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The Stress Disconnect Between Management and Employees

Study finds that managers and employees have very different views of stress.

A study earlier this year from Towers Watson examined the sources of stress at work and found that managers and employees view the problem very differently. The study is called Workforce Stress: The Employer/Employee Disconnect, and involved approximately 5,000 workers at companies with over 1,000 employees. If there’s a substantive “disconnect” and lack of understanding between the two groups, a fair question is: Can management effectively address the problem of workplace stress if it doesn’t fully understand what the problem is?

Let’s look at the high-level data. According to the research, from the employer standpoint, the top three sources of stress are:

1. Lack of work/life balance

2. Inadequate staffing

3. Expanded technology (e.g. mobile devices that extend managers’ availability in allegedly “non-working” hours)

From the employee standpoint, however, the top three sources of stress are:

1. Inadequate staffing

2. Low pay/pay increases

3. Unclear job expectations

Additionally, employees view the organizational culture – specifically “lack of teamwork, tendency to avoid accountability and assign blame to others” – as a significant problem (number 4 in importance out of 10), while management viewed the culture as less important (number 8 out of 10).

Management implications - Whatever the circumstances, trying to see things through the eyes of others is always a sound management practice. It’s hard to fix problems when there’s uncertainty about what the problems really are. In this study, Towers Watson concludes, “The disconnect potentially risks employers diverting precious time and resources to fixing the wrong problems, alienating employees and suffering the business consequences of increased absence, presenteeism and unwanted turnover.”

The study also notes that despite chronically high levels of workplace stress, only 5% of workers use their company’s Employee Assistance Program as a stress management tool.

If employees, for example, are largely focused on the stresses associated with low pay, unclear job expectations and non-collaborative cultures, it’s important that management clearly recognize the issues and devise programs to address them, rather than being guided by their own perceptions of stress, which are focused more on lack of work/life balance and the rigors of a work day that all too frequently extends into the evening and night.

The study also recommends steps to reduce workforce stress which include:

- Ensuring that all levels of leadership, including line management, know how to recognize stress in employees

- Understanding employees’ stress drivers

- Reviewing and adjusting company health and workforce programs to encourage employees to take full vacation time, plus offering physical exercise activities and formal stress resilience programs

Stress at work of course isn’t going to disappear anytime soon – having been around as long as work has. But to the extent management can gain a clear, accurate understanding of the causes, they have the best chance of maintaining a low stress and high productivity environment.

This article first appeared at

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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