Stressing Out…of the Office

A few months ago, I wrote this blog post about the pandemic of burnout sweeping workplaces in the age of COVID-19. In that article, I cited a definition of burnout as unmanaged “chronic workplace stress,” but I didn’t really touch on other kinds of stress. This week, I want to address workplace stress outside the notion of burnout, in all its forms: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Although our colloquial use of the term “stress” seems to always be negative, no stress is not the ideal. The Yerkes-Dodson law, described by early 20th century psychologists Yerkes and Dodson, demonstrates the impact of stress level on productivity. They found that increasing stress, termed “arousal” in their work, first increases what we’d call motivation, leading to increasing productivity. Only after a certain point does stress become counterproductive. That point varies by task, as noted in this HBR article. For complex projects, less arousal is needed to facilitate optimal productivity. For tasks that require perseverance, more of that psychological pressure leads to better productivity. But in any case, stress can actually be useful, up to a point. After that, it turns ugly.

The Bad and the Ugly

The negative effects of excessive stress can be seen in both health and worker productivity. I already reviewed many of these in my writing on burnout, but here’s a quick overview. Research has linked chronically high stress to increased risk for heart disease, and many studies point to a correlation between stress and health risk behaviors like alcohol consumption and obesity. Stress has also been associated with back pain, fatigue, headaches, and other physical ailments.

Stress further impacts your ability to work productively. This report by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a correlation between high stress and absenteeism at work. Stressed people are less likely to come to work in the first place. Even when one does show up, stress impedes  decision making abilities, as highlighted in this research. Stressed workers are less likely to engage in goal directed decision making and more likely to decide based on heuristics and biases. That effect has been supported by neuroimaging showing lowered activity in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive control, when people are stressed.

According to The American Institute of Stress, these effects have implications for workplaces as a whole, not just individuals. For example, police officers in some municipalities who suffer a heart attack, on or off the clock, are compensated for work-related injury because of the known association between workplace stress and cardiovascular disease. On the whole, the combination of these health costs, absenteeism, high turnover rates, and reduced productivity, all traced back to high stress, are estimated to cost the American economy over $300 billion annually. And that was before COVID-19.

What COVID Has Changed


Moving an enormous segment of the American workforce out of the office and into remote work has changed the landscape of workplace stress drastically. This thorough report by Fingerprint for Success highlights many meaningful statistics about the prevalence of burnout in recent months, including the role stress plays in this disaster. Nearly half of American workers are reporting high or very high stress levels in general, probably reflecting a combination of workplace and “real life” stressors abounding during the pandemic.

That makes sense. The American Institute of Stress has listed negotiating the work-life balance, overwhelming workload, and job insecurity as major causes of workplace stress. These are all factors that have become more salient and challenging to manage in the pandemic. Furthermore, the above-mentioned report cited a 2017 finding that remote workers are more likely to experience high stress than in-office workers, which fits right into the data emerging in 2020. Not surprisingly, given the increased load working women bear, the report also documented higher levels of stress reported by women than men.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic I saw cited in that report, though, is the following: nearly half of American workers don’t have the supports they need at work to manage their stress. While we may feel powerless to stop the tide of the pandemic, and a return to in-office work remains unpredictable for many, there are ways we can counteract stress in our professional lives.

What You Can Change

If you need to assess your stress level quickly, take this Workplace Stress Survey developed by the American Institute of Stress. In 10 questions, you can have a gauge of how well you’re managing the stress in your work life. If you score above 70, you need to make some changes.

Start with some simple strategies. This report suggests setting clearer boundaries for your remote work experience and taking regular breaks. Don’t send or answer work emails after a set time. Don’t sit in front of your computer screen until your brain starts melting. Take time to invest in your health.

Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and professor in Harvard Business School, makes some additional recommendations in this article. In line with the American Institute of Stress defining stress as the result of too little control and too many demands, Gino suggests workers try to increase their sense of control over their work. She also cites this research on how increased leadership and responsibility can actually lower your stress when you feel in control of your work. Further, Gino advocates for authenticity. She points to this research on authenticity as a protective factor that reduces people’s perception of their stress, and these COVID-era findings back that up entirely. When you can, take time for authentic conversations with coworkers. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Be honest. It may just lower your stress.

Leading Preventative Change

Finally, our workplace leaders need to make changes. Researchers investigating workplace stress recommend that workplaces consider stress reduction strategies in their plans to support employee wellness. And while the obvious solution may seem to be stress management education, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health views that as a short-term, ineffective fix. The framework of the workplace needs to change preventatively, to prevent the occurence of stress, not address it when it’s already out of control.

Some companies have already begun with small changes like banning work emails on weeknight evenings and weekends, according to this report. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health further recommends increasing support from supervisors, increasing employee recognition for positive work performance, offering more career development opportunities, and increasing workers’ input on their own deadlines to provide realistic expectations. The American Institute of Stress recommends increasing employee’s mental health literacy by providing more informational material about stress and making counseling resources available. 

Recent research conducted during the pandemic agrees with the need for increased worker autonomy in setting deadlines and adds several suggestions. Workplaces should increase work flexibility, provide more support for caregivers, and offer more virtual team building and socializing opportunities to specifically alleviate the risks of stress brought on by this year’s shift to remote work.

That’s a long list of ideas, any of which could make a profound change for the individuals working through this pandemic and our workplaces. So what are you waiting for? Make a change! And excuse me for a few minutes. I’m going to take a break.