Identifying and tackling sources of stress at work

Posted on September 27th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

Surveys repeatedly find that many people report feeling stress as a result of their work.

I have written before about the fact that stress is not something that simply happens to you. You can take steps to deal with the emotional impact of problematic situations.

However, the best way to reduce stress is often to tackle the particular problem that is bothering you such as an individual colleague, a difficult situation or an ongoing conflict. Sometimes when you feel very overwhelmed though, it can feel as if everything is wrong. Thankfully, researchers led by Jan Hyld Pejtersen at the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Denmark have developed a questionnaire to measure particular sources of stress. By considering the categories of difficulty that Pejtersen’s team have identified, you may be better equipped to identify exactly what is bothering you so that you can tackle that particular problem or issue, person or people.

Let’s look at some of these categories to see how your life may be affected by your work.

Is your workload bothering you?
What in particular about your tasks and projects is causing you stress? Consider the following questions:

  • To what degree are you overwhelmed by too much to do? If this is the case, consider renegotiating (getting agreement on what you can stop working on), prioritising (finding ways to do away with less important tasks) or delegating (handing tasks to others).
  • To what extent are you feeling stressed by the pace of your work? If you are feeling that things have to happen too quickly, then look at successful colleagues and see if you can figure out any tricks or shortcuts that they use to do their work faster.
  • To what extent are you feeling stressed by the cognitive demands of your work? This may be the case if you feel that your work is too complex or confusing for you. Perhaps the work challenges your natural talents in ways that you find very uncomfortable. Or you do not have the knowledge or training to do what you are expected to do.
  • To what degree is your work emotionally demanding? Do you have to put on a front – perhaps in order to deal with customers or clients? Are you having to deal with other people’s personal problems or emotionally disturbing situations as part of your work?


Are the actions or inactions of other people bothering you?
The behaviour of certain individuals often causes stress. Consider the following questions in order to figure out who may be bothering you – and how:

  • To what degree is a lack of clarity affecting your work? It may be that you feel unsure about what you should be doing or who you should be going to for support. If you are not sure of your objectives and responsibilities, how can you find out more and gain the clarity that you need?
  • To what extent do you feel recognised and appreciated for your work? Some people experience stress because they do not feel respected or they feel that they are being treated unfairly. If this is the case for you, who are the most challenging individuals – and how might you tackle them?
  • To what extent are specific leaders causing you difficulties? People who are senior to you clearly have an outsized impact on your working life. Who is the issue? And how might you transfer to another team – or find a better organisation all together?

Are you experiencing a conflict of values?
It may not be your particular job or team that is the problem – but the organisation as a whole. To work out whether this is the case for you, consider the following questions:

  • To what extent do you feel that justice is done within the organisation? Justice relates to issues such as the degree to which conflicts are resolved fairly, work is distributed fairly, and suggestions by employees are treated seriously.
  • To what degree is there a climate of trust within the organisation? Do employees without information from each other? Do employees ever undermine each other? In general, do employees trust each other and their leaders?
  • Is a lack of social inclusion impacting upon you? Are women and men treated equally? Are employees of different ethnicities and religions treated well? Do older employees or those with disabilities get singled out unfairly?

It is often difficult to do much about problems that relate to values across an entire organisation. If these sorts of problems are bothering you, then perhaps it may make sense to look elsewhere to other organisations for your future career.

Is your work affecting your personal life – or vice versa?
Sometimes, issues at work can affect your family and personal life. Ask yourself:

  • To what degree are you experiencing insecurity about your work? Are you worried about becoming unemployed? Are you worried about being sidelined, neglected or otherwise pushed aside?
  • How much work-family conflict are you experiencing? To what degree is your work affecting your private life? Do your friends or family tell you that you work too much?
  • How much family-work conflict do you experience? This is the extent to which your personal life may impact your work, e.g. that family or relationship problems in your private life may take up a lot of time or sap your energy.

Taking action
So which of these categories – or the specific problems within each category – apply to you? Once you have identified the particular problems impacting upon you, you can take further action to deal with them.

Start by sitting down for 15 to 20 minutes and making a plan. Talk over your thoughts and get ideas and recommendations from close confidants – people who trust to give you good advice. Then, make sure to take action to tackle the root causes of whatever is causing you stress.

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