Stress and well-being

6 questions about the causes of stress: what does the research say?

Are some people at particularly high risk of stress? And does the fact that we can work all hours of the day increase the risk of stress? Three experts explain what the latest research shows about the causes of stress.

Stress has unfortunately become a too familiar part of working life for many people.

One in five IDA members feels stressed and this has a negative impact on their well-being - both at work and in their personal lives. 

Nevertheless, many myths and misconceptions exist about stress, partly because we use the term stress on a daily basis to describe everything from serious sick leave to ordinary busyness in everyday life.  

So we asked three researchers to explain what the research actually says about the causes of stress. You can meet them all at the Stress Conference 2024, where you can get up-to-date with the latest stress and mental health knowledge. 

The three researchers are Christian Gaden Jensen, PhD Health Psychologist and CEO of Fonden Mental Sundhed (the Mental Health Foundation), Malene Friis Andersen, PhD licensed psychologist, independent consultant and guest researcher, and Yun Ladegaard occupational psychologist and CFO of Fonden Mental Sundhed.

Are some people more predisposed to stress?

One should be cautious in concluding that there is a direct link between personality and stress. 

We often hear that people who are perfectionistic, detail-oriented or workaholics have an increased risk of stress. But the research that forms the basis of this claim is cross-sectional studies. Here, the personality and the stress level are measured at the same time, and therefore it is not possible to know which came first: whether it is the personality that leads to stress, or whether stress changes our personality traits when they are measured in tests.

Other studies show a more dynamic correlation. If you have a high degree of stress, you may begin to exhibit traits reminiscent of perfectionism. You may want to overcheck, overworry, and start working more hours to achieve the same thing because your ability to work is impaired. Some studies also show that you score differently on personality tests when you have been in stress treatment and managed to lower your stress level compared to the score before treatment. 

Is work the main cause of stress? 

When looking at surveys, more than half of those who have felt stressed in the past 14 days say that work is the cause. About 40 per cent answer that it is both work and private life, while 5-10 per cent answer that it is only private life that is the reason why they feel stressed. 

However, studies also show that people outside the labour market, including the unemployed and early pensioners, are among the most stressed in Denmark. This shows that it is not only work itself that can be stressful, but also, to a large extent, life circumstances that can affect us all, whether we are in employment or not. These can include illness in relatives or themselves, financial stress and uncertainty about the future.

Is there a connection between stress and how many hours you work?

There is no immediate direct link between the number of hours worked and the risk of stress. However, there are a few studies which show that there may be a link between working more than 50 hours a week and being stressed. 

But basically, it's not the hours themselves that are the risk factor. It depends more on the framework of the work, e.g. it is important whether you experience that you can perform the work in a responsible way, whether you have influence in the work, and whether there is a balance between the demands made in the work and the resources we have available such as finances, time and competencies. Our relationship with managers and colleagues also matters. Among other things, it counteracts stress if we experience support and trust in each other.  

In addition, it matters what other obligations you have in life. For example, if you have a child who has a great need for care or other important priorities, there may be room for far fewer working hours before the workload feels stressful. 

Is it the negative thoughts about being stressed that are harmful? 

It is harmful if you constantly have negative thoughts, but it is too simple to say that it in itself leads to stress.

One's negative thoughts may just as well be the result of stress, because you have too many tasks, unclear or unrealistic demands or don't feel supported and recognised. It can mean that you get to wondering too much; "am I the problem now?" and "how am I going to achieve all my tasks?" But it's hard to say clearly because research only shows that there is a correlation, not whether it's the stress that leads to the negative thoughts or vice versa.

Does the fact that we can work at any time of the day increase the risk of stress?

Employees have increasingly demanded greater flexibility since the corona crisis. They want to have a say in where and when they work, and greater flexibility also makes it easier for many to balance work and private life. 

However, with flexibility comes the risk of limitless work, where you can't really put work away when you have time off and where, in many places, you're expected to answer emails in the evenings and at weekends. 

Where flexibility increases well-being, limitlessness creates stress. It is therefore important that the workplace has an ongoing focus on whether it has a culture and good habits that provide the positives of flexibility without it developing into a sense of limitlessness.

Does being committed to your work reduce the risk of stress?

It is important for our well-being that we find our work meaningful and that we feel that we make a difference at work. So being engaged in your work does not increase the risk of stress per se. 

On the other hand, it can be damaging if you are committed to your work but have conditions where it is virtually impossible to complete the tasks to the quality or level you want and that the customer or citizens think is reasonable. So commitment is not a risk factor in itself, but combined with a poor working environment it can lead to stress.