Workplace stress

Recent studies across the world show an alarming pattern in almost all workplaces.

Here is Australia, statistics on workplace stress show an increasing volume of stress related compensation claims across the last 15 years. There can be little doubt workplace stress is a real and present factor in our working lives.

What is workplace stress?

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety describes workplace stress as:

“the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands”

There is no one single cause of stress in the workplace. It may have many origins or come from one single event and can impact both employees and employers. Some people may find it hard to concentrate, make decisions, and/or lose confidence. Many people experience physical sensations such as increased heart rate, or tense muscles.

Studies show some common factors including but not limited to:
  • working long hours
  • working through breaks or taking work home
  • doing shift work § time pressure, unrealistic expectations
  • not receiving enough support from managers or co-workers
  • job insecurity
  • work that requires high-level decision making and/or high emotional involvement
  • a lack of role clarity or communication 
  • conflict or bullying § low levels of recognition and reward
  • discrimination

Stress at the workplace Employers have a legal obligation to manage workers’ exposure to work-related factors that can increase the risk of stress.

This obligation is the same for self-employed people and contractors. Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) legislation can apply penalties to employers you fail to take appropriate steps to protect the physical and psychological health of their employees.

Best practice suggests management should lookout for warning signs of workplace stress and should develop effective policies and strategies to minimise workplace stress. Some warning signs for both employees and employers include, but are not limited to:

  • a decline in job satisfaction
  • increases in absenteeism and sick leave § increases of staff turnover
  • a reduction in productivity and/or efficiency
  • increases in accidents and injuries
  • increases in workplace conflicts
  • increases in complaints

Employees are within their rights to raise issues regarding workplace stress to their employer and to seek the employer take reasonable steps to address this. For example, an employee can refuse to work overtime, if the request is unreasonable. The Fair Work Act (s62) states overtime can be reasonable so long as the following things are considered:

  • any risk to health and safety from working the extra hours § the employee’s personal situation, including their family responsibilities
  • the workplace's needs
  • if the employee is entitled to receive overtime payments or penalty rates for working the extra hours
  • if they are paid at a higher rate on the understanding that they work some overtime
  • if the employee was given enough notice that they may have to work overtime
  • if the employee has already stated they can’t ever work overtime
  • the usual patterns of work in the industry.

It is important that health and safety issues are considered and managed if an employee must work overtime. A guide to the health and safety implications of an employee working long hours is available on the Safework Australia website.

Workers Compensation

Workers' compensation is a compulsory statutory form of insurance for all employers in every state and territory in Australia and provides protection to workers if they suffer a work-related injury or disease. Each state government regulates their own workers compensation scheme and they may have differences.

To understand workers compensation schemes in your state please look at the relevant link below:


Is there such a thing as good stress?

Some stress is considered useful and necessary to manage our daily challenges however, prolonged or excessive work-related stress can be damaging to mental health and may increase risk of injury, fatigue and/or burnout. The World Health Organisation in 2019 re-defined burnout as an "occupational phenomenon".

The warning signs are identified as overwhelming exhaustion; cynicism; anger and resentment about your job; becoming increasingly emotional; having too much work or too little independence; inadequate pay; a lack of community between co-workers; and a mismatch between workplace and personal values.

Cope with work related stress?

There are many strategies that can help control stress and reduce its impact to a person or in the workplace. Since the causes of workplace stress vary greatly, so do the strategies to reduce or prevent it. Many employers provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) as well as wellness programs and social interaction for staff. Good employers also make sure staff has the training, skills and resources they need and that workplace policies about bullying, respect, discrimination and fairness are adhered to and regularly reviewed.

Please seek appropriate medical advice as a priority to help you manage if you are under stress.

This publication is considered general information only and is not intended to be relied upon as medical or legal advice or as a substitute for medical or legal advice. If you require advice on your specific situation, please contact your Doctor and the Workplace Advice & Support team at Professionals Australia. If you are having thoughts about self-harm please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.