Workplace Stress

Chart describing the souces of stress in AmericaNumerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.  Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.  In New York, Los Angels and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is so well acknowledged, that any police officer who suffers a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work related injury and is compensated accordingly (including heart attack sustained while fishing on vacation or gambling in Las Vegas).

Although the Institute is often asked to construct lists of the “most” and “least” stressful occupations, such rankings have little importance for several reasons. It is not the job but the person-environment fit that matters. Some individuals thrive in the time urgent pressure cooker of life in the fast lane, having to perform several duties at the same time and a list of things to do that would overwhelm most of us — provided they perceive that they are in control. They would be severely stressed by dull, dead end assembly line work enjoyed by others who shun responsibility and simply want to perform a task that is well within their capabilities. The stresses that a policeman or high school teacher working in an inner city ghetto are subjected to are quite different than those experienced by their counterparts in rural Iowa. It is necessary to keep this in mind when sweeping statements are made about the degree of stress in teachers, police personnel, physicians and other occupations. Stress levels can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons.

Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons. One survey showed that having to complete paper work was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals. The severity of job stress depends on the magnitude of the demands that are being made and the individual’s sense of control or decision-making latitude he or she has in dealing with them. Scientific studies based on this model confirm that workers who perceive they are subjected to high demands but have little control are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.


Digesting the Statistics of Workplace Stress

Numerous surveys and studies confirm that occupational pressures and fears are far and away the leading source of stress for American adults and that these have steadily increased over the past few decades. While there are tons of statistics to support these allegations, how significant they are depends on such things as how the information was obtained (self-report vs. answers to carefully worded questions), the size and demographics of the targeted group, how participants were selected and who sponsored the study. Some self-serving polls claiming that a particular occupation is “the most stressful” are conducted by unions or organizations in a attempt to get higher wages or better benefits for their members. Others may be conducted to promote a product, such as the “Stress In the Nineties” survey by the maker of a deodorant that found housewives were under more stress than the CEO’s of major corporations. Such a conclusion might be anticipated from telephone calls to residential phones conducted in the afternoon. It is crucial to keep all these caveats in mind when evaluating job stress statistics.


View NIOSH Report 

Highlighted statistics from the report:

•40% of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful;

•25% view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives;

•Three fourths of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago;

•29% of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work;

•26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work”;

•Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems.

Attitudes in the American Workplace VII

Highlighted statistics from the report:

•80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their coworkers need such help;

•14% of respondents had felt like striking a coworker in the past year, but didn’t;

•25% have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress, 10% are concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent;

•9% are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace and 18% had experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year


A subsequent 2000 Integra Survey similarly reported that:

•65% of workers said that workplace stress had caused difficulties and more than 10 percent described these as having major effects;

•10% said they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred because of job stress and in this group, 42% report that yelling and other verbal abuse is common;

•29% had yelled at co-workers because of workplace stress, 14% said they work where machinery or equipment has been damaged because of workplace rage and 2% admitted that they had actually personally struck someone;

•19% or almost one in five respondents had quit a previous position because of job stress and nearly one in four have been driven to tears because of workplace stress;

•62% routinely find that they end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% reported stressed-out eyes, 38% complained of hurting hands and 34% reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out;

•12% had called in sick because of job stress;

•Over half said they often spend 12-hour days on work related duties and an equal number frequently skip lunch because of the stress of job demands.

These findings are supported by other studies that put their significance in perspective.

Violence has become an increasingly serious problem

According to two studies the United States has the dubious distinction of having the highest violent crime rate of any industrialized nation. An average of 20 workers are murdered each week in the U. S. making homicide the second highest cause of workplace deaths and the leading one for females. 18,000 non-fatal violent crimes such as sexual and other assaults also occur each week while the victim is working, or about a million a year. The figures are probably higher since many are not reported. Certain dangerous occupations like police officers and cab drivers understandably have higher rates of homicide and non-fatal assaults. Nevertheless, postal workers who work in a safe environment have experienced so many fatalities due to job stress that “going postal” has crept into our language. “Desk rage” and “phone rage” have also become increasingly common terms.

Americans are working longer and harder.

A 1999 government report found that the number of hours worked increased 8% in one generation to an average 47 hrs/week with 20% working 49 hrs/week. U.S. workers put in more hours on the job than the labor force of any other industrial nation, where the trend has been just the opposite. According to an International Labor Organization study, Americans put in the equivalent of an extra 40-hour work week in 2000 compared to ten years previously. Japan had the record until around 1995 but Americans now work almost a month more than the Japanese and three months more than Germans. We are also working harder. In a 2001 survey, nearly 40% of workers described their office environment as “most like a real life survivor program.”

Absenteeism due to job stress has excalated.

According to a survey of 800,000 workers in over 300 companies, the number of employees calling in sick because of stress tripled from 1996 to 2000. An estimated 1 million workers are absent every day due to stress. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reported that over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the U.S. from absenteeism are stress related and that one in five of all last minute no-shows are due to job stress. If this occurs in key employees it can have a domino effect that spreads down the line to disrupt scheduled operations. Unanticipated absenteeism is estimated to cost American companies $602.00/worker/year and the price tag for large employers could approach $3.5 million annually. A 1997 three year study conducted by one large corporation found that 60% of employee absences could be traced to psychological problems that were due to job stress.


Stress due to job insecurity has skyrocketed

A 1999 government study reported that more jobs had been lost in the previous year than any other year in the last half century, and that the number of workers fearful of losing their jobs had more than doubled over the past decade. That was several years ago and the problem has worsened considerably since then. A February 2000 poll found that almost 50 percent of employees were concerned about retaining their job and with good reason. There were massive layoffs due to down-sizing and bankruptcies including the collapse of over 200 companies. The unemployment rate by the end of the year was the highest it had been in 16 months. Nor have things improved since then. A report released on September 10, 2001 stated that “more than 1 million Americans lost their jobs this year, 83% higher than last year’s total.” That was a day before the Twin Towers disaster, which added to the problems of job stress and insecurity for many workers. Since then we have witnessed the collapse of Enron and its tidal wave of repercussions on other companies and their employees. There are fears that this may be just the tip of the iceberg as accounting irregularities of a similar nature may augur the downfall of other large organizations widely assumed to be on a solid financial footing.

Nor is the problem limited to the U.S. A 1992 United Nations Report labeled job stress “The 20th Century Disease” and a few years later the World Health Organization said it had become a “World Wide Epidemic.” A 1998 study reported that rapid changes in the workforce had resulted in a staggering unemployment rate of 10% in the European Union and higher rates of job stress complaints. Japan had a similar problem as a result of a major and prolonged recession. A subsequent European Commission survey found that:

•more than half of the 147 million workers in the European Union complained of having to work at a very high speed and under tight deadlines;

•approximately half reported having monotonous or short, repetitive tasks and no opportunity to rotate tasks.

Occupational pressures are believed responsible for:

•30% of workers suffering from back pain;

•28% complaining of “stress”;

•20% feeling fatigued;

•13% with headaches.

Job stress is costly:

Job Stress carries a price tag for U.S. industry estimated at over $300 billion annually as a result of:

·Employee turnover ·Diminished productivity ·Direct medical, legal, and insurance costs
·Workers’ compensation awards as well as tort and FELA judgments

For more information on the costs of workplace stress


STRESS MANAGEMENT IN WORK SETTINGS is a DHHS (NIOSH) publication. This publication summarizes the scientific evidence and reviews conceptual and practical issues relating to worksite stress management. It is a collection of original contributions that address issues and problems in the field. The document is divided into three parts: (I) organizational stress and its assessment., (II) aspects of stress management as applied in work settings, and (III) listing of resources for training materials, products, and equipment. The two major themes of the publication are:

  1. “stress management, as currently defined, has a limited role in reducing organization stress because no effort is made to remove or reduce sources of stress at work. Focusing on the individual as the prime target for organization intervention creates a dilemma of ‘blaming the victim.’ A more appropriate application of stress management would be as a complement to job redesign or organizational change interventions.”
  2. “conceptual issues are as important as logistical ones in determining program success. Considerable effort should be expended at the outset to define the purpose of the program, delineate organization and individual goals, acqire organization support, and integrate the program with existing occupation safety and health efforts. In this way, the foundation is laid for a more stable and holistic program for controlling organizational stress.”

Individual chapters may be downloaded at:
The entire document may be downloaded in PDF format (191 pages, 6,672K) at