Ask anyone where they feel most stressed, and usually the answer you’ll get back is ‘at work’. Because it’s true – work is the most common cause of stress in the UK population.
Unrecognised and untreated, the effects of high stress levels can impact our overall physical and mental wellbeing, our personal lives and our productivity. Despite this, stress levels are continuing to rise, imposing a need to address just how prevalent it has become in today’s society. The apparent lack of support surrounding workplace stress has now risen to the surface, putting the companies we work for under the spotlight and offering up a chance to interrogate exactly what our employers are doing to combat this business epidemic.
The new statistics we’ve collated reveal the severity of stress across a wide range of industries, as well as how age, wage and occupation correlate with stress levels.
We’re unpicking the key stats that reveal the reasons behind workplace stress and finding out what businesses and their employees can do to encourage a healthier, happier workforce.
of workers in the UK have experienced work-related stress
Stress level by industry: most to least
- Human health and social work
- Finance and insurance
- Public administration and defence
- Administrative and support services
- Transportation and storage
- Wholesale and retail trade
- Scientific and technical
- Accommodation and food services
- Information and communication
Is stress industry based?
In an analysis spanning multiple UK industries, we collected data to compare working hours, incidence of stress and number of working days lost due to employee stress. From this, we calculated the percentage difference against national averages for each industry. That value allowed us to create this ranking table, showing the highest to the lowest levels of stress per industry.
Information and communication is ranked the least stressful industry to work in
The most stressed industry
Compared with the population average, human health and social work came out on top as the most stressful industry to work in. This includes those working in the medical profession, carers, and social workers. The nature of this type of work means the amount of stress could be attributed to a combination of long hours, growing staff shortages, and responsibility for the health – and often survival – of human lives.
You might assume that as workers bring home larger and larger paycheques, stress levels climb accordingly. That isn’t borne out by the data. Even though the information and communication category averages the highest levels of gross pay, it only reports more cases of stress than three other industries: transportation and storage, construction, and accommodation and food services.
The industry with the lowest wage – accommodation and food services – also reported the fewest cases of workplace stress. More in-depth research would be needed to explore these relationships between pay and stress, but again the numbers here hint that there’s far more to the picture than money.
There does appear to be a link between age and stress levels, with the number of reported cases growing within each bracket and peaking for the 45-54-year-olds before dropping off for the over 55s. As well as the growing pressures that come with career progression – you’re more likely to find heightened stress in a 50-year-old director than a 23-year-old assistant – non-work factors will likely play a role as staff face the financial burden of retirement, age-related health problems and so on.
Age and gender
Add gender into the mix and the stats show that women experience higher stress levels than men. As these numbers rely on self-reporting, there could be two reasons for this disparity.
Firstly, there’s a well-documented stigma surrounding men’s mental health that leaves them statistically less likely to disclose mental health difficulties and seek help. This, in part, will account for the lower level of self-reported stress, as men are more likely to fly under the radar.
Secondly, despite women’s roles drastically changing over the last 60 years, the traditional responsibilities of women in the family and the home are not only still apparent but are now also being juggled with demanding jobs. That could account for the peak in women’s stress levels between the ages of 35-44. As the average age for women becoming first-time mothers is around 29, within that bracket there could be women responsible for a family with small children.
Estimated prevalence and rates of self-reported stress, depression or anxiety caused or made worse by work, by age & gender
Causes of workplace stress
Over the last two years, nearly 600,000 workers in the UK suffered from work-related stress. Why?
Unsurprisingly, workload is the leading cause of stress in the workplace. Tight deadlines, mounting tasks and the pressure we put on ourselves to perform well are all at play here. Combine this with a lack of workplace support and employees feel not only more stressed, but also worryingly isolated.
Quelling stress and championing wellbeing
Unfortunately, many of the factors that contribute to stress, such as workload, are typically not in our direct control. When we get stressed, having some simple techniques to hand – such as mindfulness and meditation exercises – can help. The benefits of self-led meditation are entering public awareness more and more each day, and the business world is cottoning on – a growing number of employers and workspaces are offering amenities such as meditation rooms and guided mindfulness courses.
A positive working environment is essential to the productivity and success of a business and the people it employs. When looking at potential office locations for Grubhub, we knew we wanted a bright and airy space, a friendly atmosphere and facilities that made collaboration easier. I liked the feel of the place as soon as I walked through the door.Dan CohenManaging Director (UK) of Seamless.com – a tenant of TOG Henry Wood House
Mark Briant, director of wellbeing consultancy company Mobfit, teaches mindfulness as part of the brand’s package to improve the health and happiness of office workers.
We’ve seen first-hand how mindfulness can help calm the mind. […] It allows you to be more present and better able to communicate thoughtfully, making it a useful tool when presenting, participating in meetings and even having everyday conversations with colleagues.Mark BriantDirector, Mobfit
How to practice wellbeing
When stress levels are high, taking care of our wellbeing is often the first thing to slip. Maintaining a good standard of wellbeing can be as simple as making sure these things are a top priority.
Doing that can be as simple as:
- Maintaining a regular exercise regime
- Eating a balanced diet
- Getting outdoors
- Taking personal time
- Spending time with friends and family
Combine this with an understanding of preventative measures and management solutions and handling stress becomes a much easier task. Experts at the NHS recommend staying active as a way to reduce stress:
Exercise won't make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you're feeling, clearing your thoughts and letting you deal with your problems more calmly.NHS
For employers, the number of initiatives at hand to help bolster the wellbeing of their workforce is already large and growing. In the US, mindfulness is a part of the wellness strategies of giants including Nike, Google and Goldman Sachs.
Beyond mindfulness, flexible working options appear to have positive impacts on stress levels. According to one study, 59% of flexible workers reported that their flexible arrangements had a positive effect on their workplace stress levels, and 80% said that it benefited their work-life balance.
However, experts have taken pains to point out that it’s not enough for employers to simply offer the chance to participate in wellness activities. Rather, they must actively cultivate and promote an all-encompassing culture of wellness. Offering mindfulness workshops and flexible working while also subjecting workers to long workweeks and rewarding workaholism only sends mixed messages and papers over the underlying issues that negatively impact employee health.
Occasionally you may need to work longer hours to get something done but try to claim this time back later if you can. Don't do too much at once. Give each task your full attention. It often takes longer if you try to do too much at the same time.Mind
Balance your time
Looking at introspective methods, Mind, the mental health charity, advocate the need to accept the things we cannot change, but ensure we promise ourselves that time back to keep the balance.
The causes of workplace stress may never go away, which means that as a society, we need to learn how to manage our careers without suffering the consequences of stress that often come with them.
By understanding when stress is creeping up, we can immediately take measures to identify it and reduce it. This is helped by the added measures companies are taking to ensure that the stigma around work stress is being removed and the facilities that help keep our wellbeing at work in check are present and promoted.
Having a happy, healthy and engaged work force is better for the company and the people in it. If everyone is to succeed at work, employees need to be looked after inside and out.
Methodology & data
Quantitative data was collected from governing departments and bodies, through market research and various corporations research. The qualitative data was gathered through various health organisations, charities, personal accounts and fitness brands.
- Health and Safety Executive - Cases of workplace stress by industry
- Health and Safety Executive - Prevalence of self-reported illness by type
- Health and Safety Executive - Cases of workplace stress by age and gender
- Health and Safety Executive - Cases of workplace stress by occupation
- Health and Safety Executive - Cases of workplace stress by cause
- Health and Safety Executive - Work related stress depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain, 2018
- Office for National Statistics - Average weekly earnings by industry
- Office for National Statistics – Gender pay gap reporting 2018
- Office for National Statistics - Birth characteristics in England and Wales: 2017
- Office for National Statistics – Probability of Automation
- Perkbox - Workplace stress report
- Mind – Workplace mental heath
- World Health Organisation – Wellbeing at work
- Global Banking Finance Review - Rise of the freelancer
- Vitality – Health at work survey
- The Office Group - Eternal sunshine of the freelance mind
- NHS – Reducing Stress
- Priory Group – Why are stress levels among women 40% higher than men
- Inc.- Why Google, Nike, and Apple Love Mindfulness Training, and How You Can Easily Love It Too
- Cranfield University - For Better or for Worse? An Analysis of how Flexible Working Practices Influence Employees’ Perceptions of Job Quality
- Forbes - 13 Employee Benefits That Don't Actually Work
- Forbes - What Employees Really Want At Work