Workplace Stress: Is it Motivating or Paralyzing Your Employees?

Posted on December 30, 2014 by VITAL WorkLife

Employee stressed

A certain amount of stress is a good thing. When you sense danger, your body goes into a "fight-or-flight" stress response that tightens your muscles, heightens your senses, elevates your heart rate and blood pressure and gives you enough "oomph" to tackle the challenge at hand.

Prolonged stress, on the other hand, can damage your health, your mood and your effectiveness both on and off the job. For some employees, stress is motivating. They love new challenges. Stress sharpens their concentration and helps them motor through heavy workloads. For others, it's paralyzing. According to the American Psychological Association (APA):

  • More than half of the American workers surveyed (51%) say they are less productive when stressed at work1
  • 41% of employees reported they typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday.
  • 22% report extreme stress2

The costs of workplace stress aren't borne just by employees—job stress is estimated to cost US industry more than $300 billion a year in3 absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and associated medical, legal and insurance costs.

"If you're the type of person who's motivated by stress, it's easy to become frustrated by peers and direct reports who struggle when faced with comparable levels of stress," notes Liz Ferron, senior consultant for VITAL WorkLife. "It's important to recognize that their problems aren't imaginary and won't just go away if you ignore them."

Causes of Workplace Stress

As a manager or supervisor, you have little control over whether your organization is bought or sold, goes through a major restructuring, downsizes or is overwhelmed by a new competitor. These periods are stressful for everyone—but for some employees more than others.

While those types of stress come and go, there are day-to-day stressors that may create larger problems over time. The APA cites the following areas as commonly cited sources of stress at work.

  • Low salaries—or lower pay for similar work (46%)
  • Lack of opportunities for growth or advancement (41%)
  • Too heavy a workload (41%)
  • Long hours (37%)
  • Unclear job expectations (35%)

Not all stress is work-related—or caused by negative events. Employees about to get married or adopt a child may be under as much stress as employees caring for ailing parents or experiencing financial difficulties. Regardless of the cause, that stress is apt to make them less resilient when they encounter additional stress at work.

Are there other ways to recognize when your employees are becoming overly stressed?

Symptoms of Workplace Stress

Some employees are quite vocal about what they perceive as unacceptable levels of stress. Others suffer in silence—whether out of fear of losing their jobs or conflict avoidance—but may exhibit one or more of the following emotional and behavioral symptoms:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Procrastination or missed deadlines
  • Apathy or indifference toward work
  • Frustration, irritation, anger or sarcasm
  • Inability to focus, withdrawal or depression

Employees apt to be derailed under stress often have one or more of these personality traits:

  • A tendency toward pessimism or negative self-talk
  • Perfectionism or unrealistic expectations
  • Unassertiveness or passivity with co-workers
  • Discomfort with conflict
  • Dislike of change

A Workplace Health Hazard

Prolonged job-related stress can drastically affect an employee's physical health—partially because most adults under stress engage in behaviors apt to harm health, such as lack of sleep, too much sleep, too much television, lack of exercise, missing meals, overeating, or eating a diet composed largely of high-fat, high-salt "comfort foods."

Stress has been linked to a variety of health concerns including depression, heart disease, stroke, obesity, eating disorders, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

Many companies are beginning to treat workplace stress like any other work-related health hazard by taking an active stance to prevent and manage it.

Long-term strategies for managing and preventing stress are covered in the next two articles in this newsletter—but what can you do for an employee or family member who exhibits high levels of stress-related symptoms or anxiety today? Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a great place to start.

Got an Employee Under Stress?

How an EAP Referral Can Help

"Making an EAP referral is not only a practical solution for you as a manager or supervisor, it's often a tremendous gift to employees struggling with stress-related issues," notes Ferron. "In learning how to manage stress at work, they often build skills that benefit them in every aspect of their lives."

If you aren't sure whether your employee's symptoms are stress-related or want coaching before approaching your employee, don't hesitate to call 800.383.1908 and ask to speak to an EAP counselor.

Free, unlimited and confidential counseling, coaching and support are available by phone 24/7—not just for you—but also for every member of your family as well as your employees and their families. Your benefit also includes free face-to-face counseling with masters'- and doctorate-level professionals. All you have to do is ask.

Helpful Online Resources

The VITAL WorkLife Member Site offers helpful tools and information designed to help managers and supervisors recognize and manage workplace stress, including:

  • What is Employee Burnout?
  • Mind-Body Health and Job Stress
  • Managing Employee Stress
  • Facilitating Work-Life Balance
  • Work and Family: Integration or Separation

Call VITAL WorkLife at 800.383.1908 to learn more about our Employee Assistance Program.


1 American Psychological Association, "Stress Fact Sheet," Retrieved September 12, 2012,

2 American Psychological Association, "Stress in America: Our Health at Risk, January 11, n2012

3 Rosch, P. J. (Ed.). (2001, March). The quandary of job stress compensation. Health and Stress, 3, 1-4.

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