Survey: Nearly 50% of Employees Say Workplace Stress Negatively Impacts Their Health

By Anna McGeehan
Alex Kotliarskyi, Unsplash

“Find a job you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.” This ubiquitous quote gives the impression that if you just find a job that matches your passion, work won’t feel like labor.

If only it were that easy.

We polled 1,000 U.S. workers and found more than 50% feel stressed at least half the time or more during a typical work week, and one out of every four respondents said they would take a pay cut in exchange for a stress-free job.

But experts contend that the quest for the elusive “right job” might not solve all of our workplace woes.

According to the American Institute of Stress, it’s not the job that matters (though it’s important, of course), as much as the “person-environment fit.”

This concept is anchored in the broader field of organizational theory, which postulates that a key to employee happiness (and, subsequently, a higher-performing organization) is aligning the right people with the right tasks in the right environment.

If you think about it, some individuals thrive in a high-stress environment while others want structured tasks. Some prefer to work collaboratively while others like to work independently.

There are different generations too: older workers tend to link their identity to their career while younger generations value flexibility and time outside of the office.

In each of these examples, aligning employees with the right environment can mean the difference between a stressful workplace and a productive workplace.

But what does workplace stress look like for different generations? And is the employer really to blame for everyone’s stress at work? The survey revealed some key findings:

Work-Life Balance

According to the study, 32% of respondents listed work-life balance as their top stressor, followed by money (28%), and a boss (14%).

A poor work-life balance is a primary source of stress for everyone, but especially younger workers. Nearly 36% of employees ages 25 to 34 list work-life balance as the primary stressor, compared to 24% of workers ages 55 to 64.

With a younger workforce expected to account for roughly 75% of the workforce by 2025, the importance of autonomy, flexibility, and engagement will become ever more significant.

The Open Office

These days, nearly 50% of employees work in a cubicle or an open floor plan. This design was supposed to save money and spur collaboration, but researchers say the opposite occurred.

Cubicles and their open floor plans tend to not only undercut collaboration (it’s so noisy, we all end up wearing headphones), but they are actually a significant source of stress.

Nearly 36% of respondents who work in a cubicle reported always being stressed at work, compared to the 28% of employees who work from home and said they are never stressed.

The “Golden Handcuffs”

Many of us end up staying in a stressful job because of the perks: salaries, benefits, repaying student loans, etc.

This is particularly true for younger workers. According to the survey, nearly 50% of 18- to 34-year-olds report having student loans, while only 15% of workers age 55 to 64 have loans.

At the same time, 55% of workers with student loans report always being stressed, compared to 75% without student loans who say they are never stressed.

Of course, it’s likely that older workers spent the last several years paying off their student loans. But as they retire and younger, loan-laden workers take their place, the pressure to stay in a job in order to pay off student debt will likely increase. And with it, workplace stress.

The Impact of Stress on Employers

Stress impacts both employees and employers in significant ways.

High stress, whether it be from the work environment, hours, or a poor supervisor can be very bad for business, according to the Harvard Business Review. Researchers estimate that employee stress and burnout can cost an estimated $125 to $190 billion in health care spending each year, not to mention the impacts of absenteeism and low productivity.

The authors write, “executives need to own up to their role in creating the workplace stress that leads to burnout—heavy workloads, job insecurity, and frustrating work routines that include too many meetings and far too little time for creative work.”

Essentially, working with employees to cultivate a more conducive environment is one step employers can take to mitigate workplace stress.

The Impact of Stress on Employees

On the employee side, respondents said that workplace stress negatively impacts sleep (60%) health (47%), relationships (35%), and sex life (16%).

What’s more, 30% of employees report using prescription medication to manage stress, followed by alcohol (18%), smoking cannabis (11%), or taking CBD oil for anxiety (6%).

Managing stress with alcohol and other prescription medications can certainty alleviate tension after a long day, but after a while, these drugs can exact a significant mental and physical toll. If self-medication continues for a prolonged period, it can alter the body’s natural response to stress and make it harder for the body to regain physiological balance.

Fortunately, greater awareness of the harmful and addictive nature of alcohol and other drugs has increased demand for more natural alternatives.

According to some scientific experts, certain herbal medicines are known to exhibit the same therapeutic effects without the adverse side effects of some conventional medicine.

Supplements like CBD are being widely reviewed and used by medical researchers to treat stress-related conditions such as general and social anxiety and chronic stress.

And unlike alcohol and other drugs, CBD can potentially help protect your body from further stress. CBD and other cannabinoids are potent antioxidants, and research has found CBD to be a “potentially useful therapeutic agent for the treatment of oxidative neurological disorders,” such stress.

Accommodating Everyone?

It may seem daunting, if not impossible, for an employer to accommodate everyone’s ideal work environment while maintaining productivity.

The good news is that a flexible work environment is a powerful carrot these days and has been shown to decrease stress and increase job satisfaction across generations.

The Harvard Business Review writes that “while maximizing employee productivity will always remain a constant goal, ensuring employees have the time they desire away from the office and enjoy their time spent in the office is the best way to retain talented employees and make them lifers, regardless of perceived generational differences.”

With this in mind, we might finally get away from that misguided adage about finding the right job, and instead reduce workplace stress by creating the right environment.

It’s not as catchy, but it’s more likely to create happier, less stressed employees.

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