Can leaders in the workplace induce employee stress?

Blog Post

Flipping through my cue cards trying to reread everything so I could remember them. I was very nervous, deafened by my heart beating fast and my throat was drying fast too. It was the day of my certification as a Trainer about 15 years ago, but I could still remember how it felt.  I saw my certifier walked in the room not saying a word and wasn’t even smiling. She went for the back seat right away which was reserved for her. She then flicked her hand to convey that I should start.

I was stammering and had many awkward silences. Not my usual self and for sure my class was confused. She raised her notebook that had “Break” written on the page so I asked the class to take their break and I felt like I was going to pass out fearing her criticisms. When everyone was out, she stood up, smiled, asked me to sit down and reached for my hand as she introduced herself. She went on with her pep talk. I felt renewed and motivated to start all over. I was certified that very day.

I was certified that very day

I was convinced that workplace’s lifeblood was stress. Obviously I was in so much stress that day but I had to deal with it as it was part of the job expectations and I also desired to achieve it. However, I learned in that moment that stress in the workplace can be decreased or increased by the leaders. My certifier, in the beginning, increased my stress with her no-smile-no-word face but when she talked to me, I immediately regained my confidence and she clearly lessened my stress which led to a better result.

In the survey conducted by Korn Ferry Institute in 2018, with nearly 2,000 professionals, show that the biggest source of stress is their boss, 35% of the respondents say. However, most organization take the leaders’ view on impact of stress in the workplace so that the stressed individual is almost always recommended for counseling or is given a very straightforward conversation. Leaders need to assess their own behaviors towards their people and check in to find out if they are putting more pressure instead of helping them reduce the cause of stress.


When prolonged stress impacts people’s health and well-being it can lead to high absenteeism due to sickness, high labor turnover and poor performance and productivity.  This can mean revenue loss. In the study by Jean Pierre Brun, published by World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that there is a direct correlation between the number of absences due to sickness and the level of stress in the workplace.

So how can stress induce sickness? Below are the known facts about the effect of stress to your health.

Heartburn & Insulin Resistance

Your brain communicates stress to your gut which distracts its rhythmic contractions leading to irritable bowels. It can also increase sensitivity to acid which can lead to heartburn. It can also change composition of your gut bacteria which may affect digestion and overall health condition, like insulin resistance resulting to increase in blood sugar.


Cortisol can also increase your appetite because it will push your body to replenish energy source food, like carbohydrates, that was lost while under stress.  The tendency is that we are going to overcompensate and put on extra calories which turn into visceral fat (as in belly fat). It releases cytokines which will increase risk in developing chronic diseases.

Hypertension, Infection and Heart Attack

When  your brain senses stress, it transmits that signal to the adrenal glad to release cortisol epinephrine or adrenalin and norepinephrine that will travel through your blood stream. Adrenaline causes your heart rate to be faster and will  increase blood pressure. Stress actually helps us prepare to flight in fears but if stress is prolonged one may develop hypertension and decrease in the function of the immune system which makes you susceptible to infection and healing slows down. Cortisol on the other hand, in chronic stress, can cause the inner lining of blood vessel to harden also known as atherosclerosis which can cause heart attack.

Shortens Life

Stress has been associated with short telomeres. Telomeres are found at the the tip of the chromosomes which caps chromosomes that protects the genetic code of the DNA from damage while being copied, during cell division. With diminishing telomeres, cells can no longer divide and eventually die. This makes it hard for damaged tissues of our organs or body to heal.


Lyn Offerman and Peta Hellman of George Washington University investigated the relationships between leader behavior and subordinate work stress from the perspective of 343 leaders, their bosses and their subordinates. They found out that high-controlling leaders don’t see their behavior being contributing to the stress of their subordinates because they think that they were clear in terms of expectations, reminders, and deadline so that should relieve stress. However, their study showed that it did not relieve stress  but may have increased it. On the other hand, they found out that leaders who delegate and encourage participation reduced stress on subordinates.

Yna-Hong Yao et. al., in their study on Leadership, Work Stress and Employee Behavior where they investigated 2o firms, shared that there is a positive correlation between employee behavior and work stress. They found out that transactional type of leadership (leaders who use disciplinary power to manage day to day performance and exchange rewards with performance) strengthens the influence of work stress on employee negative behavior while transformational leadership style (focus on team-building, collaboration and personal or professional growth) reduces work stress and employee’s negative behavior.

The team recommended that organizations should take employees’ stress tolerance into account in selection and recruitment as well as  demonstrate open leadership style which will contribute to improving leadership behavior and preventing negative behavior in workplace.

The present study by Clarine Jacobs published in Sage Journal showed that 100% of  respondents experienced occupational stress resulting from ineffective leadership, which led to employee health problems at the psychological and physiological levels. They posit that the role of the organization, the leaders, and the followers—as a whole—is to understand the perceptions of all parties and find approaches where both leaders and followers play active role to minimize stress.

Healthy job, according to World Health Organization,  is likely to be one where the pressures on employees are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources, to the amount of control they have over their work, and to the support they receive from people who matter to them (WHO, 1986).

It would be good to reduce the power distance between leader and subordinate to become more open to one another. This is certainly our opportunity as leaders. It is best to be sensitive to their emotion and to the nonverbal cues. We can ask what’s stressing them out and allow them to vent. We can share various approaches to solve their current problems and let them choose what’s appropriate. We should spare huge chunk of our time chatting with them to get to know them better as a person and as a team member. It is best that we show approachability to encourage them to freely give feedback, judgment spared. I know it’s tough but we must accept constructive feedback and be humble enough to work on the opportunities. If we want to retain talent and reduce employee turnover, we should involve our people in decision-making. We each and delegate tasks that they can learn from. We  must never lose our patience.

Published by fran

Fran Saguindang Riego de Dios, MS has been in training and leadership development for 15 years now. She was awarded one of the Most Talented Training & Development Leaders in the Philippines 2019 during the 14th Employer Branding Awards by Employer Branding Institute. She also enjoys art and music. You may also visit her personal Leadership Blog Site at Leadership Project.

We love to hear from you

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.