Stress - Frequently asked questions

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Employee / workerEmployer

This page contains frequently asked on stress in the workplace.

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.’

The initial response of stress to personal or work-related psychological risk factors is in itself, not an illness. 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 psychological risk factors over a long period of time. Severe stress reactions may result from exposure to trauma or violence at work.

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.

I am suffering from work-related stress. What should I do?

You should:

  • consult with a medical professional (doctor, psychologist); and 
  • discuss any work-related issues that you consider to be a problem with your employer.

What are the requirements in the OSH Legislation for dealing with work-related stress?

There are no specific requirements in the OSH legislation that deal with work-related stress. However, general duty of care principals apply to the employer and the employee. Under section 19, 21, and 22, the employer, a self employed person or person in control of the workplace is required to, as far as practicable, provide and maintain a working environment in which employees are not exposed to hazards. Workers have an obligation under section 20(2)(d) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 to report to their employer any situation at the workplace that he or she has reason to believe could constitute a hazard. The employer is required under section 23(K) of the Act to investigate the matter and report back to the worker. 

Employers are also required under regulation 3.1 of the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 to identify and assess each hazard to which a person at the workplace is likely to be exposed and under Section 35(1)(c) of the Act are required to consult with Safety and Health Representatives on any changes to the workplace that may be reasonably expected to affect the health or safety of the employees. This could include changes relating to workload and work practices.

How do I recognise work-related stress in my workplace?

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. 

When an individual is experiencing work-related stress their behaviour and mood may be affected. This can include: 

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
Nervous laughter
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). 

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

What are the causes of work-related stress?

There will be a wide range of difference in individual reactions to pressure from psychosocial risk factors in the workplace. Perceptions of psychosocial risk factors may vary between individuals. What one individual finds as motivating, may adversely affect the health of another. The individual's ability to cope may also vary throughout their lifetime due to a number of influences. Some of these influences include their coping skills, previous experiences, training and personal difficulties (e.g. divorce and death of spouse).

Organisational risk factors of work-related stress

Although there are many work-related risk factors that can lead to a psychological and physical injury, there are eight work-related risk factors that have been widely researched and are known to impact on employee well-being and adverse psychological and physical health. 

These eight work-related risk factors are:

  • Autonomy/control: the amount of authority the employee has over the way they do their job; 
  • Job demands: the amount of workload the employee has to complete, this includes timelines for completing work; 
  • Support: the level of support the employee perceives from management and colleagues; 
  • Role conflict/ambiguity: the extent that the employee’s tasks and duties are clearly defined (ie understaffing can lead to employees doing tasks for more than one position); 
  • Relationships: the extent of good working relationships in the workplace. This can include the presence of bullying and harassment issues in the workplace; 
  • Change: involves planned and unplanned change in the work environment. Changes can occur at three levels: personal (ie changes to position and responsibilities), management (ie new supervisors or processes and procedures), and organisational (ie takeover, restructure or redundancies). 
  • Rewards and recognition: involves rewarding employee efforts and recognising individual and team contributions and achievements within the organisation.
  • Organisational justice: refers to the perceptions of fairness about work procedures and how they are enacted. It involves procedural fairness and relational fairness. Procedural fairness refers to how procedures are implemented within the organisation. Relational fairness refers to the degree of dignity and respect afforded to a worker during the process. . 

Environmental risk factors of work-related stress

Physical and chemical risk factors (as well as biological agents) can influence employees’ comfort and performance within the work environment and contribute to work-related stress. Environmental sources of work-related stress include: 

  • Noise
  • Temperature and humidity
  • Lighting
  • Vibration
  • Air quality
  • Unguarded plant and machinery

Individual risk factors of work-related stress

People respond to work-related stress differently and this can, in part, be related (or contributed) to the person’s previous experiences, coping styles, personality styles, available support and physiological factors which are external to the work environment. 

Differences in people’s response to stress do not reduce employers’ legal duty and responsibility to minimise exposure to work-related stress. 

Why do I need to address work-related stress in my workplace?

Apart from the OSH legislation, work-related stress has other consequences for organisations. Work-related stress does not just affect the individual, it can also be very costly to organisations. 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.

Furthermore, the average cost of worker's compensation claims for work-related stress tends to be nearly double the average cost of other claims. In relation to Workers’ Compensation claims for stress, SafeWork Australia (2013) stated 'the loss of productivity and absence of workers is costing Australian businesses more than $10 billion per year.'

Are the psychological risk factors that lead to work-related stress costly to fix?

Reducing the causes of stress does not need to cost the workplace a lot of money. It may be as simple as reallocating workloads or extending deadlines for projects. Consultation with staff is an important part of identifying and reducing the psychosocial risk factors of work-related stress. 

How do I assess the risk of stress in my workplace?

A risk assessment for psychological risk factors that may lead to psychological and/or physical injuries follows a similar process to a standard risk assessment.   

Basic process for conducting risk assessments of psychological risk factors:

  • Step one: Hazard identification
  • Step two: Consequences 
  • Step three: Identify existing management controls and employee support systems 
  • Step four: Risk Rating

Different methods can be used complimentary to each other to determine the presence of each work-related risk factor.  Such methods include:

Step one: Hazard identification - Hazard identification for psychological injuries follows a similar process to hazard identification for physical injuries or harm to health.  

  • Analysing workplace data: Workplace data may be examined or analysed to determine trends and the presence of psychological risk factor in the workplace. Examples of workplace data includes, but is not limited to, number of grievances related to work-related stress, absenteeism and turnover data, number of worker’s compensation claims for stress. 
  • Direct observations: Often a walk around the workplace which involves informal conversations with employees and directly observing how employees are working and interacting with each other can identify the presence of psychological risk factors the work environment.  ‘Walk arounds’ or direct observation should be conducted as regularly as possible; once a week as a minimum. 
  • Employee surveys:  Employee surveys are designed to take the ‘pulse’ of an organisation or work area at that point in time. Employee surveys are a common method for measuring psychological hazards in the workplace by assessing employees’ perception of the workplace and their work experiences.  Employee surveys are typically a cost effective means to assess the entire workforce in a confidential and anonymous manner compared to other ways to obtain the information such as employee focus groups and interviews for example.  Employee surveys use specific questions to identify the presence of work-related risk factors in the organisation overall and in work location/ groups. Employee surveys can include specific questions that measure the degree of psychological distress and physical symptoms.   

Step two: Consequences 

  • Severity of harm- identifies and assesses the possible psychological injuries from exposure to the psychosocial risk factors. This information may be estimated from existing workplace data such as injury data, workers' compensation claims, sickness absence, and health surveys. 
  • Likelihood of harm- assesses the likelihood that employees' health will be harmed by the psychological risk factors (eg this can be based on the proportion of employees experiencing health effects as identified by the survey).

Step three: Identify existing management controls and employee support systems - identify and assess existing controls and employee support systems that may reduce the risk of harm to health (eg policies, management and employee training, employee assistance program (EAP)). 

Step four: Risk Rating - what is the risk of harm to health to employees from exposure to the psychological risk factors? Consider how existing management controls and employee support systems may reduce the risk (EAP, policies and procedures, management training, stress management training etc).

Risk rating table
Likelihood of injury of harm to health  Consequences of any injury or harm to health  Existing systems
Insignificant   Moderate  Major Catastrophic How do the existing controls and systems impact on the risk rating?
Very Likely   High   Extreme Extreme Extreme    
Likely   Moderate  High  Extreme Extreme
Moderate  Low High Extreme Extreme  
Unlikely  Low  Moderate High Extreme
High Unlikely (rare)   Low  Moderate High High  

It is up to you to determine, the most appropriate measures to assess the risk factors for work-related stress. For further information on risk assessments and choosing an appropriate measure, please contact the Human Factors/ Ergonomics Team at WorkSafe.


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