Work Shouldn’t Make You Crazy: How Job Stress Affects Mental Health

A recent headline from PsyBlog, “How Long-Term Stress Causes Serious Mental Disorders,” really caught my attention. Just about everyone I know is stressed these days, especially at work. And while stress doesn’t feel good, the idea that it could actually cause someone to develop a mental disorder is too much. I get stressed just thinking about it.


What is stress?


According to the American Psychological Association, stress is “the pattern of specific and nonspecific responses an organism makes to stimulus events that disturb its equilibrium and tax or exceed its ability to cope.” In other words, when our resources aren’t sufficient to meet others’ (or our own) expectations, stress ensues.


Stress and the workplace


The 2013 Work Stress Survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Everest College found that 83 percent of employees are stressed about heavier workloads and low pay. 2013 marked the third year of the study and the third year low wages were listed as a top stressor.


Other stressors included annoying coworkers (11 percent), commuting (11 percent), working in a job that is not a chosen career (8 percent), poor work-life balance (7 percent), lack of opportunity for advancement (6 percent), and fear of being fired or laid off (4 percent).


Stress and the brain


Stress is more than an inconvenience. Getting back to that disturbing PsyBlog article, scientists at UC Berkley found that long-term stress may change the physiology of the brain, by causing it to produce fewer neurons and more myelin.


According to the article, an imbalance between white (myelin) and gray (neurons) matter in the brain “may disrupt the delicate timing involved in how parts of the brain communicate with each other.” The article further states, “This disruption may well be one of the biological underpinnings of serious mental disorders,” such as schizophrenia, autism, depression, ADHD, and PTSD.


Talk about adding insult to injury.


What can employers do?


A Fact Sheet published by the American Psychological Association claims that stress costs employers $300 billion annually in absenteeism; turnover; diminished productivity; and medical, legal, and insurance costs. So, it absolutely behooves employers to take steps to reduce worker stress.


And the World Health Organization (WHO) offers a surprising suggestion toward that end—provide recognition and respect.


Says the WHO:


“Recent research in the domain of occupational health psychology shows that many stressful experiences are linked to being offended—for instance, by being offended or ridiculed, by social exclusion, by social conflict, by illegitimate tasks. Such experiences of being treated in an unfair manner constitute “Offense to Self,” and this may have quite far reaching consequences in terms of health and well-being.”


An ongoing problem


While 17 percent of respondents to that 2013 Work Stress Survey reported having no stress at all from work, we know there’s no such thing as a stress-free job. And that means everyone must take steps to manage stress.


However, it could be argued that employers have a special responsibility to provide a work environment free from unnecessary stress—not to mention the financial incentive to do so.

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