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Workplace stress — the $300B business problem that’s only getting worse

Work-related stress is skyrocketing. It’s taking a serious toll on employee health, contributing to a staggering 120,000 deaths every year.1 Employers are feeling it, too, because as workplace stress increases, so do other things — like health care costs, absenteeism, and turnover rates. The growing negative impact of stress has become too big to ignore — making stress management and resilience training workforce health strategies worth exploring.

Stress is bad for health — and business

Unchecked stress contributes to many serious and costly health problems: physical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. As a result, health care costs are nearly 50% higher for chronically stressed employees.2 And stress is the single most important health risk factor in predicting workers’ compensation claim occurrence and cost.3

There’s also a direct relationship between high levels of employee stress and a drastic decline in productivity and retention. Highly stressed workers miss more than twice as many days as their less stressed peers.4 Nearly half of U.S. employees say workplace stress has caused them to check out or stop caring — and 42% have quit a job due to stress.5,6

The high cost of stress: The cost of stress is $300 billion a year when you factor in health care, absenteeism, lost productivity, turnover, and legal/insurance costs.
Employees are stressed – but not for the reasons employers think. To address workplace stress effectively, employers need to understand its root causes. Employers think that the top three sources of stress are lack of work-life balance, inadequate staffing, and digital connectivity during nonworking hours. Employees say that the top three sources of stress are inadequate staffing, low pay, and company culture.

The anatomy of an overstressed workplace

Every workplace is different. There’s no universal cause — or solution — for excessive workplace stress, but there are certain telltale signs and common themes and patterns, including:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Limited opportunities for growth
  • Undefined career paths
  • Lack of autonomy and control over job-related decisions
  • Conflicting demands or unclear expectations
Stress is contagious – but so is wellness. 30% of employees report secondhand stress from colleagues, while 20% feel better themselves when colleagues have healthy stress habits.

Consider this: Nearly 40% of employees work 50 or more hours per week.7 Are they getting more done, or just getting more stressed?

The misguided martyr mentality
Working long hours has almost become a badge of honor — the idea is that the more you work, the more you accomplish, and the more important and valuable you are. But in reality, productivity decreases dramatically at 50 hours per week and becomes practically nonexistent after 55.8
Bottom line: Encourage and model a healthy company culture.

The trappings of technology burnout
Just like laptops and smartphones, employees need time to recharge. But many stay digitally connected to work 24/7, which can lead to an unhealthy fixation with answering calls and emails around the clock. The mere expectation of constant availability increases stress and can lead to physical and mental burnout.
Bottom line: Set clear expectations and support healthy boundaries.

The myth of multitasking
The human brain can’t really multitask, only rapidly switch back and forth between competing tasks. This uses up the fuel your brain needs to focus — which is exhausting. It also requires you to repeatedly reorient your mind to the task at hand — which is incredibly unproductive. Constant task-switching increases stress, diminishes work quality, and has been shown to reduce productivity by around 40%.9
Bottom line: Give employees the flexibility to truly focus.

Stress is the number 1 concern for employers. Chronic stress increases risk for obesity, lack of physical activity, and poor nutrition, which are other top concerns of employers.

5 steps to address stress at work

  1. Gather employee feedback:
    • Talk to employees during one-on-one or team meetings
    • Work with your HR team to create an anonymous survey
    • Hold a workshop to identify common stressors and brainstorm possible solutions
  2. Make simple changes that help minimize stress, such as:
    • Clearly defining roles, responsibilities, and goals
    • Empowering employees to take ownership of their work
    • Aligning company policies with best practices for preventing stress and burnout
  1. Educate employees about available stress management and mental health resources, including your EAP and health plan.
  2. Enlist a team of volunteers to explore activities like:
    • Meditation or yoga
    • Mindfulness programs or apps
    • Resilience training
  3. Continue asking for feedback to measure progress and adjust. Ideally, at some point stress management becomes stress prevention.

Combating stress through human connection — and humor

Work is serious business — but humor is a highly effective stress management tool. Studies show that infusing some levity and fun into the workplace can increase productivity and effectiveness.

Sharing a laugh reduces tension, enhances creativity, builds trust, and fosters collaboration. Humor also helps people connect with one another, and employees who have positive relationships with co-workers are less stressed, higher performing, and happier at work overall. Creating opportunities for your team to lighten up and laugh together can help employees be more resilient — and sets the tone for a healthy, happy, loyal work culture.

Laughing matters at work. When stress goes down, so does conflict, isolation, and negativity. When creativity goes up, so does cooperation, flexibility, and trust.

Making room for flexibility

There’s a lot to be said for letting employees discover their own working style. Freedom to prioritize what’s most important at the time — work, health, family, etc. — helps minimize conflict between work life and home life. So it’s no surprise that when flexibility is an option, employees have lower levels of stress and better health overall.10 Plus, flexibility is highly important to employees:11

  • 70% say it’s just as important as salary or health benefits
  • 73% say it makes them happier in their roles
  • 77% say it’s a major reason to take or leave a job

Finding balance and moving forward

Some degree of stress will always be a fact of working life. And work certainly isn’t the sole cause of employee stress. But addressing stress at work and investing in stress management resources benefits everyone. Making it part of your overall workforce wellness strategy is a step toward a healthier, happier culture where employees have the support they need to bring their best to work every day.

About our expert

Nicole Stelter

Nicole Stelter is Kaiser Permanente’s mental health customer engagement leader. She’s a consultant for occupational health, wellness, employee assistance program, and disability management services.

She has a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology and a master’s degree in counseling psychology. She has more than 25 years of experience in workforce behavioral health and human capital strategies, including benefits programming, leadership behavior, and organizational culture.

From 2010 to 2015, Nicole was a reserve behavioral health officer in the California Army National Guard with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program for soldier and family resilience.

  • 1

    Joel Goh et al., “The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States,” Management Science, March 13, 2016.

  • 2

    “Stress at Work,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,, accessed May 29, 2019.

  • 3

    Natalie V. Schwatka et al., “Health Risk Factors as Predictors of Workers’ Compensation Claim Occurrence and Cost,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2017.

  • 4

    David McNeice, “Is Workplace Stress Affecting Your Company’s Bottom Line?”, July 26, 2016.

  • 5

    Brianna Hansen, “Crash and Burnout: Is Workplace Stress the New Normal?” Wrike Blog, September 6, 2018,

  • 6

    “Dangerously Stressful Work Environments Force Workers to Seek New Employment,” press release, April 16, 2014.

  • 7

    Lydia Saad, “The “40-Hour” Workweek is Actually Longer — by Seven Hours,” Gallup, August 29, 2014,

  • 8

    John Pencavel, “The Productivity of Working Hours,” The Economic Journal, June 3, 2014.

  • 9

    Tim Newman, “Multitasking Brain Mechanisms Examined,”, June 23, 2017,

  • 10

    2016 National Study of Employers, Society for Human Resource Management, 2017.

  • 11

    The State of Flexible Work Arrangements,” Zenefits, 2018.