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The Prevalence of Workplace Stress

Learn more about the prevalence of workplace stress.
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© Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Understanding the origins of, and contributors to, workplace stress is an important area, which has wide-reaching implications. Work is an important part of many people’s lives and when work has a negative impact on our psychological wellbeing the effect can be noticeable not only for individuals but also at a societal level.

To illustrate, the Health and Safety Executive reported that in 2018/19 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health. Work-related stress increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and muscular disorders, as well as increases the impact and prevalence of mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Thus, at an individual level, work-related stress is a significant risk for poor physical and mental health.

There are also wider impacts of work-related stress, including social and economic costs. It is estimated that the economic cost of work-related stress to the UK is £7-12.6 billion per year [1], and the financial cost of mental ill-health to British business is £26 billion per year, equivalent to £1,035 per employee [2]. This key challenge has been recognized by the UK Government, and Public Health England has recently published an initiative entitled ‘Improving Work Health for a Healthy Economy’, which provides advice for business and includes a specific mental health toolkit for employers.

Sources of Workplace Stress

Although there have been positive moves towards improving workplace health, there remains a high prevalence of work-related stress. For example, in 1976 Cooper and Marshall outlined five sources of stress at work that are still relevant today [3]. These are:

  • Factors intrinsic to the job, such as poor physical working conditions, work overload, or time pressures.
  • A person’s role in the organisation, including role ambiguity and role conflict.
  • Career development opportunities, including lack of job security and under/over promotion.
  • Relationships at work, including poor relationships with colleagues or line managers.
  • Organisational structure and climate, including little involvement in decision-making and office politics.

Occupations that involve emotional labour, where employees have to manage feelings and expressions associated with the role when interacting with people (e.g., clients, customers, patients) typically report higher levels of stress [4]. Examples of occupations that involve high levels of emotional labour include ambulance, teachers, social services, customer services – call centres, prison officers, and police, and we are sure you can think of many other professions. Having a high status within an organisation is also not a protective factor against stress. For example, in a survey of 827 executives, 64.4% struggled with work-related stress. A majority of the executives reported struggling with demand-resource imbalance at work as well as issues of work-life balance[5].

There are many examples of stressors unique to occupations but there are also consistent themes that emerge. Certainly, a demand-resource overload is one such consistent theme – where people feel overloaded where they do not feel that they have the resources to meet the demands that they are faced with. In the next task, we will explore what makes a job “extreme” in terms of the demands it places on an individual. And we ask you to reflect on the characteristics in relation to your own work and job roles that you may be familiar with.


  1. Chandola, T., Stress at Work. 2010: The British Academy.
  2. ERS, Health at work: Economic evidence report 2016. 2016: ERC Research and Consultancy.
  3. Cooper CL, Marshall J. Occupational sources of stress: a review of the literature relating to coronary heart disease and mental ill-health”, Journal of Occupational Psychology, 1976; 49: 11-28.
  4. Johnson S, Cooper C, Cartwright, S, Donald I, Taylor P, Millet C. The experience of work-related stress across occupations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 2005; 20(2): 178–187.
  5. Ganesh R, Mahapatra S, Fuehrer DL, Folkert LJ, Jack WA, Jenkins SM, Bauer BA, Wahner-Roedler DL, Sood A. The Stressed Executive: Sources and Predictors of Stress Among Participants in an Executive Health Program. Glob Adv Health Med. 2018 Oct 17;7: doi: 10.1177/2164956118806150.
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