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Work stress: definition, types, causes and consequences for health

Work stress: definition, types, causes and consequences for health. Man under stress at work.

Stress has been dubbed the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization. Since early studies, stress was defined as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) or the defense response of the body or the psyche to injury or prolonged stress (Selye, 1956).

Subsequently, numerous authors have attempted to define stress. There is no doubt that the most comprehensive conceptualization of stress was given by McEwen (2000) who described it as, “a real or interpreted threat to the physiological or psychological integrity of an individual that results in physiological and/or behavioral responses” (p. 173).

There are different types of stress depending on several factors such as:

  1. Stress duration.
  2. The stimuli eliciting the initial reaction.
  3. The psychological or physiological consequences triggered by the stressful event.
  4. The environment determining the stress response.

As indicated by points two and four, the workplace is one of the most stressful environments. In this post, we consider the need to address work stress.

Work stress

Work stress is a type of stress associated with the workplace that can be occasional or chronic, although most cases fall under the second type (Cavanaugh, Boswell, Roehling and Boudreau, 2000).

Types of work related stress

It is also important to note that work stress can be positive or negative (Kung & Chan, 2014).

Positive stress in the workplace

Positive stress (eustress) refers to the response to stressors in an adaptive way. The consequences of such response do not affect the overall health of the individual and its duration coincides with the duration of the stimulus, e.g., the stress response triggered during your first day of work is adaptive (positive stress) because you must be alert to new stimuli (tasks, bosses, colleagues, company procedures, etc.).

Negative stress in the workplace

When does this response stop being adaptive and can thus turn into negative stress? Well, if this stress lasts more than a month, the response intensifies over time and begins to interfere with the worker’s health (problems such as insomnia, tachycardia, anxiety and depression, among others) then it would be a case of negative stress at work and should be taken into account (we recommend reading the meta-analysis by Hargrove, Quick, Nelson and Quick, 2011).

Causes of work stress

There are numerous studies focused on finding the most immediate causes and consequences of occupational stress. The following are some of the most noteworthy conclusions:

Conditioning factors of stress at work

In addition, research has shown that certain factors can contribute to job stress and its characteristics. These factors are precipitating or conditioning factors of work-related stress. Although there is no agreed list of these factors, some previous research has considered what these could be: the age of the person experiencing work stress, the type of work, having already suffered from another psychological disorder, the time previously spent unemployed, some personality traits such as neuroticism and psychoticism, the gender of the victim and family responsibilities, among others (Colligan and Higgins, 2006; Ganster and Rosen, 2013).

Consequences of work stress

Finally, the consequences associated with job stress should also be highlighted.

Cognitive consequences

Some studies have focused more on the cognitive consequences involving memory problems (memory lapses and forgetfulness of work-related information), difficulty paying attention to work-related issues, concentration problems, and a decline in the ability to perform several tasks at once (errors in working memory) (Wiegel, Sattler, Göritzand Diewald, 2014; Rickenbach et al., 2014).

Physical consequences

Other studies have been more interested in the physical consequences of job stress and have found that individuals often complain of insomnia, abnormal cardiac markers, hypertension and diabetes, thyroid problems and a large majority suffer from symptoms of skin disorders, as well as migraines and tension-type headaches (Ganster and Rosen, 2013; Heraclides, Chandola, Witte and Brunner, 2012; Kivimäki and Kawachi, 2015; McCraty, Atkinson and Tomasino, 2003).

Emotional consequences

In addition, different studies have examined the emotional consequences of work stress. These include emotional labilitypanic attacksanxiety and depressive symptoms (Tennant, 2001; Brosschot, Verkuil and Thayer, 2016).


In general, it can be concluded that work stress is not always negative but depends on the intensity, duration and adaptive function of the stress response itself. In addition, since there is a lot of research on this subject, we can proactively use the current knowledge regarding its causes, symptoms and consequences to intervene early and prevent stress at work from interfering with our physical and psychological health.


Additional references

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