Workers’ stress has risen, but employers can put them at ease

Optimism in the US economy is rising, and Europe appears to have clawed its way back from the brink of financial collapse, but stress in the workplace remains a huge problem for employers and workers alike.

According to recent surveys:

  • More US workers report getting stressed over their jobs than a year ago.
  • A majority of young workers in urban India feel overworked, and two-thirds say they are lonely and blue.
  • Work is the most stressful factor in people’s lives in England and Wales.

“We know that right now, one in six workers is experiencing depression, stress or anxiety, and yet our survey tells us that most managers don’t feel they have had enough training or guidance to support them,” Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said in comments on survey results posted on the England and Wales mental health charitable organisation’s website.

Mind’s research found that 56% of managers said they would like to do more to improve staff mental wellbeing, but said they needed more training. And 34% of 2,060 adults in England and Wales reported that their work life was either very stressful or quite stressful.

Worker stress is a problem elsewhere, too. Sixty-three per cent of 25- to 35-year-olds in urban India responding to a survey conducted for international food producer Cadbury said they work harder than they want because of competitive work environments.

In the US, 83% said they can identify at least one thing that stresses them out in the workplace, according to a survey of 1,019 workers conducted for Everest College, a system of for-profit colleges that focuses on career and vocational training. That’s an increase of 10 percentage points over the previous year.

“When you look at other economic indicators, whether it’s the unemployment rate, whether it’s improvement in the housing market, you’d think that would reduce stress,” said John Swartz, regional director of career services for Everest College. “So the fact that stress is still around isn’t a surprise. But the fact that it jumped that much since 2012 in this survey was certainly surprising.”

Optimism about the US economy jumped in the American Institute of CPAs Business & Industry Economic Outlook Survey for the first quarter. Optimism in the real estate industry also rose sharply. But many workers remain in jobs where they have taken on extra duties at companies where management has been asked to “do more with less” since shortly after the financial crisis began in 2008.

In the Everest College survey, an unreasonable workload was identified as the top work-related stressor by 14% of respondents, an increase of five percentage points from 2012. “Low pay” also was identified by 14% of respondents as the thing that stresses them out most about work.

With regard to workload, Swartz said some organisations made decisions in recent years to try to turn things around quickly instead of thinking about long-term consequences.

“[They were] really not thinking about or taking into consideration the human element of an organisation or company,” Swartz said. “[With] some decisions that were made, we weren’t necessarily thinking three or four years out, and now one can conclude from the survey that we’ve paid the price for it.”

The commute to and from work was most troublesome for 11% of workers, and an additional 11% cited annoying co-workers as the reason they experience stress about their jobs. Those numbers rose two percentage points and one percentage point, respectively, over the previous year.

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has developed tools to help management identify risk factors for work-related stress, decide on practical improvements and gauge organisational performance in tackling the causes of stress.

Six key areas of work design are sources of stress at work if managed poorly, according to the HSE. These are:

  • Demands. These include workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control. This relates to how much say the people have in how they perform their work.
  • Support. Encouragement and resources provided by the organisation and colleagues can contribute to wellbeing.
  • Relationships. This includes a positive work environment and resolving unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role. Understanding duties can reduce stress.
  • Change. Proper management and communication of change can put workers at ease.

Employers can ease stress simply by engaging in dialogue with their employees and opening up channels of communication, Swartz said. He said workers can improve their situation by developing their skills, and he offered three tips for reducing stress:

  • Determine the cause. Workers who report being stressed about their commute, for example, may discover that what they think about during the commute actually is what causes them stress. This can help them find a solution.
  • Take care of yourself. Exercise and a healthy diet can make a difference.
  • Create a better work/life balance. A hobby or activity can take workers’ minds off work and help them avoid burnout.

Ken Tysiac ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.