Are Firms Flunking Stress Tests?

Nearly nine in 10 professionals say work stress is getting worse. The cost to them—and their companies.

On the surface, it seems like we should be feeling a little less anxiety on the job. Over the last five years, most of the economies around the world have plowed ahead, unemployment has fallen, and lately wages have grown faster than inflation.

But it turns out, professionals are saying—by a wide margin—that those positives haven’t lightened the pressure at work. Indeed, 88% say there’s more workplace stress now than five years ago, according to a new Korn Ferry survey. It isn’t just the case of professionals always feeling more stressed, either. In 2018, only 65% of professionals said their workplace stress levels had risen from five years earlier.

Experts say such results have worrisome ramifications not only on the workers and their lives, sleep, and families, but on the firms that apparently are causing it. Stress depresses motivation, which in turn curtails innovation, says Guangrong Dai, senior director of the Korn Ferry Institute.

For the survey, Korn Ferry asked more than 1,400 professionals around the globe in January about work-related stress. More than half, 51%, said their stress levels aren’t just higher than five years ago, but much higher. The biggest factors contributing to that stress: too heavy of a workload, and the boss. “A bad boss and too heavy of a workload often go hand-in-hand,” says Bryan Ackermann, managing partner for Korn Ferry Advance and Digitized Services. “It’s up to both the employee and their supervisor to manage workloads.”

Organizational change is another big stress factor: 93% of respondents said a change in top leadership, such as a new CEO or division head, created additional stress. There’s certainly been ample opportunity for that type of stress of late. In 2019, more than 1,600 CEOs left their jobs at US organizations alone, according to one study, the most since at least 2002.

The stress takes a personal toll, too. More than one-third of the respondents said they often lose sleep over work-related stress. Nearly everyone, 93%, said workplace stress negatively impacts their personal relationships. “The key for company leaders is to understand that the mental health of their employees is just as important as their physical health,” Ackerman says. “They must take steps to create a work environment where employees thrive.”

Stress on the job is not new, of course. However, employee stress levels globally have risen nearly 20% in three decades, according to a 2018 Korn Ferry study. The root causes of the stress spike include the threat of losing one’s job to artificial intelligence and the pressure to learn new skills just to stay employed.

According to Dai, leaders can improve work culture by tapping into the “intrinsic” motivation of a worker. “When people feel intrinsically motivated, they don’t have to be enticed or rewarded in order to work hard, because they find reward in the work itself,” Dai says.