Work-related stress – high and low job demands

This guidance may help employers identify and control the risks of work-related stress from high and low job demands, two of the most common psychosocial hazards.


Psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards might include poor supervisor support or high job demands.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards. Some hazards might always be present at work, while others only occasionally. There is a greater risk of work-related stress when psychosocial hazards combine and act together, so employers should not consider hazards in isolation.

Psychosocial hazards do not necessarily reveal the causes of work-related stress. Causes are likely to be specific to the employee, work or workplace. Senior management should identify which psychosocial hazards negatively affect employees' health and well-being and take appropriate action to control the impact of those hazards.

High and low job demands

Job demands involving sustained high or low physical, mental or emotional effort are among the most common psychosocial hazards. While employees might need challenging tasks to maintain their interest and motivation and to develop new skills, it is important that demands do not exceed employees' ability to cope.

High demands

High-demand tasks or jobs might include the following examples:

  • long work hours
  • high workloads, for example, too much to do, fast work pace or significant time pressure
  • long periods of attention looking for infrequent events, for example, air traffic controllers, during long distance driving, security monitoring
  • emotional effort in responding to distressing situations or distressed or aggressive clients, for example, paramedics dealing with difficult patients or situations
  • emotional effort required to display emotions the organisation requires when the emotions do not align with those of the employee
  • exposure to traumatic events or work-related violence, for example, emergency employees
  • shift work leading to higher risk of fatigue
  • frequently working in unpleasant or hazardous conditions. For example, extreme temperatures or noise, around hazardous chemicals or dangerous equipment
  • having to perform demanding work while wearing uncomfortable protective clothing or equipment
  • working with clients with challenging behaviours

Low demands

Low-demand tasks or jobs might include work where there is:

  • too little to do
  • highly repetitive or monotonous tasks which require low levels of thought processing and little variety, for example, picking and packing products, monitoring production lines
  • regularly undertaking tasks that are well below capabilities, too easy

Risk controls should focus on job design

Risk control measures for job demands should focus on job design, considering the work environment and working conditions. Risk control measures should address time pressure, long or irregular working hours and mentally, physically or emotionally demanding work.

Time pressure

When there is a demanding workload, employers should:

  • ensure sufficient staffing levels are available, where possible, by strategically recruiting to meet the needs of future attrition and known leave periods
  • ensure employees have adequate time to complete their tasks and allow them to have input when deciding the timing and pace of their work
  • consult with employees when setting performance targets
  • set realistic and achievable targets that take into account existing workloads when setting targets. Team-based targets are an effective measure for improving overall performance against the organisational goals and for building effective teams
  • regularly review workloads to ensure employees have sufficient resources in terms of time, administrative support and equipment to cope. Review workloads during team meetings, through an informal check-in with the supervisor or worksite assessments
  • monitor workloads during periods of peak demand, for example, Christmas, school holidays or seasonal peaks, and provide additional support where required
  • help employees develop personal work plans to help them prioritise their tasks
  • negotiate reasonable deadlines for completing tasks
  • inform employees of the reasons behind tight deadlines and why it is important to meet deadlines
  • encourage employees to speak up at an early stage if they feel their task demands are excessive and to seek management guidance about priorities if there are insufficient resources to effectively complete the tasks

Employees are over or under-qualified

It is important employees are competent at their job and that their work is rewarding. When employees are over-qualified for a role or a particular task, they may feel frustrated and unmotivated if they are not challenged in their work.

When employees are under-qualified the complexity of the work might overwhelm them and they might find it difficult to cope.

Employers should consider the following risk control measures:

  • design jobs within employees' capabilities
  • ensure employees are competent and comfortable performing the core functions of their job
  • consider employees' skills and abilities when allocating tasks
  • provide training and skill development when needed and keep training records up to date
  • limit tasks that under-use employees' skills
  • consult with employees about the opportunity to broaden the scope of their job by expanding the range of tasks and responsibilities assigned to them
  • rotate tasks to avoid repetitive and monotonous work

Demanding hours

When there are demanding hours of work, including overtime and shift work, employers should:

  • ensure enough relief staff are present to cover for employees who are on planned and unplanned leave
  • plan ahead for any overtime hours required so employees can make necessary adjustments to their work flow in advance
  • notify employees of any unplanned tight deadlines as they arise and any exceptional circumstances that require long working hours
  • consider personal circumstances such as caring responsibilities, disabilities or illness that may make it difficult to do overtime or vary their shifts
  • ensure adequate work breaks and, where practicable, allow flexibility in the timing of breaks
  • make working hours as regular and predictable as possible
  • ensure rosters allow for a continuous break of sufficient time between rostered shifts and ensure additional time is allowed where overtime is involved
  • discourage employees from regularly working long hours, answering emails or phone calls outside of work hours, taking work home or working through breaks
    • for example, reduce scheduling of shift work that exceeds 12 hours per shift
  • ensure employees have adequate time management skills and provide training where needed
  • promote work-life balance and encourage employees to take annual leave or holidays when they are due
  • ensure employees agree to shift rosters and communicate and consult with employees when designing or changing rosters
  • educate employees about the early warning signs of stress and fatigue, encourage them to report any tiredness and take breaks when they need to, where reasonably practicable
  • ensure employees understand the need to get sufficient sleep
  • minimise safety-critical tasks during the early hours of the morning, from 1am to 6am, because of the increased risk of fatigue

Demanding work hours might require a Fatigue Management Policy.

Information about managing fatigue in the workplace

Mental demands

There are various ways to manage work that requires lengthy periods of concentration or involves work of a confronting or conflictual nature. Employers should:

  • rotate tasks and schedules so employees are not always assigned jobs that require a high level of decision-making or long periods of concentration
  • give employees some control over the way they do their work, including work pace and order of tasks
  • allow adequate time for breaks

For work that requires complex and high-level decision making, employers should:

  • have systems in place to support employees when they have to make difficult decisions or when challenging situations might arise following decisions they have made, for example, child safety employees
  • provide the information employees need to perform tasks competently, including adequate support and resources for decision-making
  • provide additional practical assistance when employees are doing challenging tasks, for example, a second person to assist and ensuring adequate access to resources such as, for example, the right tools, computers etc
  • provide employees with the opportunity to discuss their work, access support or internal and external networks
  • allow employees enough time to perform tasks
  • provide well-maintained suitable equipment
  • evaluate and review employees' competency and capability and provide additional training where needed

Physical demands

For work that is physically demanding employers should:

  • make the physical environment as comfortable as possible and designed specifically for employees' tasks. For example, where needed, make changes to the workstation, tools or equipment or the way a job is done
  • allow employees to take regular breaks away from physically demanding work and, where practicable, rotate repetitive tasks between employees
  • ensure employees are well trained and physically capable of doing the required tasks
  • ensure appropriate controls are in place in relation to managing challenging behaviours or occupational violence

Emotional demands

Some forms of work are emotionally demanding. This includes work that is emotionally disturbing, requires high emotional involvement or requires employees to regularly suppress their emotions, for example, customer service, social work and counselling.

For work that is emotionally demanding employers should:

  • allow employees greater control over their jobs, where possible. For example, allow greater flexibility over work rosters and how employees complete their work
  • encourage regular breaks or 'time out' from emotionally demanding work
  • provide training, practical and on-the-spot support on how to diffuse difficult or confronting situations. For example, conflict management skills and ensure support is available
  • ensure psychological and medical support is available to employees who are directly or indirectly involved in a traumatic event or in other emotionally demanding work
  • provide training and support to employees who interact with clients, for example, patients and children, and employees who undertake tasks that require them to regulate their own emotions or display emotions that are different from their true feelings
  • ensure the position description captures the emotional demands of a role and that applicants are informed of the role’s emotional demands at the pre-selection stage, for example, at interview or by realistic job preview
  • consider discussions or check-in procedures for emotionally demanding incidents or work
  • consider a community of practice so employees can leverage support from each other
  • provide sufficient supervisor and professional support for reflection and self-care
  • create a culture which encourages discussing emotional reactions and regulation
  • leverage resources, collaborate or partner with other organisations facing similar job demands

Work-related stress and your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety, including hazards and risks associated with work-related stress.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.

More about your legal obligations

Related pages

This information is from 'Preventing and managing work-related stress: A guide for employers'. The complete guide is available in two formats.

Website version PDF guide