The Causes, Signs and Symptoms of Work-Related Stress

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

Work overload can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion that leads to symptoms such as headaches, stomach complaints and difficulties sleeping. We can see the signs of work overload in people when they become inflexible, critical, irritable, and when they deny having a problem. Left to fester, they become cynical, tired, detached and prone to making errors and mental health starts to suffer. These are all signs of burnout.

Work underload is the extreme opposite of burnout yet its effects can be just as marked. A dull, repetitive, unrewarding job with no prospects can quickly lead to boredom. Left unchecked, apathy sets it and productivity slows. Such jobs can become highly stressful as there is no outlet other than grumbling. In worst case scenario's workers may even resort to minor acts of sabotage that can negatively affect products or customers. These are all symptoms of 'rust-out'

Fear of job loss during difficult economic times can do strange things to people. They may find themselves turning up earlier than usual for work, taking shorter breaks, staying longer and volunteering for extra work in an attempt to show dedication and perhaps increase their profile. They may refuse to take a day off sick, even when it is needed. Turning into work when sick is called presenteeism and it's a sign of vulnerability and work anxiety

Workaholics are almost completely preoccupied with work. Work is the top priority and dominates all other considerations including relationships, family and friends. While some workaholics get a buzz from work, others use work to deflect attention from deeper issues such as depression, troubled relationships, or the fear of job loss, or of losing personal control. In such situations excessive patterns of work may mask a developing issue of stress that is simply accumulating and at some point may lead to illness.

Technology is both an asset and a curse. In principle, and often in practice, we are contactable 24 hours a day. Whereas work used to be located in a building that we could walk away from, it now follows us about via email, texts, and various other social media outlets. Some people have found ways to manage this and can divide their time between personal life and work life. Increasingly however there is an expectation, often unstated, that people should be available to meet the needs of work when necessary. The stress of work technology is a relatively new feature and its one that is fueling debates over how it affects our quality of life.

Workplace bullying takes many forms and includes rudeness, spreading gossip, being given impossible deadlines, ageist or sexist comments and more besides. Most of the time we get along with people because we sign up to accepted modes of behavior. We are polite, we try to be helpful, and if we take we try to give back. But people are a pretty mixed bunch and sometimes they don't share this agenda. The effects of bullying are so harmful some experts claim they are worse than sexual harassment.

Signs of work-related stress also tend to vary because of the type of work involved and lifestyles out of work. The most common signs are likely to include the need to work longer hours. A sense that there is never enough time. There's little or no time for relaxation. Rushing to complete things. Missing breaks. Missing vacation entitlements. Spending less time with family and friends.

Symptoms of work-related stress tend to vary because we all react to stress in different ways. However, the most common psychological symptoms include inability to concentrate, loss of motivation, and a lack of confidence and commitment to work. Emotionally, there is a tendency to become more sensitive, more irritable, and to feel more negative or have depressive feelings. This combination of psychological and emotional upsets often shows in physical symptoms that typically include headaches, back pain, digestion and bowel problems. Eating patterns may change, sleep patterns may alter and drinking alcohol or drug use may increase.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of