Linking Workplace Stress & Recognition

Do you give your all to your job but get little recognition?

A study of workplace stress suggests that throwing yourself into work that you love, but not receiving appropriate reward, is a toxic cocktail for biological stress.

Leander van der Meij, now at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and his colleagues have discovered this by studying people’s cortisol levels. This
hormone is released in times of stress, helping prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’ by increasing blood sugar levels and slowing down digestion, for example. The response can be helpful in the short term, but chronic stress can lead to health problems, such as infections and diabetes.

To investigate whether certain workplace conditions might cause this kind of damaging stress, the team analysed cortisol levels in hair samples from 172 volunteers.

There are two leading ideas about what affects people’s stress levels at work:

  • The first hypothesis suggests that the level of independence a person has, and the amount of support they receive from colleagues and bosses, determines how stressful a job is.
  • The second hypothesis suggests that the effort
    a person puts into work, versus how much reward they get back, is more important.

To investigate these ideas, van der Meij’s team compared the levels of cortisol in 91 people who work a typical 9-to-5 week, with those in 81 people doing training programmes, such as MBAs, alongside their day jobs.

These people have more to do,work longer hours and also study in their spare time, says vanderMeij. The participants also filled in a survey on work experiences over the prior three months, including rewards like pay rises and praise.

Van der Meij’s team found that effort versus reward seems to be the biggest determinant of workplace stress – but only among people who have particularly high workloads and long hours (van der Meij et al., 2018).

This is a problem if you do not get compensated,. For example, when you like your job and want to do well, but do not get promoted or a pay rise, that cocktail leads to high cortisol.

Meij suspects that the long-term consequences of this could
be dangerous. Short-term, higher cortisol levels may be good for coping with the workload, but it is unknown if long-term exposure leads to disease. Stress levels in people working
normal hours were not related to either idea, perhaps because they were not stressed enough to detect a relationship.

In the long-term, you might expect to see exhaustion, depression and being more vulnerable to sickness, as well as lower well-being and life satisfaction. Employees should be able to see that their input is worth something. As an employer, you have to ensure that they have the prospect of opportunities, especially if they are committed and do a lot of work.


van der Meij, L., Gubbels, N., Almela, M. & van Vugt, M. (2018) Hair cortisol and work stress: Importance of workload and stress model (JDCS or ERI). Psychoneuroendocrinology. 89, pp.78-85. DOI:

New Scientist. (2018) What Makes Your Job So Stressful. New Scientist. 27 January 2018, pp.10.


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