team about the interaction, casting Orion in the role of a troublemaker.

There is no outright conflict here yet, but it is heading that way. Feeling left out or like you’re not a good fit can leave a person feeling very stressed and possibly bullied.

5.    Lack of clarity in the role

When people are not given the means to fully understand and carry out their role and the responsibilities involved, workplace stress can easily follow. This may look like:

  • a change of roles or expectations without prior communication.
  • not having a clear remit of the authority involved in a role.
  • or being assigned objectives that are unrealistic for their role.

Case study

Jupiter has recently been promoted to team leader. However, his new team is unhappy with this change and refuses to defer to his authority. Jupiter has steep targets to achieve, and because his team isn’t co-operating, he changes some of the ways they work.

His boss informs him that he doesn’t have the authority to make these changes. Jupiter explains that the targets won’t be met without changes, but his boss doesn’t listen.

Jupiter is left feeling unsure of what to do as he is apparently without the authority to make changes to reach his targets.

Without a clear idea of what they can change, it is difficult for someone in a leadership role to uphold those responsibilities. Everyone within a business should be clear about what is expected of them and what resources they have to deliver their goals.

6.    Leaving staff out of the loop during change

Finally, workplace stress can occur when staff are not engaged or informed when a business undergoes changes.

While the average employee doesn’t need to know the exact ins and outs of the business, being kept out of the loop about what the company is experiencing can cause a disconnect, worry, and stress.

Case study

Thermis loves her job, but recently there’s been rumours circulating that the company is in trouble. She gets told in a staff meeting that the company is fine, but there’s a possible restructure on the horizon. Thermis is explicitly told that her job is not at risk.

A few weeks later, Thermis and her colleagues are told that the company has been bought out, and 60% of the staff are finished that day with no prior notice. They find out that the buy-out was approved months ago by the board.

Situations like these cause a tremendous amount of stress. The staff who remain are unlikely to ever trust what the company tells them. In their experience, hearsay is more reliable!

People can adjust and adapt to many things after they have time to process the information, but a lack of honesty and transparency hinders this.

To recap, the six causes of workplace stress – as outlined by the HSE – are:

  1. The demands of the job
  2. How much control an individual has at work
  3. The level of support available
  4. Relationships within business
  5. An individual’s understanding of their role
  6. How the organisation manages change

By knowing these, you can uplift, protect and support your staff, so they’re less likely to experience workplace stress.

When it comes to reducing instances of workplace stress, the best solution is prevention. As an independent HR Consultant, I can help you pinpoint how your staff is struggling and guide you in solving their biggest issues. Get in touch today to explore how your business and its people could benefit.