Rising workplace stress is a large albatross hanging around the necks of workers and employers. According to recent studies of the subject by the U.S. Department of Labor, the American Psychological Association, Yankelovich Monitor and CCH Inc., there was a 20.3 percent increase in job absences caused by anxiety, stress and neurotic disorders. Stress affects moral, productivity and safety. Developing a healthy workplace can pay off in reversing this trend. Inviting employees to have a say about their work environment in an honest and open fashion can change the workplace culture and reduce stress. Other successful management practices include improving communication, increasing staff members’ decision making, offering flexible job scheduling, encouraging breaks and working in team toward a common goal, and leadership and professional development opportunities. Providing such services as language classes, child care, onsite flu shots or health screening, and tuition reimbursement programs also help balance work–life issues thus reducing stress. One winner of APA’s 2003 Best Practice award allows injured employees time to recuperate and helps them ease back into work by doing light-duty work at community nonprofit organizations—all while receiving their normal compensation. Another offered three months’ notice and job placement services to employees affected by layoffs.
Workplace stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the employee. Workplace stress results from the interaction of the staff member and the conditions of work. Views differ, however, on the importance of the individual characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. Differences in such individual characteristics as personality and coping style are most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress—in other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. Other factors to consider in workplace stress include the design of tasks, autocratic management style, work roles, job insecurity or such difficult environmental conditions as noisy or dangerous working conditions.
Workplace stress can have physiological effects, which include headache, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, digestive problems and depression, on employees. 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. Nonetheless, evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems—especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders. Lack of concentration or stress reaction can lead to workplace injuries.
Dealing with workplace stress should encompass the staff member and the job. The person should have the opportunity to participate in such wellness programs as stress reduction, exercise, and weight maintenance.
By ensuring that the workload is in line with each staff member’s capabilities and resources, the level of frustration that a person feels could be reduced. Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for employees to use their skills. Clearly define staff members’ roles and responsibilities. Give them opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs. Try to establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
Job design is also an important factor. Good job design accommodates a person’s mental and physical abilities. The following job design guidelines will help minimize or control workplace stress. Where stress in the workplace is caused, for example, by a physical agent, it is best to control it at its source. If the workplace is too loud, implement control measures to deal with the noise wherever possible. If a person is experiencing pain from repetitive strain, the workstation can be redesigned to reduce repetitive and strenuous movements.
Teach employees to relax by taking several deep breaths throughout the day, or taking regular stretch breaks. Stretching is simple enough to do anywhere and takes only a few seconds. Help individuals take charge of their situations by setting aside 10 minutes at the beginning of each day to prioritize and organize their day’s tasks and responsibilities. Encourage them to be honest with colleagues, but be constructive and make practical suggestions, and be realistic about what they can change.
Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
On the basis of research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper- extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle differences between occupations may also contribute to some of these problems.)
Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.
Some studies suggest a relationship between stressful working conditions and these health problems. However, more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.
—Encyclopaedia of Occupational Safety and Health
St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included (1) employee and management education on job stress, (2) changes in hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress, and (3) establishment of employee assistance programs.
In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50 percent after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70 percent reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities.
—Journal of Applied Psychology
2002 CCH Inc. Unscheduled Absence Survey, CCH Riverwoods, IL.
American Psychological Association, 2000 national public opinion poll
American Psychological Association, Psychologically Healthy Workplace Best Practices 2003. The Best Practices Honors recognize companies for innovative programs and policies that support psychologically healthy work environments.
Can Workplace Stress Be Defined? OSH Answers, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, The, 4th Edition contains a comprehensive summary of the latest scientific information about the causes and effects of job stress (see Vol. 1, Chapter 5, Mental Health; Vol. 2, Chapter 34, Psychosocial and Organizational Factors).
OSH Answers: Active Living at Work, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
OSH Answers: Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
OSH Answers: Flexible Work Arrangements, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
OSH Answers: Healthy Eating at Work, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
OSH Answers: Wellness Program—Getting Started, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
OSH Answers: Work/Life Balance, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
OSH Answers: Workplace Stress—General, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
Quick, James Campbell, Jonathan D. Quick, Debra L. Nelson, and Joseph J. Hurrell, Preventive Stress Management in Organizations, American Psychological Association 1997, 367 pages, hardcover $39.95. APA book offers a comprehensive, orderly framework for practicing healthy preventive stress management. The volume covers a variety of topics on stress and the organizational costs of distress.
Sauter, S.L., L.R. Murphy., J.J. Hurrell, Jr., Prevention of work-related psychological disorders, American Psychologist 45(10):1146-1158.
Stress at Work, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health