Introduction to work-related stress

This information discusses stress caused by factors in the work environment. While factors outside the workplace can contribute to a person's overall stress response, this information focuses mainly on stress that has occurred as a result of factors within the workplace. 

Stress can affect everyone so this information is relevant to employees, employers, managers, supervisors, the self-employed, apprentices and trainees. 

Stress in the workplace can affect everyone at one time or another.  

What is work-related stress?

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition, work-related stress is 'the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.'

The WHO advises that ‘stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues and where they have little control over work or how they can cope with its demands and pressures.’

With various stressors imposed in a work environment, employees may respond positively or negatively. Whilst people are generally able to adjust to short-term stressors and are able to continue performing their normal work duties, stress that develops into a long-term issue may affect a person’s psychological and physical health. 

The basis of this reaction comes from instinctive 'fight or flight' reactions to danger.  The stress response is designed to be used in short bursts and then switched off. If it is activated for too long, or the period between stressful situations is too short, then the body has no time to repair itself, and fatigue and damage occurs. The stress hormones then literally begin to destroy the body so, over time, this affects physical and mental health and quality of life in just the same way as exposure to industrial toxins.

Stress is not an injury or disease, however the experience of stress can lead to the development of psychological and physical injuries.

Business case for addressing work-related stress 

As employees’ work-related stress levels increase, organisational performance can be diminished and be measured by the following:

  • A reduction in productivity and efficiency
  • A decline in job satisfaction, morale and cohesion 
  • An increase in absenteeism and sickness absence
  • An increase in employee turnover
  • An increase in accidents and injuries
  • An increase in conflict and a decline in quality of relationships
  • A reduction in client satisfaction
  • Increased health care expenditure and Workers’ Compensation claims.

Psychological injuries as a result of work-related stress can result in accepted Workers’ Compensation Claims. Workers’ Compensation claims for stress usually result in workers being absent from the workplace for long periods of time.  In relation to Workers’ Compensation claims for stress, Safe Work Australia (2013) stated 'the loss of productivity and absence of workers is costing Australian businesses more than $10 billion per year.'

Therefore, it makes good business sense to prevent and manage work-related stress in the workplace. 

Injuries and illness that can result from work-related stress

Harm to employees’ psychological and physical health may occur when employees do not have the ability to cope with the work-related stress or psychological risk factors placed upon them. Individuals may differ in their ability to cope with the psychological risk factors. Some individual factors that influence a person’s ability to cope include previous experiences, coping styles, personality style and available support. 

It is important to remember that because of individual differences, employees may react differently to stressful situations. What one employee may find stressful, another employee may not. Therefore, psychological risk factors and potential injuries should not be dismissed or disregarded on the sole basis that no employees or only one employee has been adversely affected. 

The initial response to personal or work-related stress is in itself not an injury.  The effects are usually of short duration and have no lasting effects once the stressful situation has passed. Acute or chronic harm to health may result when the employee is unable to cope with persistent and sustained exposure to the risk factors over a long period of time. Harm to psychological and physical health may also occur through exposure to a one-off traumatic incident. 

When an employee experiences adverse health effects from work-related stress they may experience symptoms and signs through four channels in their body:  Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, and Behavioural.  The figure below displays the signs and symptoms under each of the channels. 

If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, or have concerns about your health, please consult your medical practitioner.

Physical Cognitive Emotional Behavioural
Increased heart rate (pounding)
Elevated blood pressure
Sweaty palms; tightness in the chest
Tightness in neck/back muscles
Tics or twitching
Other speech difficulties
Pupil dilation
Nausea and/or vomiting
Sleep disturbance
Proneness to accidents
Slumped posture
Shallow breathing
Susceptibility to minor illnesses
Dryness of mouth or throat
Butterflies in stomach
Errors in judging distance
Diminished or exaggerated fantasy life
Reduced creativity
Difficulty in making decisions
Mental confusion
Lack of concentration
Diminished productivity
Lack of attention to detail
Orientation to past
Over-sensitivity to criticism
Lowered self-esteem
Angry outbursts
Feeling ‘up-tight’
Diminished initiative
Lack of interest
Tendency to cry
Critical of oneself and others
Lacking in confidence
Desire to escape
Increased smoking
Aggressive driving
Having accidents
Increased alcohol or drug abuse
Eating too much
Fast (even incoherent) speech
Chewing fingernails

Changes in workplace behaviour may also be observed when an employee is experiencing psychological symptoms and signs. This includes, but not limited to:

  • Increased absenteeism from work
  • Increased tardiness
  • Increased sick leave
  • Decline in productivity and performance standards
  • Impaired concentration or ability to make decisions which increases the risk of injury
  • Reluctance to return to workplace area where the event occurred (particularly in circumstances which involved aggression, violence and trauma). 

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