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Worker health and wellness | Injury prevention

Stress in the workplace

Keeping stress in check could create a healthier – and safer – workforce

March 1, 2011

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KEY POINTS

  • A number of factors such as work hours, management style, and interpersonal relationships can affect an individual's stress levels at work.
  • Dangerous levels of stress often display physical warning signs, such as tension headaches, heartburn, fatigue and changes in body weight.
  • To combat stress in the workplace, employers should assess their employees to find out what the common stressors are are and work toward mitigating stressful elements of the workplace. 

Recently released research from the New York-based Families and Work Institute found 41 percent of workers who responded to a survey on workplace stress reported experiencing stress “often” or “very often” on the job.

Although small doses of stress are not harmful, situations in which stress is very high or constant can create serious problems, according to NIOSH.

Far from being a mere annoyance, stress can play a larger role in more serious, chronic illnesses when it persists for long periods of time, studies suggest. Research indicates stress can increase an employee’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal disorders, particularly in the back and upper extremities. There also is growing concern that high levels of workplace stress can increase on-the-job injuries by interfering with safe work practices.

Dismissing concerns of stress in the workplace may be detrimental to the health and well-being of the workforce.
 
Stress and your health

The link between high levels of workplace stress and the development of cardiovascular disease seems to have garnered the most attention from researchers.

One of the factors linking the two may be the propensity for stressed individuals to make unhealthy life choices. Lyle H. Miller has been studying stress for 30 years. Currently, he directs the Bio Behavioral Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on stress and behavioral health, and is chairman and CEO of Boston-based Stress Directions Inc., which provides consulting services to employers.

In his work with police officers, Miller found certain measures workers take to control their stress can exacerbate the issue. “They drink too much coffee on the job,” he said. “And one of the things that coffee does is it liberates adrenaline from the adrenal gland, which is part of the stress response. So they raise their level artificially.”

Because stress does not magically disappear when an officer is off duty, he or she may look for ways to manage it at home. “Often, one of the solutions for the officer is, ‘Well, just a little drink will calm me down. And if one works, well, maybe two would work even better,’” Miller said.

A 2007 University of Melbourne study examining the relationship between smoking habits and job stress found men who experience “moderate” or “extreme” job stress were twice as likely to smoke as other workers.

Yet the negative health effects of stress are not limited to poor lifestyle choices.

A 2008 study of British civil servants found that people with the most severe levels of job stress had a 68 percent higher risk of developing heart disease. Although this was linked, in part, to the stressed workers’ propensity for unhealthy foods and forgoing exercise, biological factors were identified as well.

The stressed workers were found to have lower heart rate variability and increased levels of cortisol, which can damage heart and blood vessels. Adjusting for lifestyle factors did not impact the relationship between stress levels and cardiovascular health.

NIOSH warns that the effects of job stress on chronic diseases can be difficult to determine because these diseases can take a long time to develop and are influenced by factors other than stress. Past research links stress not only to cardiovascular disease, but also to musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders, suicide, cancer, ulcers and impaired immune function.

Steps workers can take to manage stress

In addition to workplace modifications, NIOSH recommends workers try to better manage their job stress levels by taking the following actions:

  • Develop a strong social support system in the workplace. A co-worker or other ally who is available to talk through problems can help put things in perspective and minimize stress.
  • Take a break to avoid “burnout.” Even something as brief as a walk around the block can help clear your head and distance you from stressors, enabling you to return to the job with a fresh outlook.
  • Set realistic expectations for the amount of work you can complete in the time you have available. Do not attempt to take on more than you can reasonably handle.
  • Recognize you are not perfect and every minor detail in your work will not be perfect either.
  • Try to remain organized and keep your work area free of clutter, which can add to stress.
  • Avoid negativity and negative people, and try to maintain a positive attitude about your work and your co-workers.

– LC



Common workplace stressors

Rather than pointing to individual personality traits that make a person more prone to stress, NIOSH contends that working conditions play a primary role in causing job stress.

Paul J. Rosch, M.D., is president of the American Institute of Stress, a Yonkers, NY-based nonprofit organization. Rosch agrees with NIOSH’s assessment and points to the following as common causes of workplace stress:

  • Task design: Heavy workload, long work hours, infrequent breaks, routine tasks, not enough time to complete a job
  • Management style: Little participation in making decisions, little control over the finished product, poor communication, lack of family-friendly policies, little recognition for good job performance
  • Interpersonal relationships: Poor social environment and lack of support from co-workers or supervisors; prejudice or discrimination because of race, religion, gender or age
  • Work roles: Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many bosses or “hats to wear”
  • Career concerns: Job insecurity; lack of opportunity for growth, advancement or promotion
  • Enviromental concerns: Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, ergonomic issues and fear of exposure to toxic chemicals

“Also, many times, the issues of stress at work are really not issues with work per se,” Miller said. Not only can a worker’s personal life impact one’s levels of workplace stress, but “it has to do with other things that impact on work like, for instance, traffic. By the time the person gets there, their level of stress has gone up considerably, so it just takes a few more things on the job to really trigger some unfortunate kinds of reactions.”

Although certain high-risk, fast-paced industries may be more prone to stress, Steven Sauter, coordinator of NIOSH’s Work Organization Stress-Related Disorders Program and co-author of NIOSH’s document “Stress … at work,” said the institute believes stress results from the job itself, rather than from the worker. “We don’t think so much about the personality of the individual worker,” he said. “We look at the job context and what it is the job requires of them and the types of stressful working conditions that employees encounter in the workplace.”

Miller says personality plays a large role in the level of stress a worker may experience. “For example,” he said, “if you don’t particularly like people, then stay out of retail sales.”

Some indicators point to stress becoming more prevalent as the economy worsens and more workers fear unemployment. “Numerous surveys confirm that the recent progressive downturn in the economy has resulted in a corresponding sharp increase in job stress due to job loss, and job insecurity as a result of layoffs and downsizing,” Rosch said.

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