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Workplace stress: It’s complicated

March 27, 2024

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When the ADP Research Institute began studying stress in the workplace in 2022, we began by asking whether stress always has a negative connotation, or whether it could be both positive and negative.

As we’ve shown in earlier research, some people experience work pressure as positive stress (eustress) while others experience it as negative stress (distress). Using those reactions to stress, we can put workers into one of three categories: The thriving, the rattled, and the overloaded.

Overloaded employees experience pressure much more negatively and score lower in every category of worker well-being that we measure. But geography, job level, and other factors can have a big difference in how people experience stress on the job. 

Cultural differences

When workers across the world weigh in on their stress levels, they reveal big differences by country.1Workers in the different countries we surveyed often respond to survey scales in distinctive ways, sometimes using the very positive side of the scale or the very negative side of the scale. Our Definitive Series report explains how we standardize responses across cultures, languages, and countries, in order to responsibly analyze the data collected.

In China, more than half of respondents reported that they are thriving at work, and only 7 percent reported feeling overloaded. Brazil was a close second, with 49 percent of workers thriving. Egypt had the smallest share of overloaded workers, at 4 percent.

Compare this to France, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, where significantly more workers say they’re overloaded.

The Czech Republic, Japan, and the United States fall in the middle of the spectrum. In these countries, the share of thriving workers to overloaded workers is more evenly balanced.

Different industries, different pain

Pressure on the job can motivate workers to step up to the challenge. But too much stress can have the opposite effect.

Look at how thriving and overloaded workers break down by industry. In technology, workers are 4.3 times more likely to be thriving than overloaded. Compare that to workers in food service or health care support who probably work longer hours for a lot less pay. They’re just as likely to be overloaded as thriving. 

Home can be an escape valve

People who spend part of their week working from home or other locations away from the office are 1.6 times more likely to be thriving than those whose jobs are fully on site. But they’re twice as likely to be thriving as people who are fully remote.

When it comes to coping with on-the-job stress, hybrid work can be a happy medium.

What’s love got to do with it?

There’s a strong relationship between stress levels and loving the work you do.

Our survey asks people how they spend most of their time at work: Doing things they love, or doing things they don’t love. Those who spend most of their time doing things they love are 3.2 times more likely to be thriving than those who spend most of their time doing things they don’t love.

That’s not to say that workers love their job every minute of every day. But as a percentage, people who say their work includes things they love are doing those things substantially more often.

People who are thriving on the job spend 73 percent of their time doing work they love; among workers who are overloaded, that number falls to 40 percent. While it might be unrealistic to expect every task, role, and responsibility to deliver joy, a person who spends even some of their work hours doing activities they enjoy can make a difference in their stress levels, both positive and negative.

Less responsibility doesn’t mean less stress

It’s conventional wisdom that upper managers operate in high-stakes, high-pressure environments.

Yet our surveys show that people at the highest level of an organization are much less likely to feel overloaded than the employees they lead. 

In fact, high-level executives are 4 times less likely to report feeling overloaded than workers who have no management responsibility, but who also might wield little or no power over their jobs or within their organization.

However, when you factor in a love connection, these differences become much less pronounced. In fact, the share of people who love their work and thrive is about the same across all organization levels. 

And when we look at the percentage of time those people spent doing work they loved, there’s even less variance, with all groups, regardless of rank, reporting more than 70 percent. 

Looking to overloaded workers, however, upper managers trump individual contributors, with the former reporting that they spend 57 percent of their time at activities they love, compared to 38 percent for the latter.

Love might also affect employee retention. Workers who feel they are thriving and mostly doing work that they love are nearly 10 times more likely to say they have no plans to leave their organization than overloaded colleagues who don’t love their work.

Our takeaway

Stress matters, not just for individuals, but for their employers. People who thrive in times of stress are 21 times more likely to be fully engaged2Engagement is a positive emotional state of mind that causes people to do their best work, sustainably. ADPRI’s Engagement Pulse allows us to calculate which employees are all-in. on the job than their overloaded peers. They’re also 20 times more likely to be highly resilient.3Workplace resilience is the capacity of an individual to withstand, bounce back from, and work through challenging circumstances or events on the job. Our Workplace Resilience responses tell us which employees are highly resilient, who demonstrate agency and the ability to compartmentalize their work. Helping individuals decrease stress while finding opportunities to love their work could make an incredible difference in the success of an organization and the well-being of employees.