Stress is a word used loosely in the community and is a complex emotional experience. Positive challenges motivate people psychologically and physically to learn new skills and master their jobs. This good stress can lead to high levels of satisfaction and productivity. However, challenges can also be personally distressing and disruptive.

Work that results in a person feeling unable to cope and unsupported may lead to an adverse psychological reaction known as stress and may lead to illness, injury and job failure. However, stress is not just feeling sad, upset or angry. It is interactive and people can have very different responses to the same factors.

It is estimated that in Australia over $200 million is paid in compensation claims for stress-related conditions each year.  We do know that some workplace factors may contribute to stress reactions. These stressors may develop due to a sudden traumatic experience or may build up over time.

Common stressors in the workplace may include:

  • work which is monotonous or lacks variety
  • too much or too little work to do
  • work that involves employees having to hide their feelings when dealing with customers
  • performing work that goes against personal or social standards
  • unpredictable, long or unsocial working hours
  • poorly designed shift systems
  • employees being unable to participate in decisions about their work or control how they do it
  • environmental conditions such as poor lighting, excessive noise or heat
  • low sense of achievement or few learning opportunities
  • complex or inadequate equipment or technology
  • inadequate communication systems with supervisors or co-workers
  • recruitment policies which fail to ensure employees have suitable skills for the work and do not adequately train staff
  • inconsistent people management or not in line with workplace policies, e.g. discrimination related to performance appraisal
  • conflicting demands of home, family and work

There are no legislative provisions explicitly requiring employers to protect employees from work-related stress. However, the general duty of care under Section 19 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 requires employers to ensure that workers are safe from risks to health and safety and that the work environment is safe. This includes looking out for and reducing work related stressors.

Workplace stress can result in physical, emotional and psychological injury, some of which include:

  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Gastrointestinal upsets
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Interpersonal difficulties
  • Aggression or passive behaviour
  • Substance abuse

Workplace stress has also been linked to an increase in aggression and violence in the workplace, accidents and absenteeism. This has proven to be a very costly exercise in relation to the bottom line in terms of lost time, increased insurance premiums and a less productive workforce.

Reducing workplace stress

To try and overcome the factors that can lead to workplace stress, the challenge for both management and employees is to establish policies, procedures and guidelines which ensure that workplace stress issues are effectively managed. To ensure that stressors are identified and assessed it is important that consultation takes place with employees. Decreased job performance and morale, increased conflict, sick leave and staff turn over are signs to monitor when looking for workplace stress.

Effective ways of managing workplace stress include:

1.  provision of support to employees in the form of competent colleagues, coaches and mentors, and professional networks

2.  assessment of employee workload through collection of views of peers, supervisors and managers

3.  managing significant changes in the organisation in an orderly way with as much consultation as possible, and keeping employees fully informed of the plans and progress at each stage

4.  establishing a standard conflict resolution mechanism through which employees can address matters such as conflict with peers or supervisors

5.  promotion of work/life balance and introduction of flexible work options such as paid parental leave, part-time work, flexible start and finish times, flex-days and job-sharing

6.  having an effective counselling procedure


All of these strategies are simple, make good business sense, and can effectively contribute to employers fulfilling their WHS obligations by providing a workplace in which stress is minimised.

Where stress in the workplace is caused, for example, by a physical agent, it is best to control it at its source. If the workplace is too loud, control measures to deal with the noise should be implemented where ever possible. If you are experiencing pain from repetitive strain, workstations can be re-designed to reduce repetitive and strenuous movements.

Job design is also an important factor. Good job design accommodates an employee’s mental and physical abilities. In general, the following job design guidelines will help minimize or control workplace stress:

1.   the job should be reasonably demanding (but not based on “sheer endurance”) and provide the employee with at least a minimum of variety in job tasks.

2.   the employee should be able to learn on the job and be allowed to continue to learn as their career progresses.

3.   the job should comprise some area of decision-making that the individual can call his or her own.

4.   there should be some degree of social support and recognition in the workplace.

5.   the employee should feel that the job leads to some sort of desirable future.



Workplace stress
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety website.

Workplace stress
SafeWork SA guideline for workplace health and well being.

WorkSafe Victoria Officewise A Guide to Health & Safety in the Office
PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal Workplace Stress
SafeWork SA