There is No Such Thing as Good Stress in Toxic Workplaces


Lately I have seen the increase of clients seeking therapy due to the nature of their work environment. More and more clients are seeking services through their employee assistance program (EAP) because of work stress. Even more concerning is that some are applying for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to manage their work related stress. Workplaces can be overwhelming for many people due to the heavy pressures of top down management, poor communication, inflexible work schedules/unpredictable hours, high turn-over rates leaving employees to conduct a job required of two people, micromanagement, and lack of salary increase just to name a few. So what exactly is work related stress or WRS? Work related stress is stress caused or made worse by work. It refers to when a person perceives the work environment in such a way that his or her own reactions involve feelings of an inability to cope (Health & Safety Authority).


What causes work related stress? Many times the causes are a combination of personal and family obligations and work factors. Many work factors can be divided into three areas:

* Working conditions

* Doing the job

* Work relationships

Working conditions are defined as the physical conditions of the environment including but not limited to: poor maintenance, toxic fumes and chemicals, too noisy, poor equipment/work station, inadequate security, poor lighting, and overcrowding. Doing the job are the nuances that impact one’s job performance such as excessive workload or long hours, boring or competitive work, deadline pressures, too little training or support, lack of control over work, organizational change/relocation, unnecessary monitoring of employees, and inadequate pay and conditions. Last are the work relationships that include bullying and harassment, discrimination, client hostility, conflict with supervisors/managers, poor relationships with colleagues, and negative work culture based on blame for and denial of problems.

Harmful Effects

Employees will often try to manage their stress but eventually the harmful physical and emotional responses of the job will lead to emotional and physical stress causing burn out. Stress overload can cause physical injuries, health problems and psychological effects. Employees are more prone to heart disease, ulcers, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, infectiousness diseases, sprains and strains and mental illness. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), ¼ of employees viewed their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives; ¾ of employees believe the worker has more on-the job stress than a generation ago,

29% of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work, and 26% reported burnout. According to a study by the EAP provider ComPsych , 46% of employees reported that workload was the main cause of stress, followed by 28% are people issues, 20% juggling work and personal lives and 6% being lack of job security.

In addition to the physical and psychological effects of work stress, workplace violence has increased among U.S. workers. Studies show that certain occupations have high homicide and non-fatal assaults. The terms “going postal” “desk rage” and “phone rage” have crept into our language due to the high incidents of work stress and burn out.

Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is a concept that explores management and prioritizing the roles between career and lifestyle. Although this phrase is not new, it was first used in the United States in 1986 to describe the balance between an individual’s work and personal life. More workers are reporting difficulty balancing work and family. In a 2010 survey by the National Health Interview Occupational Health Supplemental data (NHIOHS), 16% of workers in the U.S. report difficulty balancing between work and family. This number was higher among workers aged 30-44 when compared to other age groups. Additionally, workers who were married (16%), never married (15%) and those who were divorced or separated (19%), reported higher rates of work-life difficulties.

So how do we achieve work-life balance to reduce the stress in our workplaces?

Prioritize. Juggling work and lifestyle demands is stressful. You have to know how to prioritize life professionally and personally so that nothing is neglected, but more importantly, you do not burn yourself out trying to over extend to everyone. Take a look at everything that competes for your time and attention and learn what to keep and what to discard.

Communicate. Communication is vital in our professional and personal lives. Communicate with your colleagues or manager when personal issues arise so you can have their full support.

Learn to Say “No”. For many people this sounds easier said than done. Often times we feel obligated to say “Yes” to things that would require much of our time and attention out of guilt. When we let go of the guilt, we can restore our emotional and physical well-being.

Value Private Time: Allow yourself to participate in a hobby, walk to work on a nice day, leave the office for lunch, mediate or journal during your break time. Whatever your “private time” is, value it and engage in it daily. Attaining an appreciation for your private time will minimize potential burn-out and make your life happier and healthier.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Stress…At Work. Health & Safety Authority (2008-2009). Stress in the workplace. ComPsych Corp. Workplace stress undermining productivity.

About Kizzy Pittrell Ed.D.

Kizzy Pittrell, Ed.D., is a graduate of Argosy University, Washington DC from the Counseling Psychology program. Dr. Pittrell received her Masters of Counseling from Towson University and Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Bowie State University. Dr. Pittrell is an Licensed Professional Counselor, an Approved Drug and Alcohol counselor, an Master Addiction Counselor, and an Approved Clinical Supervisor in Maryland. Dr. Pittrell has worked in the community sector providing mental health and and addiction counseling and treatment to adults and adolescents for 14 years. Currently, Dr. Pittrell is owner of Ross Counseling, a private practice providing therapy to individuals, families and couples. Dr. Pittrell is also an adjunct professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. Dr. Pittrell is passionate about educating the community about mental health and reducing the stigma of mental health. In her spare time Dr. Pittrell loves blogging, spending time with family and reading.