Understanding the impact of stress in the workplace and how to improve organisational well-being.

What is stress?

The most well-known definition of stress is ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed upon them’. Essentially, stress as we know it is when the perception of demands, or pressure, exceeds our ability to cope – this is when it can become problematic.

What causes work-related stress?

Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) indicates that there are two key factors within the workplace which are most accountable for causing work-related stress – those being workload and management.


It’s important to note that a high workload can be just as damaging as workload which is too low. There are two different types of work overload which people can experience:

  • Known as quantitative overload, individuals feel as though there is too much to do. As a result, they feel pressured to complete their work tasks in a time frame which they perceive to be too tight, unrealistic or demanding.
  • Known as qualitative overload, individuals feel as though their work is too difficult and challenging. As a result, they feel they lack the skill or ability required to complete the task at hand to an acceptable standard.

Both forms of workload can cause mental strain, which can influence both mental and physical health negatively. Additionally, underload can also be just as damaging to mental and physical health. Underload is characterised by not being challenged at work, which could be due to not having enough to do, having to complete tasks that are not engaging or tasks that are repetitive.

Management Style.

The second factor is leadership or management style. This is particularly important as leaders play such an important role in developing organisational culture and influence the mindsets and well-being of the workforce. Poor and unsupportive leadership can be damaging to mental and physical health by placing unnecessary pressure to complete tasks, giving negative feedback, being unsupportive of employees, and not giving the right level of control to employees to perform confidently in their role. Leadership Training can help equip your leaders with the confidence and skills to create a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.

The impact of stress in the workplace.

Physical Health Issues

Stress increases the release of several hormones (e.g. Adrenaline, Cortisol and Norepinephrine). The short-term release of these hormones is relatively harmless, however, continuous stress which causes the prolonged excretion of these hormones can lead to major health issues. Issues can include, high blood pressure, headaches, suppression of the immune system, disruption to sleep patterns, decreased libido and poor eating habits leading to obesity. These are just a few examples of what continued long-term stress can lead on to – all of which are undesirable and likely to have a negative effect on how we feel, think and act in our day-to-day lives.

Mental Health Issues

It’s important to understand the relationship between stress and mental health. Stress isn’t considered to be a psychiatric mental health diagnosis, but it’s closely linked to mental health in two important ways:

  1. Stress can lead to other complex mental health problems
  2. Stress can make existing problems worse

For example, if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might go on to develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.

Stress is, in fact, the precursor to a lot of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression – and in certain working environments – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You can learn more about these mental health issues by reading our resource on the most common mental health problems in the workplace.

Absenteeism and Presenteeism (the organisational impact)

The issue which is of primary concern to organisations is the fact that absence at work is most well accounted for by stress. Essentially, people who feel stressed tend to take long periods off work. This can be due to feeling mentally exhausted and feeling unable to cope, or it can be due to poor physical health caused by the long-term exposure of stress.

Research indicates that employees who experience work-related stress tend to report higher levels of intentions to quit and leave the organisation they work for, whereas employees who do not experiences high levels of work-related stress are much more likely to stay within the organisation. The issue of high turnover rates is costly to organisations as it is disruptive and requires valuable resources to recruit and train new employees.

Absenteeism and turnover are not the only costs which organisations face when their employees report high levels of work-related stress. Stress also leads to presenteeism. This is when people come to work despite not feeling well and go through the motions, which means they are present, but they underperform. A decline in organisational performance can inevitably lead to a decline in turnover or the quality of service.

How to reduce stress in the workplace.

This article has highlighted the impact of work-related stress on individuals and organisations and demonstrates the need for organisations to take steps towards creating a happier and healthier workplace.

If you’re interested in learning more about your culture and the well-being of your workforce, we can help with a culture and well-being assessment to give you an understanding of the workforce’s experience of the workplace. Once problems are known, you can take positive action to reduce the most common and impactful workplace stressors. Additionally, you might consider providing Mental Health Training to your leaders and the wider workforce to promote awareness, greater levels of understanding and to give people the skills needed to manage mental health more proactively.

If you’re concerned about the well-being and mental health of your workforce, feel free to contact a Psychologist at Zeal Solutions for a no-obligation telephone consultation.

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