Work-related stress

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What is work-related stress?

Work-related stress results when the demands of work exceed resources for managing those demands.1 Most jobs will involve some level of stress, and this level will fluctuate over time as a result of various factors. However, when occupational stress becomes excessive or chronic, it can cause significant problems for an individual's physical health,2-4and increase the risk of anxiety and mood related problems.5-8

Signs and symptoms of work-related stress

People experience stress in a variety of different ways. Signs of work-related stress can include:9


  • New physical ailments or an exacerbation of existing issues, headaches, muscular aches and pains, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, fatigue, sleep difficulties, or stomach upsets


  • Irritability, mood swings, worrying, helplessness, a sense of disconnection from colleagues and others, concentration/memory difficulties, or issues with decision-making


  • Taking frequent sick leave from work (absenteeism)
  • Attending for work but producing a low output (presenteeism)
  • Procrastination
  • Making avoidable errors at work, or performing below the usual standard
  • Ruminating about the job outside the workplace
  • Completing work tasks at home despite being 'off the clock'
  • Checking work emails at home
  • Avoiding family/social engagements
  • Having a short temper
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Drinking more alcohol than usual or smoking more than usual
  • Using prescription or non-prescription drugs to 'wind down' after work

What causes work-related stress?

Some issues that might contribute to stress at work include:10

  • Factors specific to the job such as poor physical conditions, safety issues, unrealistic deadlines, long hours, or an unmanageable workload
  • Factors specific to the individual's role in the organisation such as confusion about responsibilities, poor job-person fit, poor time management, difficulties in managing separate or conflicting roles within an organisation (for example, that of supervisor and colleague), or uncertainty about the future of the organisation
  • Career development issues such as being passed up for a promotion, or lack of job security
  • Relationship issues such as poor support from supervisors, conflict with co-workers, harassment, discrimination or bullying
  • Problems with organisational structure/climate such as low levels of perceived control over work tasks, over-supervision, lack of consultation on important issues, office politics, or budget problems
  • External stressors such as a long commute to work, lack of sleep, grief/loss, separation/divorce, mental/physical illness or caring responsibilities.

Evidence-based psychological approaches and strategies

Research has demonstrated that a number of psychological strategies can be effective in managing occupational stress.

Cognitive strategies

Recognising and challenging unhelpful thoughts and attitudes is a highly effective strategy for managing occupational stress.11, 12 This strategy involves the client working with the psychologist to:

  1. Identify a specific situation causing stress (e.g., "I haven't completed the project and it's due tomorrow")
  2. Note the thoughts the client has about the stressful situation (e.g., "I'm terrible at my job")
  3. Develop objective alternatives to combat these thoughts (e.g., "I've faced deadlines like this before and everything turned out alright")
  4. Review the alternative, more helpful thoughts and observe the reduction in symptoms of stress
  5. Develop a strategy to notice the warning signs of stress in future situations, and rehearse the process of challenging and changing negative and unhelpful self-talk

Improving time management

When combined with the use of positive self-talk, time management techniques can have a lasting impact on work-related stress.13 Some skills for time management include:

  • Beginning the work day by reviewing or planning for the day's events, including breaks for resting and eating
  • Keeping a 'to-do' list and prioritising tasks according to urgency or importance
  • Minimising distractions and interruptions (for example, turning off email alerts)
  • Learning to say 'no' to requests outside of one's immediate work responsibilities
  • Delegating responsibilities to others where appropriate

Seeking collegial support within the workplace

Support from others in the work environment can help individuals to feel more confident about their stress-management abilities.14 This support can take a number of forms:

  • Instrumental support, such as adequate equipment, staff, and funding to complete the work
  • Emotional support, such as a colleague or supervisor who makes time to listen, gives reassurance, or shares humour
  • Informational support, such as advice or career mentoring

Practising assertive communication and problem-solving approaches

Problem-solving communication strategies for conflict management can buffer the effects of occupational stress.15 These skills support individuals to:

  • Manage conflict in a positive and timely manner rather than avoiding individuals or tasks
  • Stay focused on their own tasks and outcomes
  • Express their needs and opinions clearly and respectfully
  • Be aware of the priorities and preferences of colleagues and work towards mutually beneficial outcomes
  • Accept compromise when it is feasible and appropriate to do so

Changing lifestyle behaviours

Studies have shown that the following activities are effective in reducing work-related stress:

  • Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation12
  • Meditation
  • Physical exercise16
  • Spending more time outdoors17
  • Quitting or reducing smoking18
  • Reducing alcohol and drug use.19

How a psychologist can help

Through discussion with the client and the possible use of questionnaires and monitoring tools, the psychologist develops an understanding of the potential factors involved in the onset and maintenance of the individual's symptoms. A management plan is then developed by the psychologist together with the individual. Some of the techniques described above might be used to help manage stress.

When to seek professional help

If stress is affecting a person’s work, school, home life, or relationships, psychological assistance should be considered. The APS Find a Psychologist service can be used to locate a psychologist in your local area: call 1800 333 497 or visit A GP can also organise a referral to an APS psychologist under the Better Access to Mental Health Care items.

More information

Australian Psychological Society (APS)
Australia's largest professional association for psychologists

A 24-hour counselling, suicide prevention and mental health support service
Telephone: 13 11 14

Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program
Provides an evidence-based assessment of the psychological health of a particular workplace along with access to best advice and resources designed to improve staff wellbeing, engagement and performance

Safe Work Australia
An agency responsible for developing national policies and strategies for workplace health and safety

  • Contributor(s)
    APS Member Resources Team

    Prof Glen Bates
    Deputy Dean
    Faculty of Life and Social Sciences
    Swinburne University of Technology
  • Publish date
    24 Jun 2013
  • References


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  2. Schnall, P. L., Landsbergis, P. A., & Baker, D. (1994). Job strain and cardiovascular disease. Annual Review of Public Health, 15, 381-411. doi: 10.1146/annurev.pu.15.050194.002121
  3. Andel, R., Crowe, M., Hahn, E. A., Mortimer, J. A., Pedersen, N. L., Fratiglioni, L., . . . Gatz, M. (2012). Work-related stress may increase the risk of vascular dementia. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 60(1), 60-67. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2011.03777.x
  4. Brunner, E. J., Chandola, T., & Marmot, M. G. (2006). Prospective effect of job strain on general and central obesity in the Whitehall II Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 165(7), 828-837. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwk058
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  6. Niedhammer, I., Goldberg, M., Leclerc, A., Bugel, I., & David, S. (1998). Psychosocial factors at work and subsequent depressive symptoms in the Gazel cohort. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environmental Health, 24(3), 197-205. doi: 10.5271/sjweh.299
  7. Siegrist, J. (2008). Chronic psychosocial stress at work and risk of depression: Evidence from prospective studies. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 258(Supp. 5), 115-119. doi: 10.1007/s00406-008-5024-0
  8. Wang, J. (2005). Work stress as a risk factor for major depressive episode(s). Psychological Medicine, 35(6), 865-871. doi: 10.1017/S0033291704003241
  9. Baker, D. B. (1985). The study of stress at work. Annual Review of Public Health, 6(1), 367-381. doi: doi:10.1146/annurev.pu.06.050185.002055
  10. Cooper, C. L., & Marshall, J. (1976). Occupational sources of stress: A review of the literature relating to coronary heart disease and mental ill health. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 49, 11-28.
  11. Richardson, K. M., & Rothstein, H. R. (2008). Effects of occupational stress management intervention programs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 13(1), 69-93. doi: 10.1037/1076-8998.13.1.69
  12. Van der Klink, J. J., Blonk, R. W., Schene, A. H., & van Dijk, F. J. (2001). The benefits of interventions for work-related stress. American Journal of Public Health, 91(2), 270-276.
  13. Jones, M. C., & Johnston, D. W. (2000). Evaluating the impact of a worksite stress management programme for distressed student nurses: A randomised controlled trial. Psychology and Health, 15, 689-706.
  14. Heaney, C. A., Price, R. H., & Rafferty, J. (1995). Increasing coping resources at work: A field experiment to increase social support, improve work team functioning, and enhance employee mental health. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 16(4), 335-352.
  15. Dijkstra, M. T. M., Beersma, B., & Evers, A. (2011). Reducing conflict-related employee strain: The benefits of an internal locus of control and a problem-solving conflict management strategy. Work & Stress, 25(2), 167-184. doi: 10.1080/02678373.2011.593344
  16. Conn, V. S., Hafdahl, A. R., Cooper, P. S., Brown, L. M., & Lusk, S. L. (2009). Meta-analysis of workplace physical activity interventions. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 37(4), 330-339. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2009.06.008
  17. Korpela, K., & Kinnunen, U. (2011). How is leisure time interacting with nature related to the need for recovery from work demands? Testing multiple mediators. Leisure Sciences, 33, 1-14. doi: 10.1080/01490400.2011.533103
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  19. Koeske, G. F., Kirk, S. A., & Koeske, R. D. (1993). Coping with job stress: Which strategies work best? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 66, 319-335.

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