Stress in the workplace
Keeping stress in check could create a healthier – and safer – workforce
Warning signs of stress
“The first warning signs of stress are primarily emotional, and anger is one of the first ones,” Miller said. When workers find themselves feeling these emotions more quickly or more intensely than they normally would, it is an indicator of high stress levels.
“Muscle contraction headaches, or tension headaches, are one of the really early physical signs,” he said, as are intestinal issues such as heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease. Additionally, according to the American Institute of Stress, workers suffering from stress may experience shortness of breath, hair loss, changes in appetite, fatigue or panic attacks.
Miller draws a distinction between acute stress and the more dangerous chronic stress. “When you’re under acute stress, you know you’re stressed,” he said. “But when it’s chronic stress, it becomes so much a part of the landscape of your life that you don’t even realize it’s there and it just grinds on and on and on. It just wears people out, wears their immune system out so that they develop all kinds of diseases.”
The impact on safety
Although the link between stress and worker health is becoming stronger through a wide range of studies, the impact stress has on the safety of workers is not as well-known.
“The data are weaker for injuries [being related to stress] than they are for illnesses,” Sauter said. “But I would say the weight of the evidence points to a linkage between both stress and illness and workplace injury.”
NIOSH calls for more research, yet cites “growing concern” that stress can lead to incidents by interfering with safe work practices. In a recent survey of nurses conducted by the American Nurses Association in Silver Spring, MD, 80 percent said on-the-job stress levels impact workplace safety, and 59 percent of nurses said when they feel pressured they are more inclined to work faster and take shortcuts.
“Accident levels go up dramatically when stress climbs,” Miller said, pointing out stress also can increase the incidence of workplace bullying and violence.
So how can employers act to mitigate stress in the workplace? The first step is to find out what is causing the stress. “You have to measure what goes on,” Miller said. “Once you measure it, you can manage it, but you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
“Although there are some common denominators, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution” to managing stress in the workplace, Rosch said. He recommended employers perform a stress audit, where workers can anonymously list the various things that cause them stress. From there, he said, employers can “analyze the results to determine what are the most common stressors and whether any of these are the employer’s responsibility or require some remedial action.”
NIOSH’s stress document noted that some employers believe stress is a natural part of the workplace and applying pressure to workers will make them productive. However, the paper also noted “studies show that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs – all of which have a negative effect on the bottom line.”
The institute identified some common characteristics among organizations that have a healthy, low-stress, highly productive workforce. Rather than being high pressure, these organizations were likely to recognize employees for good work performance and provide a structure that values workers and allows them room for advancement.
Managing stress in the workplace may not only be beneficial for employees’ health – it also can have a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line. Stress costs employers money in many ways. Although health care costs may have the largest impact on the company’s bottom line, the American Institute of Stress determined workplace stress costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion annually in the form of workplace incidents, turnover, presenteeism, insurance premiums, disability and workers’ compensation.
To have a truly positive impact on the health of the workforce, Miller believes employers need to legitimately invest in combating stress. “You have to develop a culture of wellness in the workplace to really deal with it effectively,” he said. “Stress is a huge chunk of that wellness culture.”