New research study shows the root causes and impact of stress as well as how leaders and HR teams can target the right stress-reducing initiatives at the right people –

Workplace stress is at a four-year high, according to a new report which reveals that 35 percent of UK employees are now experiencing an unreasonable level of stress at work.

A four-year study of 60,000 workers in six countries by the Kenexa High Performance Institute – a division of Kenexa (NYSE: KNXA), a global provider of business solutions for human resources – shows that the UK’s stress level has risen by 10 percentage points since 2008, making it the highest out of the countries surveyed: the UK, the United States, Germany, China, Brazil and India.

A free report on the study – called Stress: What’s the Impact for Organisations? – outlines the prevalence of stress, its physical and psychological consequences, who is at risk and what leaders and HR practitioners can do to reduce stress levels.

“There has been a marked increase in workplace stress in every country, industry and job type, to the extent that it is now higher than at any time in the last four years,” said Dr Rena Rasch, research manager at the Kenexa High Performance Institute. “High stress levels increase absenteeism and decrease productivity. For individuals, stress causes sleep deprivation, headaches, high blood pressure and greater susceptibility to illness, which lowers well being and increases the chance of burn out.”

The main causes of employee stress, identified in the report, are work-life conflict; poor leadership and management behaviour; lack of job security; lack of team cohesiveness; lack of cooperation and dissatisfaction with the level of pay.

“With the economic downturn, a major cause of stress for many people is the sense that they have no control over the fate of their jobs,” said Dr Rasch. “In organisations where staff had been made redundant, the average employee stress level was nearly 40 percent, compared to just 25 percent for organisations which hadn’t made layoffs in the same period.”

According to the report, workers in the healthcare sector have the highest level of stress. However the public sector, financial services and retail sectors have seen the largest increases in stress since 2008. Employees in high-tech manufacturing report the least stress.

In terms of job role, frontline service and production workers have the most stress; upper and middle managers have the least. Men and women experience roughly equal levels of stress, though employees aged 55-64 report the highest levels of stress.

“HR practitioners and leaders need to understand the root causes of stress, and who is most at risk, so they can target the right stress-reducing initiatives at the right people,” said Dr Rasch. “Focus groups and interviews should be conducted to find out what employees want. For example, introducing more flexible working options, such as job-sharing, may help to improve employees’ work-life balance. Leaders also need to be honest with and sympathetic to their employees, who may be anxious about their jobs.”

The UK’s stress level (35 percent) is higher than Brazil (34 percent), Germany (33 percent), the US (32 percent) and double that of China and India (both 17 percent).