that I always feel so stressed out at my job?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that I always feel so stressed out at my job? I know many people who enjoy their jobs and look forward to going to work everyday, but not me. I anxiously await my days off, and always feel like my stomach is in knots whenever I’m at the office.

A: This is a complex question and, without knowing the specific details, I can only address it in general terms. Having said this, occupational stress is a wide-spread phenomenon that affects our job performance and physical/psychological well-being.

Specifically related to the job environment, worker stress can be defined as a physiological and/or psychological reaction to work-related events that we perceive as taxing or threatening. And while moderate levels of stress have been found to have a positive effect on performance (in cases where we are excited about what we do) – the stress that your question describes would fall under the category of negative stress.

Naturally, some jobs are more stressful than others. Work related to law enforcement, emergency medical care and crisis intervention are a few examples of professions that correspond to high degrees of worker stress – where urgency and/or personal safety are primary concerns. But even the most innocuous jobs can carry great degrees of stress when certain conditions are present. Although worker stress can be examined from a variety of perspectives, I will discuss three primary factors that tend to influence the stress we feel at work – task-related stress, role-related stress and personality fit.

Task-related stress has to do with aspects about what we do at work. Regardless of what task our job entails (nursing, plumbing, waiting tables, etc.), stress can occur due to our sense of work overload or under-utilization. Interestingly, these polar opposites can each contribute to stress in their own ways. If our jobs require an excessive amount of output, speed or concentration – the demands can become too great for us to manage on a consistent basis, resulting in physiological/psychological fatigue and stress. In essence, our minds, bodies and spirits become over-used and begin to shut down. But under-utilization can also result in stress when we feel our jobs fail to tap our potential skills, knowledge and capacities. When we feel over-qualified – or that our qualifications are not being fully utilized – our jobs become boring and monotonous, leading to the stress of pent-up frustration and feelings of uselessness.

But even in cases where our task demands match our levels of ability, stress can occur due to issues related to our roles at work. Beyond the mechanics of what we do each day, is how we fit into the social climate of our jobs. The social fabric of the workplace is complex and involves a variety of status relationships among workers (superiors, co-workers, subordinates). Each of these dynamics involve a specific set of social rules and expectations that we must adhere to. Although the structure of a workplace may be clearly defined in our Employee Manuals, the daily realities of social interaction are often unclear, ambiguous and contradictory. Workers routinely look to their job descriptions and other employees for guidance. But when job descriptions and/or employee feedback are unclear, vague or ambiguous (confusing), stress ensues because employees lack the clarity and direction they require. We can’t be expected to meet expectations if we don’t understand what they are. And because job security is directly related to our conduct and performance, this role-confusion can become a tremendous source of stress.

Employees are also prone to stress when/if their input, observations and experiences are not sought after or taken into consideration by management. In jobs where employees have little or no say over decisions that impact their daily jobs – stress results because workers feel disrespected, disenfranchised and an overall lack of control over what they do.

Finally, each worker possesses unique personality characteristics and negative stress can emerge when the personality of the worker conflicts with the demands of the job. For example, an out-going “people-person” would be far better suited to a customer service position, than working a job with little to no social contact.

Unresolved worker stress is unhealthy and unproductive. It’s been estimated that we will spend 75 percent of our waking lives at our jobs. Therefore, if the conditions described in this column are prevalent, its best to hit the want-ads in order to improve our working conditions and overall quality of life.