ZnS is a material of choice in the optical coating industry for its optical properties and broad transparency range. One of the drawbacks of ZnS is that it develops high compressive intrinsic stress resulting in large residual stress in the deposited layer. This paper concentrates on the evolution of residual stress reduction in ZnS single layers, depending upon their deposition rate or the substrate temperature during deposition (i.e. 22 °C and 133 °C). The substrate preparation is addressed for consideration of layer adhesion. Residual stress of up to − 550 MPa has been observed in amorphous/poor polycrystalline ZnS layers, deposited on CMX and Float glass type substrates, by electron beam evaporation at 22 °C, with a surface roughness between 0.4 and 0.8 nm. At 133 °C, the layer had a surface roughness of 1 nm, the residual stress in the layer decreased to − 150 MPa, developing a wurtzite structure with a (002) preferred orientation. In situ stress measurements, using a novel optical approach with a laser-fibre system, were carried out to identify the various sources of stress. A description of this novel in situ stress monitor and its advantages are outlined. The residual stress values were supported by two ex situ stress techniques. The surface morphology analysis of the ZnS layers was carried out using an atomic force microscope (AFM), and showed that stress reduced layers actually gave rougher surfaces.