Why Are Jobs Stressful?

Mary Gormandy White
Woman stressed at work

There's no doubt that people can experience stress related to their jobs. There are a number of possible causes for work-related stress, but not everyone experiences stress to the same degree or for the same reasons.

11 Top Reasons for Work-Related Stress

A number of mental health and workplace relationship experts shared insights regarding the reasons jobs can be stressful.

1. Performance Demands

Dr. John Rooney, LaSalle University
Dr. John Rooney, LaSalle University

According to Dr. John Rooney, professor emeritus of psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia, "performance pressure" is a major reason for job stress. He indicates that stress related to performance pressure occurs when "the amount of work, the speed required or the high quality demanded are stressful."

The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees, further pointing out that "bad management practice" can lead to stress, such as when supervisors create too much pressure under the guise of providing a challenge.

2. Workplace Relationships

Dr. Rooney also identifies "relationship pressure" as a source of work-related stress. He states that stress associated with relationship pressure occurs when "supervisors, peers or subordinates are difficult to work with." According to Dr. Rooney, these difficult relationships become "sources of stress" related to your employment situation.

3. Lack of Control

Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, LLC, who is also the author of Organizational Psychology for Managers and an adjunct psychology professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, indicates that lack of control is often a source of job-related stress. He states, "Perhaps the most insidious form of stress is the lack of control people have over the little things in their office lives. " Balzac explains, "The less control people have, the more stressful everything becomes."

People may have to give up control at work in many ways. The WHO points out that stress can occur when employees have "little control over work processes." Balzac expands, "When a business controls how people dress, how they can personalize their work space, when they can take a coffee break, or even when they can go to the bathroom, they are taking control away from employees." As Balzac states, "all of us seek to control our lives. The more control is taken away, the more we try to control the wrong things. All of this leads to increasing stress and wasted energy."

4. Change

Margaret Greenberg, The Greenberg Group
Margaret Greenberg, The Greenberg Group

Executive Coach Margaret H. Greenberg, founder of The Greenberg Group, co-author of Profit from the Positive and positive work columnist for Live Happy magazine, cites change as a cause of job-related stress.

Switching jobs can be stressful in and of itself, as can change that occurs within a job that you've held for a period of time. Greenberg explains, "We are all experiencing a tremendous amount of change. Be it changes in company direction, changes in job or customer expectations, changes in technology, changes in organizational structure - change is everywhere which can be overwhelming."

Greenberg points out, "In fact, businesses have adopted a term from the military to describe today's work environment - V.U.C.A. (pronounced Voo-ka). It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Pretty stressful, huh?"

5. Perfectionist Tendencies

Perfectionism can be a cause of work-related stress in people who have perfectionist tendencies. Greenberg describes this as an internal cause of stress, explaining, "Many people create their own stress because they suffer from perfectionist tendencies. Researchers have found that perfectionism results from one of three types of thinking: expecting perfect results from yourself, expecting perfect results from others, or thinking that others expect perfect results from you."

Greenberg points out, "I see the perfectionist syndrome particularly in many of the female executives I coach. Trying to be perfect in all the various hats they wear - professional, mother, daughter, wife, partner - can be stressful and exhausting."

6. Long Hours

A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found an association between working long hours (in excess of eight hours per day) and an increase occurrence of heart disease, which researchers attribute in part to extended exposure to cortisol, a stress hormone, associated with so much time spent working. When people spend so many hours at work, it can be difficult to find enough time away from the demands of work to achieve any sense of work-life balance or focus on their own health.

According to Dr. Deborah Legge, Ph.D., CRC, LMHC, who has a private practice in Williamsville, New York and is a member of the American Counseling Association, "Some jobs are so demanding or intrusive that they interfere with the worker's ability to have an uninterrupted personal life with family, friends, and fun." She indicates that this is often the case with positions that require "mandatory overtime, long hours, or swing shift" schedules.

7. Nature of the Work

Work-related stress can develop related to the nature of the work itself. The WHO indicates that factors related to "work contents" and "work context" can lead to stress. Dr. Legge points out, "Workers can become very stressed when their jobs are not challenging enough or when they are too difficult," as well as when they are in "jobs that are isolating" or positions "in which there is little room for advancement."

Legge points out that middle-management positions, where workers and "lots of responsibility, but not a lot of power or control," can also be inherently stressful. She also indicates that "underemployment" situations, where workers' duties are below what they are qualified to do, experience stress related to the nature of their jobs.

8. Lack of Appreciation

According to Dr. Legge, people who work in "thankless jobs" or in positions where they "don't feel valued" such as "demanding jobs with little reward" experience associated stress. This is true whether the positions are what she describes as "jobs that are undervalued or devalued by society," as well as situations where leadership doesn't create an environment where employees know that they are valued and appreciated. As the website for mental health treatment center Futures of Palm Beach states, "Dreading to go to an unforgiving, thankless job is chronic stress."

9. Fear of Job Loss

The Ottawa Business Journal states, "fear of job loss is one of the most stressful life experiences." According to Dr. Legge, "jobs become very stressful when they put workers in a position when job security is in question." According to Dr. Legge, "Jobs that are not stable, such as temporary positions or those at risk of layoffs" can lead to high stress levels for workers who are in them.

It's only natural for workers to fear job loss during turbulent economic conditions or a company shift. When people around you are receiving their layoff notices - whether in your company, your community, or other businesses in your industry - you may find yourself in the very stressful situation of just holding your breath waiting to find out if you are next.

10. Safety Concerns

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, "threats to personal safety" such as being harassed or experiencing actual or threatened violence in the workplace, can be a source of stress at work. Stress associated with safety can also be tied to the nature of the work itself.

According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), safety-related stress can result from "unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems." Dr. Legge explains, "Jobs become very stressful when they put workers at risk," so occupations that are high-risk by nature have built-in stress. This also occurs when conditions in any work environment impact the reality or perception of safety on the job.

11. Compensation

The results of a 2012 Harris Interactive/American Psychological Association workplace survey indicate that low pay is the top cause of work-related stress. It's no surprise that money - or the lack thereof - can be a source of employment-related stress. As Dr. Legge points, "jobs that don't pay enough" are a significant source of work-related stress. Even if you enjoy the duties of the work, like the company you work for and have a positive environment in which to work, it's only natural that you'll experience stress if your compensation is not sufficient to meet your financial needs.

Other Side of the Story

While job-related stress can occur for many reasons, there is much more to work than the stressors that come along with it. "Keep in mind that work is also often a source of satisfaction, both because of pride in accomplishing something and positive relationships with colleagues at work," recommends Dr. Rooney. Stress is a fact of the modern workplace - the key to minimizing its impact is to learn how to manage it effectively.

Why Are Jobs Stressful?