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Occupational stress

Understanding occupational stress enables you to proactively address workplace challenges, promote employee well-being, and create a productive, supportive environment.

  • Definition

  • Triggers

What is occupational stress?

Occupational stress (also called job stress or work-related stress) results in situations where a worker lacks the resources or capability to perform their job. The symptoms of occupational stress can be physical or emotional and often lead to injury, poor health for the worker, and decreased job performance.

Occupational stress is sometimes misidentified as challenging work or the normal workplace pressure to do well. But there's a fine line between unavoidable workplace stress that keeps workers accountable, motivated, and driven to succeed, and more intense pressures that lead to occupational stress. When workplace pressure reaches excessive levels, workers find it difficult to manage. 

Occupational stress occurs when a worker encounters occupational demands and workplace stressors that are not in line with their abilities or the resources they've been given. Workers who are most likely to experience occupational stress are those in environments where performance expectations are beyond their capabilities. The chances of experiencing occupational stress are further amplified in workplaces where employees feel as if they lack support from management and colleagues or control over their labour or support.

But what factors lead to occupational stress? Occupational stress is frequently linked to the following causes:

  • Poor working conditions

  • Poor work organisation

  • Poor management 

Research indicates that workers are less likely to experience occupational stress when they have training and abilities that are appropriate to the duties and challenges of their jobs. Workers who have a say in how they perform their work and those who have been given decision-making power at work are less likely to experience occupational stress than those who do not feel supported in the workplace.

What triggers occupational stress?

Several stress-related hazards can initiate occupational stress. The ability to recognise those triggers is valuable as it provides the opportunity to avoid them in your workplace or make changes that relieve those stressors for your employees.

Common stress-related work hazards that can lead to occupational stress can be divided into two groups: work contents and work context. Work contents refers to the practical considerations of a job and includes things like:

  • Workload and pace. Occupational stress can occur when employees have too much or too little work relative to the amount of time they spend working.

  • Work hours. This refers to the duration of work shifts as well as elements of shift design, such as whether workers are permitted opportunities to socialise and the flexibility of scheduling. 

  • Participation and control. Workers who feel that they have the power to make decisions about their work processes and the pace and hours of their work may be less likely to experience occupational stress.

Work context refers to the abstract elements of a job. It includes things like job security, the availability of promotions and pay increases, workplace culture, transparent performance evaluation metrics, and the worker's ability to strike a healthy work-life balance. 

Fostering workplaces that minimise employee exposure to work content and work context stress-related hazards limits the likelihood of workers experiencing occupational stress. You can minimise those stressors by:

  • Apportioning workloads responsibly and ensuring employee break time

  • Building positive and affirming workplace cultures 

  • Having clear expectations and evaluation metrics

  • Ensuring safe and comfortable working conditions

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