Workplace stress is familiar to many of us. The pursuit of achievement, earning money, staff politics, deadlines, tech stress and juggling work and family life all make our work a prime source of potential stress, no matter the industry we work within, be it the private, public or charity sector.
Earlier this year, Jacinda Ardern the Prime Minister of New Zealand, announced she’d step back from the role. Ms Ardern has been open about the stress and challenges that come with the responsibility she’s carried. In an interview with The Guardian in 2019, she discussed the toll that the job can take on her mental health and the importance of taking care of herself.
Ardern stated, “I think anyone in a high-pressure role – and I’m not just talking about politicians – has to find a way of creating boundaries and putting in place some of the things that keep you well, keep you able to function.”
She also spoke about the need for leaders to prioritise mental health and well-being in the workplace, saying “I think it’s really important that we model good behaviour and that we have workplaces that don’t exacerbate people’s stress levels.”
Ardern’s openness about her own experiences with stress and mental health has been widely praised, as it helps to reduce the stigma surrounding these issues and encourages others to seek help when needed.
Work-related stress is a significant problem in today’s fast-paced, competitive workplaces. The demands of work can lead to high levels of stress that can have detrimental effects on both the individual and the organisation. Since 2019, the total annual cost of poor mental health to employers has increased by 25%, costing UK employers up to £56 billion a year – according to a report by Deloitte. Figures show employers can see a return of £5.30 on average for every £1 invested in mental health.
Latest economic modelling from AXA UK and Centre of Economic and Business Research shows work-related stress and burnout is currently costing the UK economy £28bn a year and resulting in 23.3m sick days a year.
Stress in the workplace can have a range of negative effects on employees, including decreased productivity, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and turnover. It can also lead to physical health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. The World Health Organisation has recognised stress in the workplace as a global health epidemic, with research showing that nearly one in four workers experiences work-related stress.
The most common types of stress in the United Kingdom are work-related, confirmed by almost four-fifths of survey respondents in 2020. Furthermore, financial stress often follows the majority of the British population. There is a pronounced generational split in the experiences of stress in the UK. Younger generations, Generation Z in particular, reported often feeling stressed a lot more than baby boomers.
In a 2020 survey of British adults in employment, 79% commonly experienced work-related stress, 20% higher than in 2018. 1% of UK employed adults say they ‘never’ experience workplace stress, while 17% ‘rarely’ experience stress of this kind
In the same survey ‘work-related office politics’ (37%) were the most common cause of work-related stress, followed by ‘lack of interdepartmental communications’ (34%), and ‘the work performance of others’ (33%).
The Dangers of Workplace Stress
The dangers of workplace stress are very real. It’s not overexaggerating to say workplace stress can literally be a matter of life or death. The most well-known examples of stress in the workplace is the case of Karoshi, a Japanese term for death caused by overwork. In Japan, there have been cases of individuals who have died from heart attacks and strokes after working excessively long hours. This extreme example highlights the dangers of workplace stress and the importance of recognising and addressing it before it becomes a serious problem.
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of people going public about their experiences with workplace stress in specific industries. Former Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith, who resigned from the company in 2012 and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he accused the company of a toxic culture that put profit over clients’ interests. He said that long hours, high-pressure work environments, and an expectation to put work ahead of everything else contributed hugely to his stress.
Like Greg Smith, former NBA player Royce White, who struggled with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder while playing in the league, went public about his mental health struggles and criticized the NBA for not doing enough to support players’ mental health.
Research studies have shown that certain industries are more stressful to work in than others. A study published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that healthcare workers, social workers, and teachers experience higher levels of stress than workers in other professions. Another study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that the technology and finance industries are particularly stressful due to factors such as long working hours, job insecurity, and high workloads.
Most stressful industries:
Research has identified several industries as being particularly stressful to work, the following are most stressful in the UK according to these studies:
- Healthcare – A 2018 survey conducted by the British Medical Association found that over 80% of doctors reported feeling stressed or burnt out, with long working hours and heavy workloads being cited as contributing factors. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that healthcare workers, including nurses and doctors, experienced high levels of burnout and job dissatisfaction. And a 2022 study showed the physical and emotional toll rising on NHS workers due to stress, fatigue, burnout and moral injury as well as mental health and wellbeing suffering of medical professionals.
Thankfully MQ’s researchers have been working hard to improve the mental health of healthcare workers.
- Education – A 2019 survey by the National Education Union found that over 80% of teachers in the UK reported feeling stressed, with workload and the pressure of accountability being identified as key stressors. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Educational Management found that teachers in the UK reported high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, which are key components of burnout. And in 2023, teachers surveryed by the National Education Union reported turning to antidepressants to cope with an “unmanageable workload”, 48% said their workload was unmanageable and only 1% said their workload was always manageable. The NEU’s results echo the findings of an unpublished survey for the Department for Education (DfE), revealed by Schools Week. The DfE’s survey found that one in four teachers in England were considering leaving the state sector in the next year, with almost all blaming high workload. The pressure of Ofsted inspections and government policy changes were also blamed by large numbers, followed by pay.
It’s no wonder teachers are under so much stress when the mental health of children and young people is suffering shown in these important statistics.
- Hospitality – Many studies have shown that chefs and hospitality workers experience high levels of stress in their jobs. A report in 2019 stated that eight out of 10 chefs reported poor mental health during their careers and 48% believe not enough was being done to support mental well-being at work. The report ‘At Boiling Point: Addressing Mental Wellbeing in the Professional Kitchens’ surveyed 102 UK chefs and showed staff shortages, lack of time, lack of daylight and limited budget impacted stress levels and poor mental health. Alongside this, a study conducted by Unite Union in New Zealand in 2021 found that over 90% of chefs and hospitality workers surveyed reported feeling stressed at work, with many experiencing physical and emotional symptoms of stress such as headaches, anxiety, and depression. Another study published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management in 2020 found that work stress and burnout were significant predictors of mental health problems among chefs, and that the high-pressure and fast-paced nature of the industry contributed to this. And a 2018 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that chefs had the highest suicide rate among all occupational groups in the United States.
- Legal – A 2019 survey by the Law Society found that over 90% of solicitors in the UK reported feeling stressed, with heavy workloads and long working hours being identified as key stressors. A higher proportion of respondents (28.8%) working in small firms (1-4 partners) reported regularly feeling unable to cope as a result of stress at work, compared to 16.7% of those working in larger firms (26+ partners).
- Media – A 2020 survey by the National Council for the Training of Journalists found that over 80% of journalists in the UK reported feeling stressed, with high workload and pressure to produce content quickly being identified as contributing factors. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that journalists reported high levels of job demands and low levels of job resources, which are predictors of burnout. And Studies have found that, depending on the journalists’ work demands or work locations, 4% to 59% have symptoms of PTSD.
- Social work – Social workers are responsible for helping individuals and families in difficult situations, which can be emotionally demanding and stressful. Additionally, social workers often face challenging working conditions, including high caseloads and limited resources. A study published in the British Journal of Social Work found that social workers reported high levels of emotional exhaustion and job stress.
- Technology – Workers in the technology industry, including software developers and engineers, often face long working hours and tight deadlines. Additionally, the rapid pace of innovation in the industry can lead to a stressful and ever-changing work environment. A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that technology workers reported high levels of job stress due to factors such as high job demands and a lack of control over their work.
- Mental health – Ironically those who work in the mental health field report stress and burnout too. In a 2018 review of burnout in mental health professionals, work-related factors such as workload and relationships at work, were cited as burnout causes. Role clarity, a sense of professional autonomy, a sense of being fairly treated, and access to regular clinical supervision appeared to help professionals with stress levels. Interestingly, staff working in community mental health teams were likely to be more vulnerable to burnout than those working in some specialist community teams.
Whatever industry you work in, stress can affect individuals in any profession. Employers can be aware of the potential for workplace stress and take steps to promote employee well-being and create a supportive work environment.
So how can employers help reduce stress at work? In the past, people who said workplace stress caused mental health and physical health issues were stigmatised. But times are changing and more workplaces recognise the benefits in helping employees manage their stress levels therefore increasing productivity and sustainability in their jobs.
In an upcoming MQ article, we will look at how reducing stress in the workplace helps increase productivity, leading to longer careers and sustainable positions benefitting both companies and individuals.
To help MQ continue to support research into how to help the mental health implications of stress at work, like the studies mentioned above, please consider supporting us.