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Work-related stress: possible causes and solutions

Everyone who has ever had a job has, at some point, felt the pressure of work-related stress. Any activity can have stressful elements, even if you love what you do. In the short-term, you may experience stress to meet a deadline or to fulfil a certain type of obligation. But when work-related stress becomes chronic, it can be overwhelming and cause mental health problems.


What really is stress?

Stress can have several definitions according to the specific field it is referred to. Medical definitions of stress all recognise that it is, in a broader perspective, a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension (Charles Patrick Davis, 2018). Moreover, in a more work-related perspective, stress can be defined as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work” (HSENI’s Mental Well-being at Work Advisory Service).

What causes stress?

Stress can be caused by a variety of different common life events, many of which are difficult to avoid. According to the TUC’s biennial survey of safety representatives (figure 1), the most important causes of work-related stress are respectively workload, cuts in staff and change of activities. Moreover, some studies pointed out that stress can also be due to the way in which your job is conducted, such as a short, repetitive work cycle and the restriction of movement and social interaction (Frankenhaeuser M., 1981)

A study elaborated by the Work Foundation (figure 2) reported that the majority of cases of work-related mental ill-health occur in those aged 35-44 and 45-54 years. However, there is a clear difference in the distribution of cases amongst men and women. While there are more cases amongst women in the 25-34 years age group, cases amongst men surpass those of women in the 35-44 years age group.

Moreover, the study reported an interesting relationship between stress and educational level. More conspicuously, as can be noticed in figure 3, the level of stress tends to increase with the level of educational attainment; indeed the percentage of stress events that occur in people with a degree is almost double that of those with no secondary school education. We can reasonably presume that it is mainly due to the fact that people with a degree perform jobs characterized by a higher level of responsibility.

Recent research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that being CEO during an industry-wide downturn could reduce your lifespan by 1.5 years. And that is all about stress, because in time of recession people who hold positions of responsibility experience the highest level of stress. In particular, “using cutting-edge machine learning, the study analyzed more than 3,000 pictures from CEOs who experienced industry-wide shocks during the Great Recession. With the software able to detect signs of visible ageing, the researchers discovered that CEOs who experienced industry distress during that time look about one year older than the CEOs whose industries didn’t suffer.”(Mark Murphy, Forbes 2021)

In order to avoid being overwhelmed by stress, the first step to implement, then, is to “notice and acknowledge our experience of stress when it’s currently happening” (Hayes, 2018). Furthermore, experts recommend that you engage in some form of aerobic exercise several times a week. Indeed, physical activity helps “increase production of brain neurotransmitters called endorphins, which help reduce your perception of pain and stimulate feelings of euphoria” (University Health News, 2018). Of all the de-stress solutions, detachment from work (i.e. stop thinking about work), relaxation and spending time with other people after work are found to be beneficial in diminishing the daily experiences of burnout, as well as the risk of burnout over time (Demerouti, 2015). 

Finally, what is clear is that what contributes to stress can vary hugely from person to person and differs according to our social and economic circumstances and the environment we live in. There can be times when stress becomes excessive and too much to deal with, but the positive thing is that the majority of cases can be solved by ourselves, thinking more about our health and changing the way in which we carry out our daily activities.


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