Overview of work-related stress: Tip sheet 1

Stress is a term that is widely used in everyday life and most people have some idea of its meaning. Work-related stress is recognised globally as a major challenge to workers’ health, and the health of a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU).

Work-related stress describes the physical, mental and emotional reactions of workers who perceive that their work demands exceed their abilities and/ or their resources (such as time, help/support) to do the work. It occurs when they perceive they are not coping in situations where it is important to them that they cope.

A worker’s response to stressors at work may be positive or negative for wellbeing, depending on a number of factors. In the vast majority of instances, people adjust to stressors and are able to continue to perform their normal work duties. While stress itself is not a disease, if it becomes excessive and long-lasting it can lead to mental and physical ill-health.

Your legal obligations

Work-related stress leading to illness, injury and weakened organisational performance can come from many sources, both work and non-work.

PCBUs are not able to control workers’ personal lives and the stressors they may encounter there, however they do have a legal obligation to minimise their exposure to work- related factors that can increase the risk of work-related stress.

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 imposes a legal duty on PCBUs to do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise risk to worker health and safety. This duty extends to the risk of harm from stressors at work.

Risk factors for work-related stress

The key to reducing the effects of work-related stress is to understand what organisational, environmental and individual characteristics may lead to stress in the first place.

Organisational

It is important to understand the types of organisational stressors people can be exposed to when examining work-related stress. A simplified model is shown in figure 1.

The model identifies the kinds of organisational stressors or risk factors that might lead to workers experiencing stress and sustaining psychological and/or physical ill-health. These risk factors are outlined in more detail in Tip Sheet 4 – Risk factors for work-related stress.

Environmental

Environmental stressors such as physical, chemical or biological agents can influence the worker’s comfort and performance in his or her work environment, and might contribute to a stress response. These factors can cause stress on their own, but often act to exacerbate a person’s response to another stressor.

Types of environmental stressors include:

  • noise
  • temperature and humidity
  • lighting
  • vibration
  • air quality
  • unguarded plant and equipment

Figure 1

Risk factors/Stressors
High work demands
Low control
Poor support
Lack of role clarity
Poorly managed relationships
Low levels of recognition and reward
Poorly managed change
Organisational injustice 
Work-related stress
Psychological Injury/Illness
(depression, anxiety, burnout, emotional distress, suicide)
Physical Illness
(cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency, gastrointestinal disorders)

Individual

People respond to stressors at work in different ways. It has been suggested that this can, in part, be related to physiological and/or personality factors (e.g. resilience). Worker well-being appears to benefit from a combination of challenging work, a supportive atmosphere and adequate resources.

While it is important to recognise these individual differences and to match jobs and tasks to individual abilities, this does not reduce a PCBUs legal duty to minimise workers’ exposure to risk factors for work- related stress and to ensure the workplace does not exacerbate an existing illness.

Outcomes of exposure to work-related stress

Possible health effects

Short-lived or infrequent exposure to low-level stressors are not likely to lead to harm, in fact short-term exposure can result in improved performance. When stressful situations go unresolved, however, the body is kept in a constant state of stimulation.

For example:

Physical: headaches, indigestion, tiredness, slow reactions, shortness of breath.

Mental: difficulty in decision-making, forgetfulness.

Emotional: irritability, excess worrying, feeling of worthlessness, anxiety, defensiveness, anger, mood swings.

Behavioural: diminished performance, withdrawal behaviours, impulsive behaviour, increase in alcohol and nicotine consumption.

Common longer-term health issues linked to stress include cardiovascular disease (CVD), immune deficiency disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, psychiatric/ psychological illness (PPI) and musculoskeletal disorders.

Possible effects on organisational performance

Increased stress levels of workers in an organisation can lead to diminished organisational performance as measured by the following:

  • productivity and efficiency may be reduced
  • job satisfaction, morale and cohesion may decline
  • absenteeism and sickness absence may increase
  • there may be an increase in staff turnover
  • accidents and injuries may increase
  • conflict may increase and the quality of relationships may decline
  • client satisfaction may be reduced
  • there may be increased health care expenditure and workers’ compensation claims

The effects of work-related stress on organisational performance provide good reasons – above and beyond legal duties and the direct financial and human costs –  as to why PCBUs or organisations and other duty holders should reduce workers’ exposure to workplace stressors.

This document was developed by Workplace Health & Safety QLD, Department of Justice and Attorney General worksafe.qld.gov.au

SW08367 0816

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