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Course 765 - Managing Workplace Stress

Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Stress in Today's Workplace

stress

The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reveals that 80 percent of us feel stress on the job and almost half say they need help in managing that stress.

What is Job Stress?

Job stress is commonly thought of as physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension in response to perceived demands and expectations employees experience in the workplace. It is also influenced by their relationships with co-workers, supervisors, and managers.

It's important to think of stress as a continuum. The type of stress employees experience depends on what they believe and feel. Stress is about taking or losing control on the job as follows:

  • Negative stress, or distress, may result in harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. If employees no longer believe they have adequate KSAs and, consequently feel they are not in control, the stress they experience will more likely be negative. Signs and symptoms of negative stress in employees include increased blood pressure, insomnia, taking unsafe shortcuts, inattention, and irritability.
  • Positive stress, also called eustress, is physiological response employees experience when good things happen and they feel in control. As long as employees believe they have adequate knowledge, skills, abilities (KSAs), and feel in control of the job, the stress they experience will be most likely positive. They will think, "I can do this," and they feel confident in meeting performance expectations. Positive stress may result in increased productivity, working safe, helping other employees, and improved morale.

Scenario

The longer he waited, the more David worried. For weeks he had been plagued by aching muscles, loss of appetite, restless sleep, and a complete sense of exhaustion. At first he tried to ignore these problems, but eventually he became so short-tempered and irritable that his wife insisted he get a checkup. Now, sitting in the doctor's office and wondering what the verdict would be, he didn't even notice when Theresa took the seat beside him. They had been good friends when she worked in the front office at the plant, but he hadn't seen her since she left three years ago to take a job as a customer service representative. Her gentle poke in the ribs brought him around, and within minutes they were talking and gossiping as if she had never left.

"You got out just in time," he told her. "Since the reorganization, nobody feels safe. It used to be that as long as you did your work, you had a job. That's not for sure anymore. They expect the same production rates even though two guys are now doing the work of three. We're so backed up I'm working twelve-hour shifts six days a week. I swear I hear those machines humming in my sleep. Guys are calling in sick just to get a break. Morale is so bad they're talking about bringing in some consultants to figure out a better way to get the job done."

"Well, I really miss you guys," she said. "I'm afraid I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In my new job, the computer routes the calls and they never stop. I even have to schedule my bathroom breaks. All I hear the whole day are complaints from unhappy customers. I try to be helpful and sympathetic, but I can't promise anything without getting my boss's approval. Most of the time I'm caught between what the customer wants and company policy. I'm not sure who I'm supposed to keep happy. The other reps are so uptight and tense, they don't even talk to one another. We all go to our own little cubicles and stay there until quitting time. To make matters worse, my mother's health is deteriorating. If only I could use some of my sick time to look after her. No wonder I'm in here with migraine headaches and high blood pressure. A lot of the reps are seeing the employee assistance counselor and taking stress management classes, which seems to help. But sooner or later, someone will have to make some changes in the way the place is run."

stress

Scope of Stress in the Workplace

David's and Theresa's stories in the previous tab are unfortunate, but not unusual. Job stress has become a common and costly problem in the American workplace, leaving few workers untouched. For example, recent studies report the following:

  • One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. (Northwestern National Life)
  • Three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. (Princeton Survey Research Associates)
  • Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems. (St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co.)

A 2017 StressPulse survey released by ComPsych found that 59% of employees report being in the high-stress category, with workload and people issues being the top work stressors. Only a small percentage of the employees surveyed did not claim to suffer from stress at work. Causes of work stress identified in the survey are as follows:

  1. 39% cited workload
  2. 31% cited people issues
  3. 19% cited juggling work and personal life
  4. 6% cited lack of job security
  5. 5% said none of the above (I'm not stressed)

Job Stress Causes

stress

Nearly everyone agrees job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ, however, on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. These differing viewpoints are important because they suggest different ways to prevent stress at work.

According to one school of thought, differences in individual employee characteristics such 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 employee 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.

Job Stress Causes (Continued)

Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests certain working conditions are stressful to most people. The excessive workload demands and conflicting expectations described in David's and Theresa's stories are good examples. Such evidence argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress, and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy.

Scenario

In 1960, a Michigan court upheld a compensation claim by an automotive assembly line worker who had difficulty keeping up with the pressures of the production line. To avoid falling behind, he tried to work on several assemblies at the same time and often got parts mixed up. As a result, he was subjected to repeated criticism from the foreman. Eventually he suffered a psychological breakdown.

NIOSH Approach to Job Stress

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On the basis of experience and research, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) favors the view that working conditions play a primary role in causing job stress. However, the role of individual factors is not ignored.

NIOSH believes exposure to stressful working conditions (called job stressors) can have a direct influence on worker safety and health. But as shown below, individual and other situational factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence.

Examples of individual and situational factors that can increase distress at work include:

  • The need to take care of an elderly or sick family member
  • Having increased financial obligations with the bank or IRS
  • Emotional problems like grief, depression, or low self-esteem

Examples of individual and situational factors that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions include the following:

  • Being able to balance the day between work and family or personal life
  • Having a support network of friends and coworkers
  • Developing a relaxed and positive outlook

Job Conditions That May Lead to Stress

OSHA

The Design of Tasks: Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shiftwork; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, and provide little sense of control.

  • Example: David works to the point of exhaustion. Theresa is tied to the computer, allowing little room for flexibility, self-initiative, or rest.

Management Style: Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.

  • Example: Theresa needs to get the boss's approval for everything, and the company is insensitive to her family needs.

Interpersonal Relationships: Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors.

  • Example: Theresa's physical isolation reduces her opportunities to interact with other workers or receive help from them.

Work Roles: Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, and too many "hats to wear."

  • Example: Theresa is often caught in a difficult situation trying to satisfy both the customer's needs and the company's expectations.

Career Concerns: Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.

  • Example: Since the reorganization at David's plant, everyone is worried about their future with the company and what will happen next.

Environmental Conditions: Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.

  • Example: David is exposed to constant noise at work.

Job Conditions That May Lead to Stress

relationships

The Design of Tasks: Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shiftwork; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, and provide little sense of control.

Example: David works to the point of exhaustion. Theresa is tied to the computer, allowing little room for flexibility, self-initiative, or rest.

Management Style: Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.

Example: Theresa needs to get the boss's approval for everything, and the company is insensitive to her family needs.

Interpersonal Relationships: Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors.

Example: Theresa's physical isolation reduces her opportunities to interact with other workers or receive help from them.

Work Roles: Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, and too many "hats to wear."

Example: Theresa is often caught in a difficult situation trying to satisfy both the customer's needs and the company's expectations.

Career Concerns: Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.

Example: Since the reorganization at David's plant, everyone is worried about their future with the company and what will happen next.

Environmental Conditions: Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.

Example: David is exposed to constant noise at work.

Video

This NIOSH video describes workplace factors that can create or exacerbate worker stress, and suggests practical measures for reducing job-related stress through changes in work organization.

Instructions

Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. _____ of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.

2. Which of the following is/are more strongly associated with health complaints?

3. This leads to prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help cope with demanding job conditions.

4. The cost of stress to American employers is estimated at _____ per year.

5. _____ of lost workdays each year can be attributed to stress.


Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.