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This Is the No. 1 Factor Driving Workplace Stress

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Low pay remains the top factor driving workplace stress, according to the American Psychological Association's latest work and wellbeing survey.

More than half of respondents, 56% of employees say their low salary has a significant impact on their stress levels, up from 49% in 2019 and "one of the highest levels we've ever seen," says Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and the APA's senior director of health-care innovation.

The report draws data from 1,501 U.S. employees surveyed between July 26 and August 4, 2021.

Workplace stress is up across multiple factors. Following pay, 54% of employees say long hours and 52% say a lack of opportunity for growth or advancement are a significant source of work stress, up from 46% and 44% in 2019, respectively.

The findings underscore that while companies have prioritized employee wellbeing during the pandemic, particularly by providing greater access to mental health resources, the most meaningful way they can support workers is through pay. One in three people say if they could have just one extra work benefit, they'd want more money.

"You can have lots of great programs around supporting employee mental health and connection," Wright tells CNBC Make It, "but if they don't feel they have resources to adequately take care of their families, at end of day, you'll have stressed employees."

Work stress is causing people to quit

Employers have a clear financial incentive to help reduce employee stress. A majority of employees say work-related stress negatively impacts their performance and productivity, in ways such as limiting their motivation, energy or focus.

Stress is also leading to attrition, which employers have been grappling with during record quitting sprees in recent months. More than 40% of employees surveyed say they intend to find a new job with a different company in the next year, up from roughly 33% in 2019. Those who typically feel tense or stressed during the workday are more than three times as likely to say they're planning to quit in the next year.

Some marginalized groups already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are more likely to report stress and intentions to leave their company, including employees who are Hispanic, Black, LGBTQ+ or have a disability.

Meanwhile, women are more likely than men to say that employers need to do better in paying employees fairly and allowing flexibility, likely reflective of the gender wage gap and disproportionate caregiving burden among women.

It's important for leaders to understand what's causing employees to leave across diversity, equity and inclusion lines to better meet their needs and culturally specific concerns, Wright says.

"It really highlights the need for leadership to diversify" beyond typically typically white, cisgender and able-bodied men, Wright says. A more representative leadership board will result in more inclusive solutions to addressing work stress, such as salary adjustments, flexible work hours, teleworking options or increased leave benefits.

Notably, workers who have women and people of color in senior leadership positions are more likely to say their workplace is psychologically healthy, and they're less likely to indicate plans to quit.

Employers have the tools to reduce work stress

A vast majority, 87%, of employees think their employer could provide better mental health support, such as by offering flexible hours, encouraging employees to take care of their health, encouraging employees to use paid time off and encouraging breaks during the workday.

Wright says companies should remember how much, and how quickly, their workforces adapted during Covid when considering how to restructure their future of work: "We've already seen how employers can innovate in the moment when they have to, so it's taking that spirit" to come up with solutions that reduce employee stress.

For example, greater flexibility could mean instituting a four-day workweek, which has been proven effective in case studies from Iceland to Microsoft Japan. Leaders can encourage employees to take time off by incentivizing vacations or reminding people to take frequent breaks. Managers can model better work-life boundaries by not sending emails outside of work hours.

Wright says companies can pay workers better wages by restructuring their executive compensation policy, and employers should provide more training and paths to promotion to keep employees over a long career.

"There is room to make change if people can really sit down and be reflective of what they value and how to keep their employees," Wright says.

"At the end of the day, if we maintain the status quo, what we're seeing from this survey is people will leave," she adds. "That should be troubling to employers. But with the last year and a half, we've seen that investing in employees is a safe bet."

Check out:

U.S. workers are among the most stressed in the world, new Gallup report finds

65% of workers are looking for a new job, and the numbers could get higher

Recruiters are 'spending a lot of money' to find workers—how to get them to come to you

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