Inadequate staffing levels are primary cause of workplace stress

One-third of professionals frequently experience excessive pressure at work, according to a global survey by Towers Watson. This level of workplace stress can engender disengagement and absenteeism, which in turn results in reduced productivity.

Inadequate staffing levels were cited as the primary cause of stress by 53% of the employees who responded to the Global Benefits Attitudes survey. The poll gathered responses from more than 22,000 employees in 12 countries. Lack of work/life balance was the second most common cause of stress amongst employees, cited by 40% of respondents.

The research identified a lack of understanding among employers of the causes of stress in their organisations. For instance, just 15% of employers identified lack of staff as a contributing factor. The key concern among employers is the impact of technology enabling professionals to access work out of hours (34%). However, just 8% of employees agreed.

One of the impacts of excessive stress is an increase in the number of sick days taken, according to the research. Those who describe themselves as highly stressed take an average of 4.6 sick days per year, compared with 2.6 days for those reporting low levels of stress. Similarly, presenteeism is more prevalent amongst the highly stressed, with respondents saying they had attended work while ill and unproductive 16 days per year, compared with ten for those experiencing low levels of stress.

The survey also found that employee engagement decreases as stress increases. Of those reporting high stress levels, 57% said they were disengaged. The figure for less stressed workers was just 10%. 

Action points for employers

Only 29% of respondents said their employer promoted a healthy working environment.

“Companies could take more responsibility for educating employees about the benefits of better sleep, physical activity, good nutrition, and a work/life balance in order to keep employees healthy, happy, and productive,” Rebekah Haymes, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, said in a news release.

From a company perspective, effective wellbeing programmes can lead to reduced health insurance claims, as well as increased engagement and talent retention. 

However, the immediate priority for employers should be identifying the real causes of stress in the organisation. Establishing good communication and feedback structures throughout the company is an important step in achieving this, Haymes said.

Samantha White ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.