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Do we place too much emphasis on stress at work?

Seventy-three percent of working Canadians experience almost daily stress in their jobs, according to a recent study by Statistics Canada. That’s approximately 10 million people, or nearly one-third of Canada’s population. More than one-quarter of workers say their job is “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful; close to half say they experience “a bit” of stress. But where is all the stress coming from, and is it affecting workers’ productivity?

Morever, should employers be aiming for stress-free workplaces? I don’t think so, despite the well documented problems associated with stressed-out employees. We’ve written a fair amount about the effects of stress on workers and the workplace, and the sources of employee stress. The thing is, stressed employees can suffer from health problems, from anxiety to insomnia and worse, but stress is also a sign of challenging work. If employees don’t feel challenged, they are not likely to feel motivated to perform or improve. Moreover, people react differently to different levels of stress. Some thrive on challenge; others shrink away from it. An employer’s job is to manage these different types of employees, not necessarily to change the nature of their work.

Employers should always be open to employee complaints of stress, stressors and potentially associated health symptoms, but they should also be wary of claims that the work itself is the cause of an employee’s stress. According to StatsCan, the sources of employee stress are diverse, and in many cases are related to employees’ demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. These factors might be stronger indicators of the sources of stress than just “work”.

Highly stressed workers most often cited work as the main source of their stress. These workers were likely to have a post-secondary education, work in a white-collar job and earn more than $100,000 in salary. More men than women claimed their stress came from work, and they were mainly between the ages of 35 and 49.

Other highly stressed workers pointed to financial concerns, lack of time, family matters and personal issues as the main sources of their stress. Workers in these groups were less likely to have a college of university education, more likely to work in sales and service or blue-collar jobs, and most earned less than $60,000.

Unfortunately, the StatsCan report lacks information about whether those who claim work is the main cause of their stress feel that stress is having a negative effect on their work or health. Without that information, it’s not clear what we should make of the survey results. I might be tempted to say that white-collar jobs are more challenging, or place greater responsibilities on employees, than other work, and that workers earning more than $100,000 should have few reasons to complain about their finances, so they point to work as the apparent source of their stress. On the other hand, I might say that workers earning less than $60,000 often have less challenging and less stable jobs with fewer responsibilities, and therefore more clearly understand personal and financial stresses. But that’s all speculation.

Personally, although I might complain that work is stressing me out, my experience with stress falls mainly in the second group. I know that, in truth, my stress is coming from some trouble I’m having balancing my various personal and work duties. I just don’t want to place blame on the personal things; I’d rather say work is the problem! That’s not to say that work doesn’t add stress to my life. Of course it does, but that stress is a result of challenges that my work presents, and which I have to face. It would be silly to ask my employer to stop challenging me! I might as well ask never to receive another raise.

The key, I think, is not reducing the stress associated with the job, but rather offering employees resources to manage their lives better, even if that means simply listening carefully to their problems and offering accommodations like flexible scheduling. At the same time, employers should watch for signs of disengagement, reduced productivity and health problems, since these are things that will directly affect business, regardless of whether they come from employee stress or other sources.

How does your company deal with employee stress?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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