Work and stress: An unhealthy association? By Brendan Pawsey

Work is an important component of adult life. Yet despite it being such an important and large part of our adult life, people experience a range of problems and impacts related to work, including stress. Research from a number of countries suggests that people report work-related stress as being more concerning than stress related to health or financial issues. Data from the US shows that around 40% of people say that work is either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressful.
Stress is experienced by all people. In fact stress is both normal and necessary for all humans. For many of us it is stress, or the pressure we feel, that gets us up and out of bed each day, assists us when we have timelines to meet, or encourages us to undertake actions which we find challenging. However, stress can become burdensome, especially.
The impact of work-related stress on organisations and companies is measured in many ways, including reduced productivity and profits and increased staff turnover. When individuals suffer from the impact of stress so too does the company output and bottom line, and the economy as a whole.
For individuals, the results of work-related stress can be devastating. It is now well documented that stress affects our health in many ways, including causing physiological and psychological changes, increasing likelihood of illnesses and poor health behaviours, and impinging on work performance and impacting on relationships and family life. Stress can manifest in many ways, including sleep and mood disturbance, and is associated with cardiovascular disease and depression and anxiety (among others). Many of the stress related outcomes especially reduced performance, and absenteeism, can be detected and monitored easily in the workplace.
These aspects of stress and its impacts on individuals can however “fly under our radar”, and only cross our consciousness when it is so problematic that day to day functioning is impacted. It is this impact on our functioning that we should avoid. Individuals should be supported to be mindful of sustained stress (cumulative) or sudden rises in stress levels (acute). The good news is, that we can learn more about ourselves, how we experience stress (which is unique), the impact it has on us, and what we can do about reducing the likelihood of being stressed, and reducing its affect when it is present.
Employers can play a crucial part in providing access to programs and initiatives that support the dissemination of evidence based education, and the development of effective strategies for coping with stress. Workplace health & wellbeing initiatives have been shown to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, improve employee engagement, recruitment and retention and positively influence workplace culture. A US-based study found that for every dollar spent on wellness programs, medical costs fall by $3.27 and absenteeism by $2.73. Evidence also suggests that workplace health promotion and disease prevention programs save companies money in health care expenditures and produce a positive return on investment. Workplaces can play an important part in developing a resilient workforce that leads to reduced impact on the health system, and a positive impact on company bottom lines.
Work related stress is clearly concerning. Its impact on individuals, companies and the systems that support them is extremely costly. Wellbeing initiatives within the workplace have been shown to be effective, and action should be taken by companies and organizations to implement such programs. 
About the author
Brendan Pawsey is senior psychologist and director at Frameworks For Health.  Website:

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