Occupational Stress

Hannah Olvera Doman
Hannah Olvera Doman
Occupational stress impacts everyone, harming individuals and organizations. Learn how to identify early signs of stress and how to manage or eliminate its causes for both you and your organization.

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What Is Occupational Stress?

When an employee doesn’t have the knowledge or capabilities to meet the demands of their job, they experience occupational stress.

In certain circumstances, this misalignment creates an exciting challenge that leads to learning and growth. The employee is happy and empowered after overcoming the challenge. But occupational stress is different. Occupational stress results from a challenge that can’t be overcome, and it is always emotionally, physically and professionally negative.

Why Is Knowing About Occupational Stress Important?

At a personal level, understanding occupational stress will help you take charge of your health and career by:

  • Developing greater awareness of your stress drivers and responses.
  • Creating coping techniques.
  • Mitigating or reducing stress drivers where possible.

At an organizational level, HR is positioned to mitigate and reduce occupational stress, but we can’t do that without knowing what it is. Understanding occupational stress will help you:

  • Retain your employees. Increasingly, employees expect employers to promote healthy work cultures. And they have plenty of other employment opportunities if they are dissatisfied.
  • Boost productivity. Psychological safety is key in enabling employee productivity, but stress threatens it.
  • Reduce absenteeism. Stress drives illness and absenteeism, which costs U.S. companies billions of dollars each year.
  • Ensure a safe workplace. Everyone deserves a workplace free of discrimination, bullying, harrassment and other stress drivers. As an HR professional, you are responsible to stop this behavior.
  • Protect your own health. Don’t forget that you are an employee, too! Identifying and mitigating your own stress at work will increase your happiness and success.

Signs of Occupational Stress

As an HR professional, you want to catch the early signs of stress to intervene quickly for yourself and others. Early warning signs include:


Many early signs of stress manifest as illness, such as headaches or stomaches. Reflect on your own symptoms that could be stress-induced. At an organizational level, you won’t have records of employee health data, but you can measure absenteeism rates and track them over time.

Poor Morale

Low morale can be revealed through pulse surveys, annual employee satisfaction surveys, manager insights or your own qualitative analysis as you speak with employees.

Low Job Satisfaction

Using similar methods to measure employee morale, you can measure job satisfaction and hopefully retain employees before they walk out the door.

Unhealthy Employee Conflict

Do you constantly mediate employee arguments? That could be a sign (and cause) of stress. Leadership behavior in this area is especially important to consider because it impacts the rest of the company.

Measure Occupational Stress

Need more guidance to spot organizational stress? You can use the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health’s Generic Job Stress Test to diagnose stress drivers for you and others. The questionnaire covers topics such as work conflict, work opportunities, your health and health conditions, job requirements and job satisfaction. After completing the survey, use the Scoring Key to understand your results.

Causes of Occupational Stress

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a government research group that promotes workplace safety, identified six job stressors: task design, management style, interpersonal relationships, work roles, career concerns and environmental conditions. We’ll discuss each of these in greater detail below.

Task Design

Task design stress includes heavy workloads, short or few breaks, repetitive tasks or little employee autonomy. Diagnosing task design requires familiarity with the role requirements and demands. Turn to job descriptions and company policy to learn about the different roles in your organization.

Management Style

Management style stress includes poor organizational communications, demanding work policies and no employee input. Understanding management style requires deeper digging. You not only need to know company-level factors but lower level factors (i.e., individual managers) as well. Lastly, you must know employee perceptions of the above factors.

Interpersonal relationships

Relationship stress comes from work relationships, whether from peers, managers or subordinates. Everyone needs support and acceptance at work, but remember that different employees have different needs. Young professionals tend to need greater guidance to feel supported and tenured professionals generally need less.

Work Roles

The primary driver of work role stress is lack of role clarity. Various factors can lead to unclear roles: remote work, changing projects or goals, new employees, lack of manager support and layoffs.

Career Concerns

Lack of mobility and potential for layoffs create career concern stress. Employees need job stability and opportunity to mitigate this stressor.

Environmental Conditions

Threats to physical safety from the work environment trigger environmental stress. While this might be obvious for some workplaces, don’t assume that people feel safe in a “typical” office environment. Potential for workplace violence, natural disasters or bullying can cause real stress.

How To Reduce Stress in Your Organization

As an HR professional, you will have the most success at reducing occupational stress if you know the main drivers unique to your organization. Review employee survey data, or gather it, to start diagnosing causes. However, there are some common issues across organizations that can be tackled with some of the following ideas:

Stress Management Training

Are interpersonal relationships a huge stressor at your workplace? Consider training everyone on effective communication techniques, stress management and healthy conflict. Be sure to follow up on the training to make sure it sticks.

Manager Training

Most managers move from individual contributor roles without any training. This jump can lead to a host of stressors, like setting clear expectations and giving good feedback. Training your managers on “manager basics” will go a long way in eliminating everyday employee stresses.

Workplace Safety Training

With health and safety continually in the spotlight from natural disasters and the ongoing pandemic, ensure employees are trained on relevant safety protocols and exhibit trained behavior.

Career Growth Potential

Show employees they can grow with your organization by highlighting career growth opportunities. In the modern organization, precise career maps may be impossible. Instead, ensure internal candidates are prioritized and communicate exciting internal career moves to your employees.

Encourage Healthy Boundaries

Do you feel pressure to return an email at any given hour? Find creative ways to encourage healthy boundaries. Improve work-life balance by suggesting employees leave their laptops at the office on Friday evenings. Or help them make the workday more effective by creating a “no meeting policy” on a certain day(s) or time(s).

Create Support

Help psychological safety thrive and stress decline by creating supportive relationships. One easy way you can do this is by starting meetings with five minutes of personal chatter. The meeting owner can throw out a simple question (“what was the best part of your weekend?”) that everyone responds to. Studies show just a few minutes of connection make a big difference.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Occupational Stress

Are there physiological effects from occupational stress?
Unfortunately, yes. Stress impacts the body in real ways. Hans Selye, medical doctor and researcher, identified three stages of stress that impact the body in increasingly severe ways, from surges of adrenaline to chronic fatigue.
Do all employees have to deal with occupational stress at times?
It is extremely unlikely that an employee can avoid some occupational stress throughout their career. We all inevitably experience ineffective working relationships, demanding work and heavy workloads. However, as HR professionals and employees ourselves, we can mitigate or eliminate sources of stress and its effects at work.
Hannah Olvera Doman
Hannah Olvera Doman

Hannah has spent her HR career as a strategic business partner to fast-growing, innovative technology teams. As a generalist, she has experience in employee on-boarding, employer branding, employee and manager development, HR systems, mergers/acquisitions, and employee experience.

Hannah received a BS in Human Resource Management from Brigham Young University and holds a PHR certification.

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