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Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Finding Meaning Through the Many Windows of Wellness

What are the Real Roots of Workplace Stress?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 5th 2012

Is it any surprise that 3 out of 4 U.S. workers are stressed out? I'm not saying that we should view this finding with complacency or mere amusement. I'm simply urging us to ask the right questions.

stressed businessmanIn a recent poll by Harris Interactive, 73 percent of the 898 employed adults who were surveyed reported stress stemming from the workplace. The study broke down the construct of workplace stress to identify its top sources, which ranked in the following order:

1. Low wages (11%)
2. Annoying co-workers (10%)
3. The commute (9%)
4. Workload (9%)
5. Working outside one's desired career path (8%)
6. Work-life balance (5%)
7. Limited advancement opportunities (5%)
8. The boss (4%)

These numbers shifted a little bit when more specific groups were analyzed. For instance, 14% of women as well as 14% of those with a high school education or less ranked low wages as the top source of their workplace stress. However, those with a college education or more ranked workload as their top source of stress (13%) and low wages as a secondary stressor (11%).

One might surmise that in today's unstable economy, fear of losing one's job would have made an appearance on this list. Yet interestingly, employees' fear of being let go dropped from 9% to 4% over the past year.

Are there any workers out there with no perceived job stress? You bet. In fact, the percentage of people who reported no stress at the workplace rose from 21% to 26% over the past year. Oh, and 37% of those who reported no work-related stress had household incomes of more than $100,000.

These findings certainly make it sound like workplace happiness is all about money, don't they? But I'm not convinced. Take a look at that list one more time. Do some items seem more specific than others? While annoying co-workers can be, well, pretty annoying, is this as fundamental to our wellness as, say, working within our desired career path? I don't think so.

Finding work that speaks to our true nature, talents, and goals in life is crucial to our overall well-being. I know this from personal experience. When we work in roles that contradict who we really are - or do not allow us to utilize our best skills to their maximum potential - we are like withering flowers. We may not sense this kind of stress every day (like we sense the stress from exasperating co-workers), but this more insidious stress eats at us more slowly. And in my opinion, it's more dangerous.

Ultimately, if we are not doing what we truly want to do, then every other kind of workplace stressor becomes more pronounced and less tolerable. Wages feel lower and more unfair, the commute feels less tolerable, and our workload appears more mountainous and uncontainable. On the other hand, when we are doing what we love and what we are meant to do, we are willing to work a little harder, make a little less, and do what it takes to keep the dream rolling.

We need to start asking the right questions about the real roots of workplace stress and how to address them. I encourage you to discover what you truly want to do. Once you've found it, go after it. And if you already know what it is, what are you waiting for?


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

It’s a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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