Causes of work-related stress

Research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive has indicated that:

  • about half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill
  • up to 5 million people in the UK feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work
  • stress-related illness is responsible for the loss of 6.5 million working days each year
  • costs society about £3.7 billion every year (at 1995/6 prices) (Cartwright and Cooper 2002)

In 2001, the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) provided funds to the University of Plymouth for a three-year nationwide study of occupational stress in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The primary aim of this study was to provide stress benchmarks for Higher Education, to enable comparisons with other professions and intra-sector comparisons with cognate HEIs (i.e. old versus new universities) (Tytherleigh, Webb, Cooper and Ricketts 2005). The main causes of stress identified in all HEI's were:

  • long hours
  • job security, particularly in relation to terms of employment and stress levels
  • work relationships
  • resources and communications

These issues are explored in more detail below.

Work-related stressors


This is the extent to which individuals feel that the demands of their workload and the associated time pressures are a source of pressure, for example:

  • unrealistic deadlines and expectations, often as a result of super achievement by the most talented
  • technology overload
  • unmanageable workloads
  • under recruitment of staff for work already timetabled


The experience of pressure is strongly linked to perceptions of control. Lack of influence and consultation in the way in which work is organized and performed can be a potential source of pressure, for example:

  • lack of control over aspects of the job
  • lack of involvement in decision making
  • account not taken of staff ideas/suggestions about the job
  • lack of influence over performance targets
  • lack of time

Work relationships

Many jobs demand regular contact with other people at work. Poor or unsupportive relationships with colleagues and/or supervisors can be a potential source of pressure. In addition, pressure can occur if individuals feel isolated or unfairly treated.

Poor work relationships can be a result of:

  • aggressive management style
  • lack of support from others
  • isolation at work
  • aversive behaviour, e.g. bullying and harassment
  • lack of understanding and leadership
  • manager forever finding fault
  • others not pulling their weight
  • others take credit for personal achievements
  • poor relationships with colleagues

Job security

This is the extent to which lack of job security and job changes are a source of pressure, for example:

  • job insecurity
  • lack of job permanence, e.g. temporary/fixed term contracts
  • future job change
  • fear of skill redundancy

Work-life balance

The demands of work have the potential to spill over and affect personal and home life and so put a strain on relationships outside work, for example:

  • long hours: being expected to or having to work additional hours at home to the detriment of personal, partner and family relationships
  • over-demanding and inflexible work schedules
  • unsocial hours
  • excessive travel time
  • work interfering with home/personal life

Resources and communication

To perform a job effectively, individuals need to feel that they have appropriate training, equipment and resources. They also need to feel that they are adequately informed and that they are valued. Stress may result from lack of:

  • information about what is going on in the organisation
  • feedback on performance
  • adequate training to do the job
  • equipment/resources to do the job

Pays and benefits

The financial rewards associated with a job are important in terms of lifestyle. They are also often perceived to be an indication of an individual's worth and value to the organisation. Although financial reward may not be a prime motivator, it could become a factor if there are other negative aspects of the job.

Aspects of the job

These are potential sources of stress that relate to the fundamental nature of the job itself. Factors such as the physical working conditions, type of tasks and the amount of satisfaction derived from the job.

  • job is unlikely to change in the next 5–10 years
  • poor physical working conditions
  • fear of physical violence
  • work performance closely monitored
  • organisation changes for change's sake
  • dull and repetitive work
  • dealing with difficult customers/clients
  • lack of enjoyment of job


  1. Cartwright, S and Cooper C.L. (2002). ASSET: An Organisational Stress Screening Tool — The Management Guide. Manchester, RCL Ltd.
  2. Tytherleigh, M.Y., Webb. C., Cooper, C.L. and Ricketts, C. (2005). Occupational stress in UK Higher Education Institutions: a comparative study of all staff categories. Higher Education Research & Development, Vol 24:1, pp 41–61.