Health and Safety

What Is Stress in the Workplace?

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“Workplace stress is defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands” (Arendalovic & Ilic).

Stress can be good and bad. Stress is good if it provides us with the energy and motivation to meet our daily challenges both at home and at the workplace. Too much stress can have negative outcomes. These negative outcomes include exhaustion, frustration or dissatisfaction. When stress becomes out of control it becomes costly to companies because it leads to increased absenteeism, lack of enthusiasm for the job, poor performance, and bad attitudes. One of the objectives of Human Resources South Africa is to find ways to reduce the amount of stress in the South African workplace. By understanding the causes of stress listed below Human Resources can then begin to find ways to reduce the amount of stress experienced by employees.

The top ten causes of stress as identified by The Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health are:

  • Lack of control – Workplace stress is at its greatest when employees have no say regarding things that affect them. To reduce stress in this situation requires the management to listen employees.
  • Lack of communication – Poor communication leads to decreased performance and increased stress. Employees have no clue of what is going on. Management can utilise a variety of options to increase communication.
  • No appreciation- Failure to show appreciation generates stress that endangers productivity throughout the company. Management does not have to spend large amounts of money to show appreciation. Methods such as Thank you cards and good comments are also a viable option, they are cheap but they carry a meaningful message.
  • No feedback (good or bad) – Employees need to know whether they are meeting expectations or not. Consistent, written and verbal, personalized feedback is required.
  • Career and job ambiguity – If people are uncertain about their jobs and careers, there is a feeling of helplessness and of being out of control. This leads to stress. In addition to the trusted job descriptions and annual personnel reviews, employees need to understand a broad range of issues that affect the company.
  • Unclear policies and no sense of direction- Lack of focus causes uncertainty and undermines confidence in management. Enforcement of policies and clear communications are essential. Policies can be reinforced through memos, articles, bulletin board postings, personal meetings, and small group discussions.
  • Mistrust and unfairness – These situations keep everyone on edge, create bad attitudes, and lower productivity. Having an open line of communication helps avoid misunderstandings and allows the management to know what people are thinking about your decisions.
  • Pervasive uncertainty – Stress levels increase rapidly when people are confronted by new requirements and procedures. Management are urged to keep people informed this controls stress and increases productivity.
  • Random interruptions – Telephones, pagers, walk-in visits, and spontaneous demands from supervisors all contribute to increased stress. Time management, delegation of responsibilities, and clarification of expectations can reduce these stressors.
  • Workload – Employees are often stressed as a result of too little or too much to do. Managers need to divide responsibilities and help employees prioritize work that must be done. Management must take into account the cost of stress before they increase an employee’s workload.


Arendalovic, I. & Ilić, I. Stress in the workplace – Possible Prevention. Medicine and Biology.Vol.13, No 3,139 – 144.

Collie, D. Overcome the Top 10 Causes of Workplace Stress.

Hillsorient. Stress can be good and bad.

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