For some people, stress can help them work faster. Some people simply work better under pressure.
Yet, for many workers, stress manifests itself in negative ways and can be debilitating. Everyone experiences a degree of stress at some point, but when symptoms are elevated the condition becomes toxic.
Toxic stress impacts physical health and damages mental wellbeing. Not for nothing is stress known as the silent killer. And it’s very widespread in workplaces across the globe.
43% of respondents to one 2020 study said they experienced work-related stress. The study revealed that out of 100 participating countries, the US and Canada had the highest incidences of work-related stress.
What are the causes of toxic job stress?
While work-related stress may be common, the causes are varied. A lack of job satisfaction and a feeling of being under-appreciated can build to cause feelings of stress and resentment. Almost any ongoing negative aspects in a workplace can eventually manifest themselves in symptoms of stress.
The causes of toxic job stress can stem from being overloaded with work or being expected to take on too many responsibilities. High expectations from an employer coupled with a lack of training may cause toxic work stress.
Typical causes of work-related stress are:
- Working hours
- Under appreciation/recognition
- Lack of training
- Poor equipment
- Changes to job role/responsibilities
- Unreasonable targets
Stress is sometimes known as the silent killer because symptoms are not always easy to spot. People suffer from mental health problems with friends and family often completely unaware. Therefore, understanding the signs of toxic work stress is vital.
What are the indicators of toxic stress?
For employers, one of the clearest warning signs is absenteeism and time-keeping. A higher turnover of staff than usual may also point to problems in the workplace.
Workers suffering from job-related toxic stress are more likely to take sick days or become less punctual. An employee who suddenly starts turning up late or taking time off for sickness might be suffering from stress. Toxic stress drains motivation, and this leads to absenteeism.
Staff retention is a huge concern for businesses at the moment. Between 39% and 50% of UK workers want to quit their jobs with SMEs most likely to lose talent. If employers spot the signs of toxic stress early on, then improvements to workers’ conditions can be made.
For the employee, signs of toxic stress are as follows:
- Lacking motivation
- No willpower
- Poor sleep patterns
- Emotional outbursts
A small amount of stress in daily life and at work is normal. Stress helps motivate and drive individuals toward hitting targets. But, when stress reaches toxic levels (and even before then) it becomes harmful to health. Untreated stress impacts health and can cause irreversible harm.
What are the dangers of stress at work when it becomes toxic?
Workers suffering from toxic job stress are more likely to miss work days. But, even when employees stay reliable and punctual, they are less likely to be productive. As stress plays on the mind of the worker, and affects them physically, productivity will drop.
In 2021, 149.3 million UK work days were lost to absenteeism. Statistics in the US are even more revealing. Out of 550 million lost work days each year, half were related to stress. 20% of last-minute calls to report sickness are also due to stress.
Toxic stress doesn’t just cause a lack of motivation, it seriously damages physical health. Stress can be the cause of mental health issues too.
Some of the dangers of toxic work stress are outlined briefly below.
Certain work-related environments can increase the chances of a stroke occurring. Stress is one of the biggest causes of strokes, and working conditions can contribute heavily. Stress elevates blood pressure. This then leads to the heart pumping faster and potentially stroke-causing blood clots.
Long hours are another cause of stroke. Any employee working 55 hours or more faces a 35% increased risk of having a stroke.
High blood pressure
Hypertension is a common condition. Around one-third of the world’s population have high blood pressure. Blood pressure rises and falls along with stress levels. Reducing stress will lead to regular blood pressure. However, frequent spikes in blood pressure through stress cause damage to the kidneys, and heart.
Heart attack – cardiovascular disease
The hormone, cortisol, is produced when someone experiences stress. Increased levels of this hormone will lead to higher cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure. All of these added together cause cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.
Diabetes and obesity
Stress doesn’t directly cause obesity or diabetes but it is a contributory factor. Stress raises cortisol levels which leads to increased appetite which may cause weight gain. Stress is also believed to inhibit insulin production which may lead to type-2 diabetes.
One condition that toxic work stress definitely leads to is burnout. Up to 89% of employees experienced feelings of burnout last year, according to Zippia. The signs of burnout include feelings of utter exhaustion and apathy or disenchantment with work.
When stress becomes toxic, the symptoms of burnout become far more serious. Mood swings, sudden anger, and repeated bouts of sickness are common. Burnout leads some individuals to substance abuse as a way of coping or self-medicating.
Mental health issues
Stress is a major factor in some cases of anxiety and depression. Toxic work-related stress doesn’t only affect the physical health of workers, but their mental wellbeing too.
Stress stops workers from being able to function normally, and cope with everyday problems. As stress builds up, and negative work conditions continue, depression may form.
What can employers do to combat toxic stress?
One of the biggest challenges to business is mental health right now. Many employers are tackling the causes of work-related stress, but more needs to be done.
Prejudice, discrimination, and confrontation cause stress in the workplace. Fortunately, there are laws to combat these issues. However, employers must bear responsibility for all causes of work-related stress.
Workers’ health can be improved through on-site or off-site clinics. Many businesses pay for corporate health plans for instance, and workers can take paid time off for appointments.
Recognising the causes of toxic stress is crucial. As previously mentioned, working hours may be problematic for some employees. Especially those with families or young children.
Employers might consider the following ways to reduce stress at work:
- Introduce corporate healthcare or onsite clinic
- Use telehealth
- Introduce remote working
- Allow flexible work hours
- Use surveys to gather data from employees
- Introduce focus groups
By providing ways for employees to address their concerns, employers can encourage them to look after their health. Making the workplace more adaptable to employees will boost worker retention. Introducing remote working and flexible hours will make many workers happier and reduce stress.
While some workers claim to thrive under pressure, stress is harmful over long periods. Employees who keep experiencing stress will eventually suffer from burnout, or find themselves unable to remain motivated.
Stress leads to more sick days and increased staff turnover. For employers, this means lower productivity and reduced employee satisfaction. It is in employers’ best interests to help workers recognise the signs of toxic stress and help them to address it.