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Updated Feb 28, 2024

Stressed Out! Unrealistic Expectations Put the Pressure on Workers

More employees than you think are stressed about work daily. Learn why — and what you can do about it.

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Marisa Sanfilippo, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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Stressed about work? You’re not alone. In fact, research shows that stress is at a record high in the workplace. According to a 2023 Gallup report, 44 percent of employees are stressed out. This number has gradually increased for the past 10 years and spiked during the pandemic.

Various factors affect workplace stress, including heavy workloads, burdensome deadlines, and the pressure to attain a healthy work-life balance. However, unrealistic expectations from management weigh heavily on today’s workers, who are concerned about keeping their jobs and meeting performance goals. 

We’ll look at the root causes of stress-inducing worker expectations, explain how stressed-out employees weaken an organization, and share tips for alleviating stress and optimizing performance. 

Causes of unrealistic work expectations

Managers, C-suite executives and department supervisors can significantly affect employees’ stress levels, sometimes unknowingly. Work can be stressful enough on its own, but when you add unrealistic expectations for deadlines, project goals, work hours and more, employees’ stress can soar. 

Here’s where some of these unrealistic work expectations originate:

Poor leadership

A business’s organizational structure can foster an environment where unrealistic expectations are common. For example, when a leadership team doesn’t have a firm grasp of a project’s deadlines or a client’s needs, unrealistic deadlines can crop up without warning and fall squarely in a team member’s lap. Impossible deadlines and insufficient help are a recipe for unnecessary stress. 

A lack of communication

In a workplace environment of respect, employees feel empowered to speak up with questions and concerns. In contrast, some organizations implicitly discourage employee feedback, with managers continually enforcing unrealistic deadlines or performance goals. 

Too many employees are afraid to speak up or “rock the boat” and won’t share their grievances or concerns with managers. If you don’t encourage and actively foster effective employee communication, critical issues can fall under the radar, and everyone ends up disappointed. 

Perfectionism

Perfectionism can affect managers and workers alike. In either case, striving for perfection can generate unrealistic expectations that cause stress on multiple levels. In particular, managers and executives with perfectionist streaks can place undue pressure on their teams. The more an employee operates under a strict model that doesn’t allow for human mistakes, the more overwhelmed they will inevitably become.

FYIDid you know
Managing stress as a business owner can be challenging. It's crucial to carve out time for yourself and step away from the business to recalibrate and refresh.

How stressed-out employees affect companies

Whether managers intend to or not, placing unrealistic expectations on their teams can unravel growth and progress and impede a company’s success and bottom line. Here’s a look at the ways stressed-out employees can hurt a business:

1. Stressed-out employees hurt the company culture.

Chronically stressed employees can harm your company culture. A positive company culture is crucial for growth and recruitment, but it’s challenging to maintain when stressed-out team members vent to colleagues and express their frustrations with vendors and clients. The office’s overall mood can darken amid employee stress, particularly when managers aren’t supporting their stressed-out teams. 

Heightened emotions, tensions in the air and unexpected outbursts create an anxious atmosphere where no one thrives. 

2. Stressed-out employees deliver poor outcomes.

Although some employees may say, “I work best under pressure,” there’s a difference between being strongly motivated by a deadline and crumbling under unrealistic expectations. Stressed employees are more likely to make errors, miss problems in a product or service, or otherwise drop the ball. In a calmer, more supported state, these team members would likely thrive. Stress-induced poor performance leads to damaging outcomes, including lost customers, missed opportunities and damaged workplace collaboration

3. Stressed-out employees may quit. 

Unhappy employees are less loyal than satisfied ones — and for good reason. A company filled with stressed employees will likely face a higher employee turnover rate due to low morale. And when a key employee leaves a business, others often follow. Unhappy staff members working under grueling pressure may discuss their plans to leave the company, affecting the morale of other workers who may follow suit. 

TipTip
Address stressful incidents and situations with your team to help improve employee well-being and happiness and show them you're on their team, not working against them.

Stress-reducing tips for employees

As an employee, you may not be able to control your business’s culture and your leadership team’s actions. However, you can use the following tips to keep your head above water and advocate for your professional and personal well-being: 

  1. Use your time wisely. There is only so much time during the workday to accomplish tasks. Stay organized and focus on time management to stay on task and finish assignments promptly. Instead of juggling multiple tasks at once, try dividing up time throughout the day to focus on various key projects.
  2. Ask for help. Managers may not realize that their high-achieving team members are overwhelmed. If there’s too much on your plate, discuss your workload with your supervisor. A little help can boost productivity and foster teamwork.
  3. Take breaks. Take time during the day to refresh. Step away from your desk, and go for a walk or grab a snack. Even if you can’t get away from your office, a short employee break where you think about something other than work can be a game changer.
  4. Avoid conflict. Avoid gossip at work, and try to keep your personal opinions about politics and religion to yourself. If possible, avoid engaging with challenging personalities in the workplace. Brush up on workplace conflict resolution best practices, like actively listening and using neutral terms and open body language.
  5. Exercise at lunchtime. Thirty minutes of daily exercise that raises your heart rate helps you relax and lifts your mood. It can also increase your focus and give you energy. Running, walking or dancing is great for your nervous system when you’re stressed. Even if you can’t put in a full 30 minutes, track your steps and set a goal to add a little more each day.
  6. Get proper sleep. Try to get eight hours of sleep each night. Put away all screens one hour before bed, and consider dimming your phone’s screen when it gets dark to help prepare your body for sleep. Read or listen to music with the lights turned down to help you focus on a quiet activity. Getting enough sleep helps you become productive and creative, improves your focus, and boosts your problem-solving skills.
  7. Keep a journal. Writing down or typing out your emotions is a great way to relieve stress. Expressing your feelings on paper can help you work through problems and handle difficult situations.
Did You Know?Did you know
Workplace stress can lead to unengaged employees, poor performance, and increased absenteeism and tardiness.

Tips for business owners and managers

If becoming a better leader is your goal, supporting your staff during stressful times is crucial. Aside from setting clear expectations that are realistic, consider the following best practices:

  1. Help employees prioritize tasks. Make sure your employees are attending to the most crucial tasks first. This level of oversight is also an excellent opportunity for managers to determine if there’s too much work on anyone’s plate.
  2. Offer employees stress-reduction resources. Ensure all workers know about your organization’s stress-related programs. Encourage them to take advantage of offerings such as emotional intelligence webinars, employee health and wellness programs, and yoga or meditation classes. Also, set a good example by taking part in these classes.
  3. Foster a fun environment when possible. While jobs can be serious, a positive office environment can include some fun. Find ways to lighten the mood by planning social activities or celebrations.
  4. Make environmental changes. Improve your office work environment with subtle stress-reducing measures. For example, play classical or instrumental music and use pleasant diffusing essential oils, like lavender, to nurture a calm office mood.
  5. Offer workplace flexibility. Flexible work policies can meaningfully reduce stress. While not every solution will work for every employee, offering various scheduling options can benefit your team in myriad ways. 

Set reasonable expectations to reduce workplace stress

Although workers can employ various measures to reduce stress, true change must come from the top. Adjusting unrealistic expectations and fostering a positive work environment can alleviate workplace stress and put your business on a path to growth. Follow the above tips to nurture a supportive environment that prioritizes your team’s wellness. Everyone — including company leaders, employees and clients — will ultimately benefit. 

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article.

author image
Marisa Sanfilippo, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Marisa Sanfilippo is an award-winning advertising and marketing expert who uses her skills and hands-on experience to help a variety of companies — perhaps most notably, finance-focused businesses — attract customers, generate revenue and strengthen their brands. She advises and executes on top marketing strategies and tactics for email and social media marketing, print marketing, events, partnerships and more. Sanfilippo's expertise has been tapped by companies like First Financial Credit Union, McGraw Credit Union, Priority Payments Local and iink Payments. She has hosted webinars and in-person workshops to educate business owners on marketing best practices and works with RevGenius, a group that brings together sales, marketing and customer success professionals to trade tips on B2B go-to-market strategies geared toward scaling SaaS companies.
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