On the surface, it might seem that stressful working conditions are a necessary evil, that companies must turn up the pressure on workers and set aside health concerns to remain productive and profitable in today’s economy. But research shows that stressful working conditions lead to more absenteeism, tardiness, injury and illness and reduced productivity. All these can be very expensive to the employer.
Certain jobs such as air traffic controller have always been considered stressful, but their secretaries are actually more stressed. Why? Little control over a heavy workload, a vague role, low status and low pay are just some of the reasons. Work stress is not related to any specific occupation, but to how well we are suited to our work – and how much control we have.
An incompetent, unappreciative or vindictive boss can make any workplace intolerable. On the other hand, people cope pretty well with even the toughest, dirtiest job if there’s meaningful result at the end of the day: a product, a worthwhile service or a big pay cheque.
Stress is basically a situation in which our problems seem bigger than we are, for more than a short time. To cope, we must become equal to our problems, if possible, by reducing them (we usually can’t!) but also by making ourselves stronger.
If we do not feel equal to the demands we face, the symptoms arise. Anxiety causes rapid heartbeat, irritability, anger outbursts, insomnia muscle tension and a host of other symptoms, including substance abuse and obesity. Ultimately, prolonged stress can lead to depression.
Watch the signs
There are a number of symptoms related to depression that people should watch for. An obvious sign is sadness and crying, but often people don’t seem particularly sad.
More common symptoms that are usually present for more than two weeks, include:
• Loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
• Insomnia and irritability
• Feeling guilty, worthless, helpless
• Weight or appetite changes
• Thoughts of death and suicide
• Chronic aches and pains, especially back pain
Depression is common, sneaky and universal. The Premier of Norway recently took a month off for treatment (and made sure that everyone knew, which is a wonderful gesture to demystify depression!).
We’re not talking about a passing mood or a personal weakness. Depression is a major but treatable illness, which can strike anyone from the loading dock to the boardroom –even outstanding performers with no apparent worries are not immune.
Jobs can be a major stressor for people. The bottom line is that unless a person really loves his or her work and is unmarried, the more hours that person works, the more dissatisfied he or she are. The worst affected people are managers and highly qualified workers.
When it come to the workplace, there are three major factors that are causing workers too much stress. Seventy-five per cent of workers say too much work is the problem (although this may change with the current economic meltdown), followed by deadline pressures and lack of two-way communication cited by 62 per cent of workers. Third on the list of stressors, cited by 42 per cent, is an unsupportive work environment that leaves workers feeling unappreciated.
Other major stressors include: Lack of control and inconsistent management, raises without reviews, layoff after a positive evaluation, unclear policies and ‘office politics.’ The environment may be unpleasant or dangerous. Long commutes add more strain. Money isn’t everything but a good cheque each month is a great motivator and stress reliever.
Management must face overload too, but they also have the ‘cross of relationships’ to bear. Their pressure comes from above (senior management), from the sides (fellow managers, suppliers, counterparts in other businesses) and from below (incompetent staff, poor performers, troublemakers and so on).
Senior managers and CEOs avoid many minor annoying stresses, but they usually have their own problems to deal with, including responsibility to shareholders, investment decisions and charting the course of the business in uncertain times.
Whatever your rank, work stresses may be equaled or exceeded by personal ones such as marriage conflicts, wayward children and aging parents.
On the other hand, work stress affects us less if we have a strong loving family, other supportive relationships, a relaxed and positive outlook, strong self-esteem and coping attitudes such as optimism, flexibility, persistence and a sense of humour.
Working conditions are important, but less important than the fit between the worker and the job. If you love what you do you can easily get into the rhythm of it, and experience the state of ‘flow,’ which is one definition of pure happiness. On the other hand, if you have no passion for it, even the most prestigious career can burn you out.
Tackling workplace stress
Stress can wreck an employee’s health and career and jeopardize personal and family happiness. And it’s very bad for employers. Stress is a major factor in injuries, absenteeism and illness among workers, costing an estimated $2,600 per year per employee.
There are lots of evidence that show psychologically demanding jobs that give employees little control over the work process increase the risk of heart attacks, hypertension and stroke, musculoskeletal problems and psychological disorders such as depression.
There is also a link between stress and injury. Stressed people tend to drink more, smoke and abuse drugs, none of which is good for productivity, and they have higher rates of diabetes with its huge attendant costs.
This is bad enough, but too many workers take time off work simply because of stress, and they will usually be off the job for about 20 days. If they don’t come back, it costs roughly $10,000 to find and train a new person to take over a key job. When employees are stressed and burned out the company will also pay dearly for missed deadlines, reduced productivity and lower quality of work.
Employers must recognize the massive human and financial cost associated with a stressed out workforce. Most employers say they can’t afford stress programs, but actually they cannot afford not to – there’s good evidence that reducing harmful stress will improve productivity and reduce losses.
Consider these effective options:
Listen to employees’ concerns and if valid, actually doing something about it;
• Change or re-examine stress-causing policies;
• Identify, educate, elevate or replace toxic managers;
• Recognize employees for good performance and give them opportunities for career development;
• Provide information and opportunities for dealing with work, personal and health problems, and assist workers with balancing work and family commitments
• Society should find ways to enable a parent to interrupt their career to raise young children without loss of seniority or benefits.
Individuals must take responsibility for their health, time, money, relationships and their responses to workplace problems.
Studies of so-called ‘healthy organizations’ suggest that policies benefiting worker health also benefit the bottom line.
In these days of rapid change, crisis and uncertainty, are your employees worried about layoffs and distracted from their jobs? They probably are, because everybody is nervous. They spend more time online and talking to one another about how their jobs are at risk and managers are often deluged with questions about job security and retirement investment, making it harder for them to do their jobs properly while handling their own stress.
Should we let stress destroy us or should we see it as an opportunity for personal growth and greater happiness? It’s our choice!
Dr. David Rainham is the founder of Optimum Health Centre, based in Waterloo, ON, specializing in stress, weight/nutrition and pain management. You can contact Dr. Rainham by calling 519-897-3670 or you can visit the company web sites at www.stresswinner.com or www.optimumhealth.ca.
Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and www.cos-mag.com.