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Work Stress: Research-Based Causes and Consequences

By Joe Sherwood

Stress is a big problem for employees and organizations. Research has shown that roughly 70% of Americans name work as being a major cause of stress, with 40% reporting feeling tense and stressed out during a typical workday. One study of more than 46,000 U.S employees showed that health care costs were 46% higher for stressed-out workers. High levels of work stress also lead to increased absenteeism and turnover, chronic burnout, or other negative long term health conditions, with serious costs to organizations and society, ranging between .5% and 3% of the gross.

Research has identified several sources of employee stress. Understanding what they are is the first step to avoiding them or designing work practices to reduce their influence. But first, occupational health psychologists differentiate between the causes of stress- called stressors, and the various forms of stress that result, often called strains. First let’s examine things that cause stress at work:

  • Physical stressors: These include regular or harsh contact with loud or irritating noises, dirt, chemical or toxic substances, or poor ergonomic conditions, like having to stare at a computer screen or sit in an awkward/uncomfortable position for hours on end.
  • Task-related stressors: These include high levels of complexity or monotony, frequent disruptions to workflow, high time pressure, and having a heavy work overload. Many jobs, particularly in the service industry, require what psychologists call ‘emotional labor,’ or the act of having to display or project certain emotional states or moods, like a happy demeanor in the face of a hysterical or aggressive customer. Other task-related stressors include having low job control, inconsistent or long work hours, an unfair work environment, and a lack of adequate resources or other organizational constraints.
  • Role stressors: These include confusion about one’s purpose or role in the organization, or having to wear multiple hats that compete with one another. These problems are notorious for employees with more than one boss. Role stressors can also come in the form of competing work and family/home life roles, like in the case of work-family conflict.
  • Social stressors: Poor social interactions with supervisor, coworkers, or others (difficult customers) are listed as social stressors. Others include conflicts, (sexual) harassment, mobbing, bullying, aggression, and abusive supervision.
  • Work-schedule-related stressors: These stressors stem from working time arrangements like shift and night work, long working hours, and having to work excessive overtime hours.
  • Career-related stressors: People also experience stress related to their careers. Some career-related stressors include a sense of job insecurity or poor career opportunities, unemployment, underemployment, and being over-qualified for a job.
  • Traumatic stressors: Some work stressors come as single, traumatic events. Examples include witnessing or being involved in a major accident, or dangerous activities (especially relevant in certain industries and professions like firemen, police, and soldiers.
  • Organizational change-related stressors: Work stressors can also come in the form of organizational change. Some examples of organization changes that cause stress are mergers, downsizing, or implementing new technologies. These stressors can have an added zing because they may result in other stressors, mentioned previously like job insecurity, overtime, and workplace conflicts.

Because work place stressors are so varied, it can only follow suit that the resulting forms of stress are also varied. These stress-reactions can be categorized as strains, including anxiety, exhaustion, burnout, and depression, but also include physiological responses, emotional reactions like mood changes, and behavioral responses.

  • Physiological responses: These include heightened activation of the cardiac system, noted by high blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and/or increased cholesterol. The cardiac system has been shown to be affected by hormones, particularly cortisol, which is excreted when one is stressed. Research has shown that cortisol levels are highest when high stress is combined with inflexible working arrangements, and these increases in cortisol are most prominent when stress lasts for long periods of time. Other long-term effects of these processes include cardiovascular disease (CVD), reduced well-being and mental health. Other physiological responses to stressors include a reduction in immune system functioning, although it’s unclear how stress has this effect.
  • Emotional reactions: These include things like mood disturbances, but long-term emotional reactions like burnout- a long-term stress reaction characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, reduced personal accomplishment, and reduced job satisfaction- are also common.
  • Behavioral responses: For lower levels of stress, performance can actually increase, but during moments of high stress, employees face challenges in their mental capacity, including a experiencing a narrow attention span, and reduced capacity in working memory.

Suffice to say, stress is a big problem for employees and organizations and it is a complex issue where stress triggers vary considerable, along with the ways people respond to them.

In order to reduce workplace stress and support employee health and well-being, it’s important that organizations become aware of these stressors and their impact in order to make changes and implement the programs that can improve overall employee experience and drive better business results.

About the Author

Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR
Senior Vice President, Human Capital Management Research

Dr. Steven Hunt's role at SAP SuccessFactors is focused on guiding the development and implementation of technology-enabled solutions to maximize workforce engagement and productivity.

About SAP HR Research

Our research team advances the art and science of Human Capital Management by studying the relationship between technology, workforce psychology, and business performance. Our researchers and psychologists uncover trends to keep you on the cutting-edge of technology and thought leadership – and help shape the design of SAP SuccessFactors HCM software.

About SAP SuccessFactors

SAP SuccessFactors Human Experience Management (HXM) Suite helps you completely reinvent the entire employee experience. You can shift from traditional HR transactions to engaging, end-to-end experiences, using intelligent technology to make each interaction simpler and more meaningful. And by linking employee feedback to operational data, you’ll understand what’s happening and why, so you can continuously deliver unexpectedly exceptional experiences that keep your business growing.

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