High Work Engagement and Work Stress

High work engagement refers to viewing one’s job as very important, taking one’s job seriously, and applying a great degree of effort toward the successful execution of one’s job. Being highly engaged with work is often touted as an ideal way for workers to be on the job and as the best approach for achieving career success and satisfaction. Indeed, being highly engaged with work can lead to career success and satisfaction. However, if other work-related factors are not present, then high work engagement can also be related to serious mental health challenges.

Work stress refers to an experience of mental disturbance that directly stems from one’s work life, which can include workplace environment, roles and duties, interpersonal relationships, compensation, job security and perceptions of personal competency and value. There are many possible symptoms of work stress, but some common ones include feelings of exhaustion, depression, anxiety, irritability, and/or low motivation.

No one is immune to work stress, including those who are highly engaged with their work. In fact, being highly engaged with work can contribute to experiences of higher work stress. For instance, working long hours (such as extensive over-time or work-related travel), or working variable hours (such as being on call or working rotating shifts), are issues related to high work engagement that are also linked to high work stress. In addition, the interference of work with personal life is also a leading factor in the development of high work stress. This often involves working “off the clock,” such as taking work-related phone-calls and replying to work-related emails when no longer technically at work.

Highly engaged workers also tend to perceive themselves as at greater risk of liability than their less engaged counterparts. Workers who perceive the consequences of their actions as greatly impacting workplace outcomes are found to experience a higher degree of work-related pressure and, therefore, more work stress. In general terms, high work stress is felt when workers perceive their performance as poor and also as having serious consequences on their co-workers, the workplace environment, and/or company profits.

Managers and supervisors can also be at increased risk of high stress due to the inherent sense of responsibility and high engagement that comes with those types of positions. As discussed previously, issues such as working extensive over-time, work-related travel, and working “off the clock” tend to lead to increased stress, and each of these issues can be present in managerial and supervisory positions.

In summary, high work engagement can be related to either positive or negative mental health outcomes, depending on certain other factors. Provided that workers feel a sense of control in their work, perceive their responsibilities and work hours as manageable, have a sense of job security, and perception of separation between work and home life, then high engagement with work can be a source of life meaning and satisfaction. However, if any of these other factors are significantly lacking, then that same high engagement with work can lead to detrimental levels of work stress and potentially other mental health challenges.

Therefore, being highly engaged with work is, generally speaking, a worthwhile endeavor because doing so is often associated with career success and satisfaction. But, it is also very important to make sure that one’s work environment is healthy and supportive of good mental health and well-being. Because being highly engaged with work that is detrimental to our well-being is likely a recipe for trouble.

~ Graham Walker, MA, RCC