Workplace stress: Do you know where it comes from?

From meeting deadlines to job security to family concerns, stress is as much a part of Americans' working lives as a morning cup of coffee. But it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes job stress.

To get a better idea, job-search site CareerCast last month asked its readers to sound off on what factors contribute most to the tension they experience at work. The results from 834 respondents show that unpredictability is the most common source of stress, with 26 percent of workers citing the daily ebb and flow of work life as a major cause of anxiety.

But that pervasive sense of insecurity comes in many forms, ranging from employees being tasked with new duties and sudden staff changes to unexpected shifts in company priorities. Other sources of stress that ranked nearly as high as unpredictability included workplace environment (21 percent) and deadlines (20 percent).

Among the professions that found unpredictability to be the biggest source of stress were those in academia (40 percent), engineering (33 percent) and customer service (30 percent), while only 15 percent of transportation workers found unpredictability to be a stress factor at work.

But those in transportation did cite the safety of others as a major source of stress (41 percent), along with health care workers (50 percent). Professional workers and those employed in business services rated deadlines at the most stressful part of their job, while people in information technology said workplace environment was their biggest stressor. Deadlines were the top stress factor in the entertainment field.

What workplace issues don't seem to be much of a problem? Only 7 percent of respondents mentioned long work days or weeks as a source of stress, while the opportunity for promotion and travel also ranked low.

Some occupations, such as enlisted military personnel, firefighters and police officers, experience multiple sources of stress at one time. Not only are their jobs unpredictable, but they also face personal danger, are responsible for the safety of others and face a potentially perilous work environment, factors that led CareerCast to recently name these jobs the most stressful careers of 2016.

Other significantly stressful jobs, such as public relations executive and event coordinator, face considerable demands from bosses and clients, a component of workplace environment, which ranked second among the list of greatest sources of stress.

Another recent poll of worker stress, focused on change in the workplace, mirrored CareerCast's findings.

A survey by Chicago-based ComPsych, a provider of employee assistance programs, showed that nearly a third of the more than 2,000 survey respondents cited "unclear expectations from supervisors" as a key stressor.

Other factors in the ComPsych survey included confusion or conflict between co-workers or departments; concern about increased workloads or more difficult work; and uncertainty about an employer's future or stability.

Employees who are unsure about their duties should set aside time to meet with their manager to ask for clarification and feedback, ComPsych CEO Richard Chaifetz said.

He also offered these tips for managing workplace stress:

  • Surround yourself with positive people, so you don't get bogged down by the complainers.
  • Focus on what you want to accomplish, so you're less distracted by others' stress or negative reactions to change.
  • Look for opportunities to learn skills or take on more responsibility.