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Workplace Stress

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High Stress Can Be Costly

For most people, work can be both challenging and demanding. Meeting challenges can promote growth and increase resiliency for employees and organizations. However, demands and challenges may also result in high stress, which can be costly.

Why is addressing stress important for employers?

Excessive workplace stress causes a staggering 120,000 deaths and results in nearly $190 billion in health care costs each year.1 This represents 5% to 8% of national health care spending, derived primarily from high demands at work ($48 billion), lack of insurance ($40 billion), and work-family conflict ($24 billion).

These are some of the harmful health effects from excessive stress:

  • Damage to key brain structures and circuitry,2 reduced ability to cope with future stress and increased anxiety and chronic depression;3
  • The onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);4
  • Reduced immune system functioning;5 and
  • Increased inflammation and depression.6

High on-the-job demands and insufficient resources contribute to stress.7 In addition, an effort-rewards imbalance with perceptions of high effort and low compensation or recognition can also contribute to work stress.8 Goals perceived as exceedingly difficult, rather than achievable challenges, are also factors in excessive stress, anger, and anxiety.9

What can employers do?

Employers can address and reduce excessive workplace stress by focusing their efforts at the following three levels:10, 11

  • Prevention level: by developing organization-wide policies and practices in the following key areas:12
    • Training for leaders and supervisors on effective ways to reduce stress;
    • Working with employees to create challenging but realistic goals for optimal performance;
    • Communicating clearly and managing conflicts respectfully;
    • Identifying and using employees’ strengths and skills for career advancement;
    • Compensating fairly;
    • Ensuring safe work conditions;
    • Modeling work-life balance;
    • Building in opportunities to formally recognize individual and team goal achievement;
    • Creating a work climate that encourages social support and connectedness; and
    • Developing ways to reflect on positive daily workplace events and accomplishments.

Adopting effective stress reduction strategies also holds promise in preventing depression13 which can be costly to employers.

  • Targeted early identification and intervention level : offer employees the following options:
    • Stress screenings and information on stress reduction and the early warning signs of mental health conditions;
    • Effective intervention programs like cognitive-behavioral therapy for stress management;
    • Programs that effectively address stress like mindfulness, relaxation, yoga and tai chi and encourage exercise, emphasizing the value to mental and physical health; and
    • Programs that improve resiliency.

Web-based and mobile stress management programs offer employers cost-effective options for reducing workplace stress.15

  • Intensive individualized support level:
    • Assist employees in accessing effective care and supports;
    • Initiate active outreach to employees out on disability;
    • Support employees in remaining engaged with supervisors and co-workers;
    • Develop effective transition and return to work policies and practices; and
    • Consider ADA accommodations that help employees stay on the job.

Workplace stress can significantly impact the bottom line, however can also be managed to improve productivity, employee health and to create a more positive workplace climate and culture.

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Last Updated: 2016


  1. Goh, J., Pfeffer, J., & Zenios, S. A. (2015). The relationship between workplace stressors and mortality and health costs in the United States. Management Science, 62(2), 608-628.
  2. McEwen, B. S., & Morrison, J. H. (2013). The brain on stress: vulnerability and plasticity of the prefrontal cortex over the life course. Neuron, 79(1), 16-29.
  3. Miller, B. R., & Hen, R. (2015). The current state of the neurogenic theory of depression and anxiety. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 30, 51-58.
  4. Arnsten, A. F., Raskind, M. A., Taylor, F. B., & Connor, D. F. (2015). The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, 1, 89-99.
  5. Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic Research, 58(2-3), 193-210.
  6. Slavich, George M., and Michael R. Irwin. "From stress to inflammation and major depressive disorder: A social signal transduction theory of depression." Psychological bulletin 140.3 (2014): 774.
  7. Demerouti, E., & Bakker, A. B. (2011). The job demands-resources model: Challenges for future research. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 37(2), 01-09.
  8. Siegrist, J. (2012). Effort-reward imbalance at work: Theory, measurement and evidence. Department of Medical Sociology, University Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf.
  9. Mawritz, M. B., Folger, R., & Latham, G. P. (2014). Supervisors' exceedingly difficult goals and abusive supervision: The mediating effects of hindrance stress, anger, and anxiety. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(3), 358-372.
  10. Lamontagne, A. D., Keegel, T., Louie, A. M., Ostry, A., & Landsbergis, P. A. (2007). A systematic review of the job-stress intervention evaluation literature, 1990–2005. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 13(3), 268-280.
  11. Spangler, N. W., Koesten, J., Fox, M. H., & Radel, J. (2012). Employer perceptions of stress and resilience intervention. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 54(11), 1421-1429.
  12. Kelloway, E. K., & Barling, J. (2010). Leadership development as an intervention in occupational health psychology. Work & Stress, 24(3), 260-279.
  13. Tan, L., Wang, M. J., Modini, M., Joyce, S., Mykletun, A., Christensen, H., & Harvey, S. B. (2014). Preventing the development of depression at work: a systematic review and meta-analysis of universal interventions in the workplace. BMC Medicine, 12(1), 74.
  14. Richardson, K. M., & Rothstein, H. R. (2008). Effects of occupational stress management intervention programs: a meta-analysis.
  15. Heber, E., Lehr, D., Ebert, D. D., Berking, M., & Riper, H. (2016). Web-based and mobile stress management intervention for employees: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 18(1)

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