A recent survey from Gallup offered employers a lot of good news, and overall, indicated that US employees are broadly satisfied with many important aspects of their work, including their employers’ safety provisions, relations with coworkers, and job security.

Worryingly, though, the majority of employees surveyed also indicated that they are unsatisfied with the levels of workplace stress they experience. This is particularly interesting, given the fact that two major stressors from the prior year – workplace safety and job security – have, for the most part, been resolved.

So what’s stressing people out, and why should leaders pay attention to stress on the job?

Let’s talk about job-related stress first, and why proactively reducing on-the-job stress is a good idea. We know that for individuals, stress is unpleasant and unhealthy. But stress and its fraternal twin, frustration, can be extra problematic in the workplace, undermining culture, demotivating people, reducing morale, and even contributing to turnover.

Four reasons why employees are stressed at work

Ferreting out sources of frustration and stress isn’t difficult, but it does require leaders to look at their operations with fresh eyes – and a good way to do that is to get a good look at the employees’ point of view. Here are some examples of hidden stressors at work that can drain peoples’ enthusiasm in a hurry:

  • Unclear priorities. A few years ago, I reported to a guy who was notorious for turning best-laid plans upside down wherever he went. He relished meeting employees at every level one on one, and in those meetings, would often make changes to plans or assign new work that wasn’t subsequently communicated to the appropriate stakeholders. While his intentions were good, the negative consequences were staggering, and what I remember most was the stress and frustration his actions caused for the employees in particular, who assumed that the leaders knew what was going on. Ensuring people have a clear understanding of their roles, responsibilities, and priorities is a super way to remove a lot of stress from the picture.
  • Needless inflexibility. Life happens to all of us – we need to go to the dentist, take care of a sick kid, or take the car into the shop for repairs. However, all too commonly, employees feel they need to beg for time off or flexible arrangements to accommodate these types of common requests. Making it difficult for employees to handle life’s surprises needlessly creates stress. Simple changes in working hours can be a no-cost way to deliver a huge benefit to employees. When I took over my last role, the first thing I did was to allow people to select their own start time, within parameters that ensured we’d all have plenty of access to each other during the day. Several of the team members who were parents were particularly happy with the change, as they could more easily manage their children’s schedule with the flexibility I’d provided. Flextime is easy to offer, and often greatly appreciated.
  • Discouraging time off. In the US, many employers grant employees paid time off. In the UK and many other countries, employers are legally required to give employees time away from work. However, stories abound of company cultures that discourage time off, or make scheduling holidays difficult, and we’re hearing about those more frequently due to labor shortages. Limiting time away from work is tremendously short-sighted – not only does doing so cause stress, but it can also engender resentment and motivate people to leave.
  • Micromanagement & dictatorial control. Whether a manager is hovering over employees, or the firm mandates overtime with no exceptions, the effects will be similar. A lack of autonomy and control over one’s work and circumstances causes stress to skyrocket, and that’s just the beginning of the problems awaiting employers who over-control their people. Environments that limit individuals’ control over their schedules and their work run the risk of burning out employees – and losing them as a result.

By now you should be seeing the pattern: workplace stress can be a precursor to more serious problems, for both the employee and employer. While some stress can’t be avoided, such as when an employee is faced with an unhappy customer, a big project nears the deadline or a problem occurs after a software deployment. However, there are likely opportunities for leaders to remove needless stressors – and those that do so will be rewarded with a happier, healthier team that takes fewer sick days, is more productive, and is less likely to seek employment elsewhere.

How to get started? We recommend going straight to the source, and ask your employees. If you use an engagement platform like Engagement Multiplier, asking for feedback is easy – features like Suggestion Box, which enables employees to submit ideas and feedback anonymously, when convenient for them – are a great option. Simply asking “What can the organisation do to reduce your stress levels on the job?” is likely to net leaders actionable feedback that can be used to make immediate improvements of the sort that will resonate with employees.

(If you don’t use Engagement Multiplier, click the link below for full access to our platform for 30 days, including all of our surveys. The Benchmark Assessment will provide a very clear view of how your employees are faring, and where some may be struggling.)