Last updated: 29.05.23

What are the harmful effects of stress at work?

Stress is something that everyone deals with as part of daily life, but when left unmanaged can lead to a range of problems. It has many negative effects on the individual, as well as those around them, which can become particularly problematic in the workplace. 

In the world of work, stress is becoming a developing problem, with research showing it has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. A survey of UK employees by Cascade HR for the company’s Stress Report revealed that two-thirds of respondents said they had felt stressed at work for a week or more during the previous 12 months. 

One in five people had taken time off because of stress, and four out of five people described stress as a ‘way of life’. Workload was identified as the biggest cause of stress at work, with 68% of workers citing it as the source of their stress, followed by colleague behaviour (47%), juggling work and family pressures (40%) and management style (39%).

Stress can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health, along with making it harder for people to be productive and have positive interactions with others. With stress causing more and more problems in the workplace, employers need to be aware of just how big an impact it can have on individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.

In this article, we explore some of the key effects of workplace stress and share advice on how to reduce stress at work. 

What Causes Stress at Work?

The Health and Safety Executive has outlined six main factors that can cause work-related stress. These factors are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.

The demands of a role may become too much for an employee, who would then start to feel stressed about not being able to fulfil their responsibilities. If an employee doesn’t feel in control of how they can do their job, or what happens to them in their role, this could also cause a lot of stress.

A lack of support is a significant contributor to stress at work, as employees can end up feeling isolated or not having a clear idea of what is expected of them. Workplace relationships can also cause a lot of stress if an employee doesn’t have any close relationships at work or if their relationships are competitive, unkind or even involve bullying.

Similar to demands, an employee can be stressed at work because of their role, either due to the work it requires or the responsibilities that it involves. Change at work is a major contributor to workplace stress for many, especially if it means that roles and teams end up changing as well.

The Signs of Stress at Work

Some of the most prevalent and noticeable symptoms of stress are directly linked to a person's ability to attend work, think clearly and concentrate for sustained periods of time.

Common work-related stress symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Constantly worrying
  • Feeling anxious or fearful
  • Lacking self-esteem
  • Feeling irritable

Understanding the signs of stress at work can be really useful, as you’ll be able to identify when someone is feeling stressed and offer them support before their situation gets worse and starts impacting other people.

The Effect of Stress on the Individual

The symptoms we’ve listed above can have a negative effect on an employee because they can really impact their productivity. Feeling tired and struggling to concentrate make it much harder to complete tasks and deliver work on time, which may lead to their performance dropping or have a wider impact on what the business can deliver.

A stressed employee could also be prone to worries about professional failure and inadequacy, so it's important for employers to show support and understanding. Employees struggling with stress at work should be treated with empathy and offered tools or interventions to reduce their stress and improve their wellbeing.

Someone who is suffering from stress may be so emotionally overwhelmed that they are unable to attend work at all, or if they do come in, the everyday pressures of their job could cause their mental health to decline further. Continuing to be stressed at work without addressing the problem may then lead to significant health problems, as well as cause damage to the individual’s reputation in the workplace if they don’t explain what’s happening.

The Effect of Stress on Co-Workers and Managers

The impact of stress is most acute for the individuals experiencing it, of course, but the repercussions can also spread to the people and teams around those feeling the effects first-hand.

Colleagues and managers will probably want to help anyone who is struggling with stress, but might feel unsure about how to do so. If someone is struggling with feelings of depression or irritability because of stress, they may also react defensively if approached about their mood and work, which can lead to conflict between colleagues or employees and managers.

Stress can also have a snowball effect that employers need to manage carefully. If one person is taking time off because of stress, their co-workers could start to have worries of their own about managing a heavier workload. This can lead to more stress within teams or departments if someone is signed off from work with stress, especially if the person who has left is a manager or has a lot of responsibilities.

Furthermore, absences in the workforce can lead to disgruntled clients and practical difficulties in how a business operates, placing a greater strain on the entire workforce.

The Effect of Stress on an Organisation

Protecting staff’s health and wellbeing should always be the priority for an employer, but occurrences of stress in the workforce will inevitably affect a business on a financial and operational level.

Firstly, there is a risk that productivity will suffer. If an employee has been experiencing stress for some time but hasn't come forward about it, their level of output and efficiency could have diminished gradually over a long period. This may have led to deadlines not being met, unclear instructions or a lower quality of work.

Like all health problems, stress can also pose financial risks for employers and the economy as a whole. A study released by FirstCare showed that workplace absence costs the UK economy £18 billion in lost productivity each year. Individual organisations with employees taking extended periods off work may also have to pay for temporary staff to plug gaps in the workforce.

If an organisation gains a reputation for having a lot of stressed employees or a stressful office environment, it may also see fewer applications for new job openings if word gets around that it’s not a very enjoyable place to work.

How to Reduce Stress at Work

For the sake of individual workers, teams and the organisation as a whole, employers need to take proactive steps to identify and mitigate the effects of stress in the workplace. 

If you’re tasked with how to reduce stress at work, potentially beneficial measures include:

  • Conducting targeted risk assessments to identify stress risk factors and address potential safety concerns resulting from stress
  • Holding regular one-on-one consultations where employees can discuss their concerns about stress in confidence
  • Providing bespoke training to help managers and safety representatives identify, assess and manage occupational and non-occupational stress
  • Making reasonable adjustments to working methods or arrangements to manage stress factors
  • Providing staff with wellbeing support such as access to mindfulness classes or apps, a wellbeing budget, free counselling services and regular company-wide events promoting mental resilience

Introducing focused and relevant provisions to manage workforce stress looks set to grow in importance over the coming years, particularly for employers taking a proactive approach to staff health and wellbeing. This is good news in terms of managing stress at work, as it will give tested frameworks and approaches for employers to implement to help create less stressful workplace environments.


How long can you be signed off from work with stress?

The amount of time that you can be signed off from work with stress varies on a case-by-case basis. Usually, a health professional will assess your condition and how much of an impact the stress is having on you, and then decide how much time you need to recover. This can vary from anywhere from two weeks to several months.

What proportion of work-related illness is due to stress?

According to data from HSE, 51% of work-related illness is due to stress, depression or anxiety. On top of this, 55% of the working days lost were also due to these mental health conditions. 

What factors cause workplace stress?

The six main factors that cause workplace stress are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Any one or more of these factors can make a person feel stressed when they are at work or cause stress in their personal life relating to work.


Workplace stress is something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their career, and whilst this is considered relatively normal if it only happens occasionally, it should never have a detrimental impact on your health and ability to work. Having open and accepting attitudes towards workplace stress is an important part of ensuring that employees get the help they need, but employers should also ensure that they’re taking steps to provide support and remove any systematic factors that are causing stress at work.

If you’re looking for more support in managing workplace stress, we offer an online ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Resource Pack’ and a ‘Supporting Your Staff Through Mental Health’ online training course, both of which offer plenty of guidance and advice for reducing stress at work.