Employers and Workplace Stress

Why should employers be concerned about workplace stress?

A Report by

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

Stress is a normal occurrence. However, with increasing demands of work and home life, stress on the job is a problem causing physical, mental, and financial consequences for employers as well as employees. Studies show that stressful working conditions are associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs—all of which have a negative effect on a company’s success. Employers, managers, supervisors, and business owners have many reasons to consider the stress level of their workers:

Stressed employees take more sick days and file more disability claims than do contented employees
Disgruntled employees often quit after extensive investment has been made in their training, and another person has to be trained in their place
Job stress can result in decreased productivity
Errors made by stressed workers can result in faulty products that cannot be sold, or worse, that fail after sale and lead to lawsuits

Stressed workers may become depressed or angry
Alcohol or drug use increases as self-medication for distress, which in turn creates more problems

People who are overly stressed are less attentive and can accidentally damage equipment or injure themselves or others
At the extreme, stress can lead to violence, and management or co-workers can be hurt or killed – the term “going postal” has become part of the language expressing a murderous rampage as a result of job dissatisfaction

What is job stress?

A survey by St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. found that problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor—more so than even financial or family problems. While challenges are a normal and satisfying part of work life, stress is not a necessary evil in the workplace. However, for many people stress has become synonymous with work.
According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), early warning signs of job stress include:

A. headache
B. sleep disturbances
C. difficulty in concentrating
D. short temper
E. upset stomach
F. job dissatisfaction
G. low morale

What causes stress in the workplace?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related illness and injury. As part of its mandate, NIOSH is directed by Congress to study the psychological aspects of occupational safety and health, including stress at work. NIOSH works in collaboration with industry, labor, and universities to better understand the stress of modern work, the effects of stress on worker safety and health, and ways to reduce stress in the workplace. Through its research program in job stress and through educational materials, NIOSH is committed to providing organizations with knowledge to reduce this threat.

A report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The NIOSH report states that job stress results from both the characteristics of a worker and the working conditions, but that there are differing views as to which set of circumstances is the primary cause of job stress:

1. Individual characteristics – According to one school of thought, differences in personality and coping style of the worker are most important in predicting job stress. Thus, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. This viewpoint leads to prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions.

2. Working conditions – Scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. Evidence from recent studies argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy.

Both viewpoints suggest ways to prevent stress at work, but NIOSH “favors the view that working conditions play a primary role in causing job stress.” The report cites the following job conditions that may lead to stress:

1. The design of tasks – heavy workload; infrequent rest breaks; long hours; and routine tasks that do not utilize workers' skills
2. Management style – poor communication in the organization and a lack of family-friendly policies
3. Interpersonal relationships – an unsupported social environment
4. Work roles – conflicting or uncertain job expectations; too much responsibility
5. Career concerns – job insecurity; lack of opportunity for advancement or promotion
6. Environmental conditions – unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problem.

What are the health effects of job stress?

The nature of work is changing at whirlwind speed. When the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker, harmful physical and emotional responses occur. Perhaps now more than ever before, workplace stress poses a threat to the health and safety of employees and to the health organizations responsible for their care.

According to NIOSH, many recent studies have looked at the relationship between job stress and physical and emotional problems. The report states: “Mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems that are quick to develop and are commonly seen in these studies. These early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize. But the effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be influenced by many factors other than stress.”

NIOSH reports that evidence suggests workplace stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems, especially:

1. cardiovascular disease
2. musculoskeletal conditions
3. psychological disorders

The economic impact of these issues impacts not only the individual, but also the businesses that employ them: Health care expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress.

What can managers or employers do to reduce stress at work?
To reduce stress at work, an individual should try to maintain a balance between work and family or personal life, a supportive network of friends and coworkers, and a relaxed and positive outlook. But it is also important that the workplace is a “healthy” organization. There are several ways to reduce stress in the workplace. While the employee may not have control over whether the workplace entirely supports a more stress-free lifestyle, possible changes can be made, or individuals can make an educated decision as to whether the workplace is right for him or her.

An understanding of the relationship between individual and organizational health
Recent research suggests that policies benefiting worker health actually benefit the bottom line. A healthy organization—one that has low rates of illness, injury, and disability in its workforce—is competitive in the marketplace. NIOSH research has found the following organizational characteristics to be associated with both healthy, low-stress work and high levels of productivity:

1. recognition of employees for good work performance
2. opportunities for career development
3. an organizational culture that values the individual worker
4. management actions consistent with organizational values

Stress prevention
According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress-prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included:
employee and management education on job stress
changes in hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress

establishment of employee assistance programs
In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented a stress-prevention program but no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention policies.

Stress management
Nearly one-half of large companies in the United States provide some type of stress-management training and Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs) for their workforces. Workers can learn about stress, time management, and relaxation. EAPs also provide counseling for employees with work or personal problems. Stress-management training can help to rapidly reduce stress symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disturbances. Such trainings are often easy to implement and provide, but NIOSH reports that:

1. The beneficial effects on stress symptoms are often short-lived
2. They often ignore important root causes of stress because they focus on the worker and not the environment

Organizational change

Companies that bring in a consultant to recommend ways to improve working conditions take the most direct approach in reducing stress at work. According to NIOSH, programs that identify the stressful aspects of a working environment deal with the root causes of stress at work. Such programs result in the design of strategies that target the identified stressors. However, such programs can involve changes in work routines, production schedules, or organizational structure. Often managers are uncomfortable with this approach.

Yet as the NIOSH report states, this strategy is key: “As a general rule, actions to reduce job stress should give top priority to organizational change to improve working conditions.” The report continues: “But even the most conscientious efforts to improve working conditions are unlikely to eliminate stress completely for all workers. For this reason, a combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work.”


Extracts taken from a Help Guide to Mental Health Issues.

No comments: