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Stress at Work


Explanations > Stress > Stress at Work

Unpleasant environment | Lack of control | Responsibility without authority No job satisfaction | Not enough time | No feedback | Conflict | Cultural mismatch | Work-life balance | Change | Threat of job loss | Change | SuppressionSo what?


We spend a lot of time at work, where we may find great fulfilment and meaning in our lives. Unfortunately, many of us are more likely to find it a place of stress and discomfort. Here are a number of factors that are likely to increase the stress a person may feel at work.

Unpleasant environment

Many modern offices and workplaces are rather pleasant, with air conditioning, ergonomic seating, coffee, plants and so on. But it was not always like this and is still not all like this.

Environments which are hazardous put us always on our guard, watching for things that may fall, toxic leaks, dangerous machinery and so on. Even simple things like dirty toilets make us uncomfortable and fearful for our health.

If you are faced with such a workplace, other than working to make the whole place safer, you can focus on your particular area, tidying up, cleaning and making things generally healthier.

Lack of control

We have a deep need for a sense of control and losing or reducing this leads to uncertainty and stress.

Some jobs are very precise and straightforward and the person has a lot of control over what they are doing, whether it is sweeping the floor or programming a computer. In such deterministic environments, the person is in control and if there are any problems there is little that is stopping them.


Having said this, there are limitation to human ability and as the job gets more complex the person may find it more and more difficult to sustain control. In this way a computer programmer, although they know that computers obey all instructions, may be unable to produce perfect programs simply because of the complexity of the situation.

Random forces

A bigger problem is when random forces are at play, for example the variation in weather that farmers face and which can add significantly to the uncertainty and stress the farmer faces.

Autonomous agents

Another form of complexity that reduces control is in social situations where other people may have opposing goals or intent. Even if they work for you, they are not totally under your control. On the other hand, when you work for others, you have even less control over them, which can be very stressful.

When you have a lack of control, seek to find out exactly the major issues and their causes, then find ways to improve the situation by addressing these.

Responsibility without authority

This is a particularly common variant of insufficient of control, where you are given work that must be done but you do not have the authority to command others to help you and do those things that are needed in order to complete those things for which you are responsible. This is increasingly common in jobs which are collaborative and cross team and organisational boundaries.

In a knowledge organisation, where many are educated to degree level and beyond, you are expected to 'get things done' without having the 'old fashioned' management command-and-control approaches. Managing change is an extreme form of this, where the change manager has to influence people who may well be opposed to the change, for quite understandable reasons.

Responsibility without authority is a particular case where persuasion and influence is important. Where you have responsibility but no authority, the best way of counteracting this to develop skill in these areas.

No job satisfaction

Enjoying one's work can lead to a great sense of pride and satisfaction and give meaning to our lives, which is something we all seek. Unfortunately, many of us gain little satisfaction from what we do at work. It is just a job that gives us money to pay the bills. Worse, we may be dissatisfied and unhappy when the job ends up with us feeling a negative meaning, that our lives are being wasted or spend in doing bad things.

Work becomes more meaningful when we understand its meaning. If you can link your actions to the success of the organisation then it is easier to find satisfaction. But when you just feel like a small cog in a big engine that is being spun from above for unknown reasons, then your job satisfaction will go down. Worse, if you can see you are disconnected from the main work without the possibility of contributing any value, then you may feel distinct dissatisfaction with your job.

A good way to help with job satisfaction is first, when looking for a job, to seek work that you can find meaningful. If you are already in a job, try to understand how it is contributing to the company and to society. You can also focus on the small things, recognizing that even a five-minute task is an essential part of the whole. Great machines do not function without their small cogs.

Not enough time

We all want to do a good job, but when time is literally money (we are paid for the time we are there), there is always pressure to deliver within a time boundary rather than take time to do the job well.

The result is that we get the dual stress of both hurrying to meet deadlines and the realization that our work is not of high quality. When we are prevented from doing our best, we feel frustrated. When we make mistakes, typically from hurrying, we feel incompetent and worry about the impact of being found out.

When faced with time pressures, you can help by looking to understand time management and applying some of the methods, such as planning ahead and sticking to your priority list. If you can say no, then this is a powerful method. If you cannot say no, then bounce decision back up to your boss, asking what your priorities should be.

No feedback

It is not always easy to know that we are adding value to an organisation, even if we think we are. If we get feedback to indicate that we are helping out, then helps us create meaning in our lives. Praise also strokes the ego, boosting our sense of identity.

For its best effect, praise has to be specific, saying what we are doing right. General praise is nice for the ego but does not help us keep doing the right things.

Feedback that tells us we are doing things wrong is also important, as it gives us control in being able to correct the situation. It is certainly better than no feedback. The trick with giving corrective feedback is in helping the person accept and act on it, rather than take it as personal slight and attack back.


In the ideal organization, everyone has objectives which aligns with everyone else, with no overlap or conflict. Also everyone would have the same values and beliefs in keeping a focus on the higher goal such that they are always motivated to cooperate.

Unfortunately, there can be many reasons for interpersonal conflict at work. A common one is where one person needs another person to do something by a certain time, but the second person has no motivation to do so and may well be strongly motivated in another direction. The result is conflict, either verbally overt or subtle and pernicious.

Conflict can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, with attendant body chemical changes that create immediate stress, including that caused by us having to exercise self-control in holding back our animal instincts to lash out in return.

We also conflict with others based on our values, deciding what is right and wrong and judging them as good or bad. This is a dangerous zone as the subsequent dislike can go far beyond the short term original cause.

When conflict arises, power become more important. People with the vested power of position may manipulate their resources to get what they want, even when it seriously disadvantages others. Others may turn to subtlety and subterfuge, quietly sabotaging and anonymously causing mayhem.

If you are caught up in conflict at work, do avoid getting dragged into political games. Instead seek to understand with the other person, building rapport and hence developing the power to influence them in a collaborative way.


Although there are laws against it in many countries, there is still much oppression with in the workplace, often by managers who have a strong task focus and who consider directive command a necessity and who substitute people skills with sledge-hammer coercion.

Stereotypes are also still alive and well and women and people from minority groups can easily find themselves being victimized or otherwise on the receiving end of unkind bias. It is such situations that have led to legislation about equality and, if you face such bias, you may need to invoke.

An unconscious trap can happen where we subtly accept the bias of stereotypes applied to us and, without knowing it, give way to others or otherwise put ourselves at a disadvantage. In such ways women start acting like men in androcentric workplaces and people with darker skins do not bother applying for more senior roles.

A good first step when you are affected by harassment or victimization of any kind is to ask the offender if they know what they are doing and the effect they are having. A surprising number will apologize and change. For others, you may need to get advice from HR or Trade Unions. In any case, do try to avoid getting into a retributive situation where your only choice is vengeance. It is far better to correct the problem than just punish it. 

Cultural mismatch

Every organization has its own culture. This includes a mixture of beliefs, values and models that shape how people behave and how they assume others will behave. Culture tells you what is right and wrong, what should and should not be done.

We also have personal beliefs, values and models, which is in effect our personal culture that has been built from the cultures within family, friends and former employers. It is hence not surprising that when a person first joins an organization (or even moves team within an organization) they easily feel out of sorts and in disagreement with a number of the cultural elements they find. This can lead to inner dissonance and outer conflict with others, each with attendant stress and discomfort.

If you find yourself in cultural conflict, you have several choices. First, you can hold your ground and fight for what you believe is right. This is unlikely to be successful and will lead to high stress. Alternatively, you can adopt the new culture, giving up your old beliefs and accepting new truths. If this is too difficult, you can 'bite the bullet' and quietly accept that the way things work here are not your ideal, but your need for employment overrides your need for moral agreement. Finally, you can leave.

Work-life balance

Another source of stress is where people spend so much time at work they find they are neglecting their home life to the detriment of their family and friends. This can be a paradox as family and friends often are more important, yet the need to earn a living and build a meaningful career somehow takes precedence.

Some companies expect you to work long hours. If you find this abhorrent, then you have a mismatch and the best answer is to leave (preferably finding an alternative job first). Other companies consider getting your work-life balance out of kilter to be a symptom of a workaholic or disorganized person.

The bottom line is that if you find your work-life balance is not what you want, then you need either to manage your time more effectively or find a job where you will be allowed to do this.

Threat of job loss

If you live constantly under the threat of losing your job, then this will add quite a powerful layer of stress. Without a regular income, many would financially sink, losing their accommodation and perhaps ending up on the streets.

Some jobs have a greater probability of job loss. A common such example is sales, where there are many roles where missing target sales can result in a sales person being fired. The effect can happen at all levels in the organisation. At the bottom, simple manual jobs can easily be replace or outsourced. Even at the top, CEO tenure has been decreasing steadily over a number of years. If you do not make the numbers or someone else can do it for less, then you are out.

There are two strategies to keeping your job. First, whatever you do, do it well. Certainly better than most of those around you, so if somebody has to go, it is not you. The other strategy is, if a regular income is critical, to take jobs that are more secure (although of course 'jobs for life' is now very much a thing of the past).


Change in the workplace can be both threatening and wearisome. Few organizations can stand still these days and constant change can be highly stressful, especially if there is a threat each time of being fired just because your skills are no longer needed.

Change also impacts needs for a sense of control and a sense of identity as the ground beneath you and team structure is constantly shifting. Change can be particularly threatening for successful people, who have succeeded in the former structure but who may be disadvantaged by the changes. This can make things difficult for the change agents as powerful people defend their hard-won empires.

If you are faced with organizational change, the best approach is often to go along with it rather than fight back. Seek to understand the real purpose then use this in subtle influence that both helps the change and also helps you.


In many workplaces the culture still is such that honest opinions cannot be expressed. Personal opinion, creativity and certainly criticism of managers is not welcome, even if the ideas expressed could save or make the company millions.

This principle derives from management theory from a hundred years ago, a surprising amount of which is still around. Managers do the thinkers and workers do the doing. Whilst many companies are much better than they once were, there are still plenty of managers who really do not like their carefully laid plans being interrupted, even if they are going off the rails.

A common pattern is a focus on positivity and good news. Based on the idea that a positive approach will bring success, bad news is positively ignored and the bringers of bad news are vilified as nay-sayers who will destroy morale.

When you cannot say what is concerning you, you have to bottle it up. The result is an organization full of repressed people, who may well know that the whole company is going down the tubes but who dare not say anything. This is the principle of Groupthink, where team harmony is prioritized over challenge, even to the point of destruction.

So what?

Understand the stressors at work and do something about those which impact you the most. Do not sit there and do nothing otherwise your performance will be impacted, which will just increase the stress even further.

See also

Symptoms of stress


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