We are held together by resistance. That’s why astronauts start to waste away in zero gravity.

Every year there are new research papers being published confirming the importance of stress in the workplace. We believe that stress at work deserves more careful consideration than most managers give it on a daily basis. Workplace stress should be something that is on a manager’s mind every day and not just when there are complaints from employees or meetings with Human Resources. Today, we are going to take a deep look at the research surrounding stress in the workplace so you may have a better understanding of the general theory of stress, the things that are causing stress, and the consequences of stress to your team and organisation. Finally, we will present some stress management methods that you may not have  considered in the past.

All the way back in 1991 there was a opinion piece written in the Wall Street Journal called “Bless Job Stress”. The author presented the argument that work is inevitably stressful and that his colleagues were never really bothered by the stress they were experiencing day-to-day and furthermore they did not find it harmful. His impression was that if people were so worried about the stress they were experiencing in their job then they should simply quit and allow the many unemployed people who are fed up with the stress of unemployment to take their place. The reasoning is that they would be happy to trade in distress and no pay check for distress and a pay check. Although I agree with a tiny part of the author’s argument, that being unemployed is very distressful, we also have planets of evidence showing that stress in the workplace can have terrible effects on performance. Luckily we have come a long way since the bravado of the early 90s and recent decades have given us a clear look at the causes and costs of workplace stress.

Stress is largely misunderstood and  these misunderstandings lead to avoidable management errors. Stress is both psychological and physical state that arises when an individual’s resources are not enough to cope with the demands of the situation. Stress can be physical, chemical or emotional. Any organisational role that produces negative events for employees is stressful. Stresses transactional dynamic process that keeps shifting according to the role played by stress moderators in the changing economic and financial environment that employees are exposed to. Stress can be used to describe the physical and psychological responses to harsh conditions.

Eustress improves performance in an organisational context by providing fair challenges whereas distress suppresses performance. This makes occupational stress is a very expensive problem based on the effect of organisational stress on productivity.

Chronic stress increases absenteeism, turnover and accidents; creating a major challenge for managers as it destroys productivity through inflated presenteeism.

Stress is at the root of many adverse behavioural and psychological issues. Psychological stress disinhibits the sympathetic nervous system. Increased heart rate, blood pressure and sweating becomes more likely in a feedback manner. The sympathetic nervous system is maladaptive in a modern workplace as it impedes decision-making.


Job Performance


Four main influences:

1. General performance,

2. Human performance,

3. Technical performance,

4. Administrative performance.


Job performance as a result of three factors working together,

  • 1. Skill,
  • 2. Effort,
  • 3. The nature of work conditions.

The success or failure of an organisation is determined by the aggregate performance of individual employees. Stress has a large, nonlinear negative impact on organisational performance and employee health.


levels of performance analysis:

  • productivity,
  • absenteeism,
  • job satisfaction,
  • morale,
  • decision-making abilities,
  • creativity,
  • accuracy,
  • organisational skills,
  • attention to personal appearance,
  • courtesy,
  • cooperation,
  • initiative,
  • alertness,
  • reliability,
  • timekeeping
  • and perseverance.


Employee job performance categories:


  • Contextual Factors:
    • heavy workload,
    • light workload,
    • time pressure,
    • poor working conditions,
    • mistakes,
    • too many decisions,
    • long working hours,
    • reward structure,
    • performance pressure.


  • Role Related Factors:
    • role ambiguity,
    • new role conflict,
    • too little responsibility,
    • lack of decision-making participation,
    • lack of managerial support,
    • job insecurity.


  • Career:
    • under promotion,
    • threat of retirement,
    • thwarted ambition,
    • sense of being trapped,
    • over promotion.


  • Organisational  Environment:
    • organisational structure,
    • lack of honest communication,
    • restrictions on behaviour,
    • uncertainty,
    • office politics,
    • loss of identity,
    • lacking a sense of belonging.


  • Relationships:
    • poor relationship with manager
    • poor relationship with colleagues
    • personality conflicts
    • delegation difficulty


  • Personality Factors:
    • inability to cope with change,
    • interpersonal problems,
    • lack of self-awareness,
    • fear.


  • Miscellaneous Factors


In the UK almost 10 million workdays are lost due to stress each year. Work stress can lead to illness. Occupational stressors can take different forms depending on the environment. Each organization has a unique suite of stressors.


Major causes of stress


Working conditions:

  • workload,
  • understaffing,
  • physical environment,
  • lack of structure.

Nature of job:

Management practices:

  • unrealistic demands,
  • pressure,
  • conflicting role,
  • effort-reward imbalance,
  • lack of support and appreciation,
  • unfair treatment,
  • lack of participation in decision-making,
  • lack of transparency,
  • poor communication.

Life events:

  • work life balance,
  • family personal issues,
  • unexpected life events,
  • sickness.

Financial considerations:

  • salary,
  • lack of appreciation,
  • job insecurity.



Stress Protection

Individual level: 

Organisational level: 

  • management practices,
  • organisational team culture,
  • education,
  • health promotion.

Occupational stress spills over into domestic life. Workaholism increases work>home spillover that gums up relationships. Workaholics are more likely to bring work home.

Work engagement is a combination of high effort and positive affect.  Contrasted with workaholics, engaged employees are intrinsically motivated. Workaholism is a compulsive state that is driven by external factors. The need to work is intense and primarily driven by FEAR, this chronic disinhibition of the FEAR circuits wrecks health by fatiguing the immune system.

The main difference between workaholics and engaged workers is that workaholics lack the positive feelings of the engagers. Work engagement is related to excessive working but not to compulsive working.

Complexity increases nonlinearly with productivity. High productivity comes with additional dimensions of complexity: semirandom environment, nonlinear risk-analysis, innovation outcome analysis etc.  Workplaces that strike the right balance between productivity and health do so by offering stress protection, instead of stress reduction. When stressful situations are treated as learning opportunities, engagement increases.


The Neuroscience of Occupational Stress

There is a strong association between chronic occupational stress and functional changes in the brain. The underlying neurological changes are still not 100% clear to us but we do know that perceived stress is the mediating factor governing the individual stress response. Two people may experience the same stimulus and have different structural and functional alterations occur in their brains. We want to look a little closer at the relationship between perceived workplace stress and cortical activity. We do know there is a significant negative correlation between burnout and cortical activity in the  frontopolar and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Research in this area provides a neural basis for understanding occupational stress, the effects of which are distributed across the prefrontal cortex.

Workplace stress is a major health concern all over the world. Being chronically exposed to stress in the workplace is associated with myriad of mental health issues such as depression. There is a tight relationship between health and workplace stress. Excessive demands at work coupled with a loss of control over one’s job are contributive factors to burnout. People suffering from occupational burnout present a wide range of symptoms which include:

  • fatigue,
  • concentration and memory problems,
  • aches and pains,
  • sleepiness,
  • irritability,
  • and feeling emotionally drained.

Prior research using neuroimaging have consistently shown that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is very important to the regulation of stress. The PFC regulates stress, in part by deciding which events a person experiences as stressful. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we see that the medial PFC along with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) regulates our response to stress. This was measured, in part by making use of the Montréal Imaging Stress Task. Acute bouts of stress in people who were otherwise healthy triggers a deterioration of working memory related activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DL PFC). Unfortunately, there have not been very many imaging studies investigating the relationship between occupational stress and the human brain.

In one study, participants experiencing a high level of chronic occupational stress exhibited reduced activity in their orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VL PFC) and midbrain. We also have evidence of a strong connection between high work demands and lower cortical activity in the left DL PFC. Despite this useful information, we do not have very many studies that link all this to self-reported occupational stress.

Perceived stress is the subjective evaluation of an experience in which the individual believes they have limited control over the situation and inadequate resources to cope with what is happening to them. This despair and feeling of chaos combines to trigger a cascading, often reinforcing, stress response. A group of people may experience a similar negative event but their subjective evaluation of the event will determine the impact on their psychological well-being. This impact will be different for each person. People who are suffering from occupational burnout show significantly less grey matter volume in the ACC and DL PFC in addition to reduced caudate nucleus and putamen volumes. We also observe thinning of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) in people suffering from occupational burnout.

Another feature of people suffering from burnout is a weaker connection between the DL PFC and the amygdala. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) measures emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation. Higher depersonalisation scores are correlated with decreased blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) signal in the right DL PFC and middle frontal gyrus as well as reduced BOLD signal in the bilateral precuneus. We also know that occupational stress is linked to a reduction of limbic 5-HT1A receptor and a disruption of functionality within the ACC and mPFC. A new development in the field of neuroimaging known as multichannel near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) allows us to have a non-invasive look at spatiotemporal neural activity. NIRS is easier to use, is not thrown off by fidgeting participants, is cheaper than fMRI and provides higher resolution images.

When we measure stress using NIRS we gain additional insights into how the structure of the brain is affected by occupational stress. We already know that occupational burnout is tightly linked to job strain and BDI score. Higher demands in professional life are linked to a reduction of cortical activity in the left frontopolar region. NIRS Scans show reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex when individuals are experiencing high levels of occupational stress.


Measuring occupational stress

So far there is no proven association between the strain of the job and cortical activity in the OFC. The Job-Demand Control model explains that job strain is job demands divided by job control. Both factors exert different pressures on the functional network of the brain and so measuring job strain alone may not reveal the true relationship between occupational stress and alterations in brain structure and function.


D / C = S

[D= Demands | C= Control | S= Strain]


The DLPFC is responsible for a wide range of cognitive functions including the management of stored information, the execution of memory strategies and working memory. The DLPFC is responsible for planning and executing the behaviour sets that are required for goal-directed action and is critical to cognitive control. In people suffering from occupational burnout we see a reduction in cortical activity over there bilateral frontopolar cortex. The FPC is important for:

  • reasoning,
  • problem-solving,
  • general learning,
  • memory retrieval,
  • exploration,
  • relational reasoning,
  • coordination of multiple tasks (multitasking).


Typical of the behaviour we see from people suffering from occupational burnout includes:

  • frequent under estimations of workload
  • repeated acceptance of high workloads,
  • belief that the situation can be managed by increasing work hours,
  • and other maladaptive coping strategies.

Occupational burnout interferes with the DLPFC and FPC-mediated cognitive responses that would normally allow people to cope with stress. The association between occupational burnout and severe reductions in the cortical activity in the prefrontal cortex provide a foundation to build a neurological understanding of occupational stress.

We are various ways that we can measure the outcomes of occupational stress on the brain. The first is the Beck Depression Inventory, these 21 questions allow us to measure the severity of depressive symptoms. Another is the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, this gives us measurements of personal burnout, the degree of exhaustion, both physical and psychological, that people are experiencing; and  occupational burnout, the degree of psychological and physical exhaustion that a person is experiencing specifically in relation to their work. Finally, we can learn a lot from the The Job Content Questionnaire (JCQ) which measures:

  • how much control an individual has over their job,
  • how much of an opportunity do they have to learn new things,
  • engagement in creative work,
  • level of non-repetitive work,
  • ability to make their own decisions,
  • opportunities to exhibit high levels of skill,
  • freedom to make decisions,
  • task variety,
  • opportunities for personal development,
  • deadline pressure,
  • work difficulty,
  • weight of workload,
  • requirements for extended concentration,
  • environmental chaos,
  • and if there’s enough staff to achieve management’s goals.



Evidence of a stressed out workforce

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work ( EU-OSHA), has found work-related stress, especially psychosocial stress and its negative health and economic consequences are damaging European workplaces. Over the last few decades, there has been a dramatic change in European workplaces. This has created brand-new occupational health challenges for managers and HR professionals. Challenges related to globalisation, the free market, new technology and new approached to work design are important triggers. Sociologically speaking, the life of most workers is being affected by the acceleration of modern life in general. We often hear people complaining about the intensity of daily work, accelerating time pressure, longer hours, feeling the necessity to multitask and the demand to constantly learn new things just to maintain the status quo. It is very much like when Alice returned to Wonderland where the Queen of Hearts told her, “in my kingdom you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place, and if you want to go anywhere you must run twice as fast”. This is what the modern European worker is experiencing.

It is not all bad, most of these changes actually provide opportunities for self improvement. However, when these changes are not well managed, they cause more psychosocial stress and this produces terrible outcomes for the health of the employee and organisation. All the research so far tends to demonstrate that work design significantly affects the stress levels of employees and stress is related to a large group of health problems. I was studying the data from the EU Labor Force Survey and found that close to 28% of the people surveyed, which represents 61.6 million European workers, reported that their mental well-being had been negatively affected by workplace stress.

The most common complaint was having too much work to do within a short time, 23% had this problem. Stress, depression or anxiety were reported to be the most serious health problems by 14% of the respondents. In a follow-up study called the European Working Conditions Survey, we learned that 45% of workers were experiencing some sort of significant change within their organisation that affected their work environment within the last three years and 62% reported that they were consistently having to work to very tight deadlines. Data from the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) found that 79% of European managers are concerned about stress in their workplaces. Paradoxically, fewer than 30% of European organisations have set procedures for dealing with workplace stress. ESENER found that more than 40% of managers in Europe considered psychosocial risks more difficult to handle than traditional occupational health risks.



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