Stress in the workplace

Work related stress can be described as a pattern of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physiological reactions that we experience whenever we perceive ourselves to be in a situation in which we are not able to cope with the demands placed upon us. Sources of workplace stress include the workplace, home and the struggle to balance our work and home.

According to a Leger Marketing survey of working Canadians, effects of workplace stress include:

  • Physical Impact: 53 per cent say they experience headaches, clenched jaws, indigestion, constipation or diarrhoea, increased perspiration, and fatigue or insomnia due to workplace stress.
  • Psychological Impact: 55 per cent experience anxiety, irritability with co-workers, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, and feelings of helplessness or of being trapped due to workplace stress.
  • Behavioural Impact: 52 per cent say stress in the workplace makes them impatient, causes them to procrastinate, makes them quick to argue or withdraw, or causes them to isolate themselves from others, neglect responsibility or perform poorly.

    Sources of workplace stress include the nature and content of work, and organizational factors that contribute to an environment of fairness, respect and justice. Moving to a global economy has made our work worlds faster paced and has created a 24/7 environment where we can continue to work, pay bills and make purchases around the clock and around the globe. Work hours and the workweek have been extended and technologies such as cell phones, pagers, Blackberry’s and computers blur the distinction between work and home.

    Why should we care about work-related stress?

    Working under continued stress leads to people feeling on-edge, emotionally exhausted, and burned-out. Feeling this way for too long can lead to other serious problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. These mental health and addiction problems result in an immense burden on individuals, workplaces, health-care systems and the economy. Mental health claims are the fastest growing category of disability claims and the majority of long-term disability claims have a significant mental health component.

    The economic impact of workplace depression has recently become better understood with the more precise measurement of direct and indirect costs. For those who are employed, direct costs such as absenteeism, disability and treatment costs can be well quantified based on administrative data. Other factors, that are likely important, but more difficult to quantify include lost economic opportunity resulting from depression including underemployment, missed promotions or overtime, shifting from full-time to part-time and the burden of depression to families or society at large.

    Common causes of workplace stress:

    • Job satisfaction: People who report being more satisfied with their job or happier in their job also report lower levels of stress. Job satisfaction includes feeling like they make an important contribution in doing their job well. It also includes feeling like their job is a “good fit” and that they have the training, skills and direction necessary to do their job well.
    • Fair compensation: Employees report higher job satisfaction when they feel that they are being fairly compensated so that they feel they have been dealt with in a personal and just fashion. Career development opportunities are an important part of fair compensation.
    • Work stress balance: Overwork or under work (including under-use of skills) leads to stress among employees. There are optimum amounts of work that people can process well so that they are neither over-worked or becoming bored in their job.

    Meaningful work in a meaningful organization: It is important for employees to feel that their contribution is valued as part of the larger picture (like being a valued member of a team). Diversity-friendly work environments are an essential part of today’s health work environment.

    Physical work environment: Work stress is reduced when the physical work environment is comfortable including natural light when possible, comfortable temperatures, aesthetically pleasing, and not socially isolated.

    Effective leadership: It is noted that more people leave their jobs because they have not received the proper support and leadership from their managers than for any other reason. Often top performers are promoted into management positions with little or no management training or preparation. Good managers contribute to a healthy work environment by including staff in decision making and increasing their sense of control and direction in the organization. Staff benefit from feeling respect and recognition from managers. Repressive management style and techniques serve to increase work place stress and contribute to low staff morale.

    A psychologically healthy work place engenders loyalty among staff while motivating them to rise to new heights of performance and preventing talented people from leaving.

    Signs of stress

    • Irritability and impatience
    • Inability to stay focused
    • Staying out of sight, keeping the world at a distance, being grouchy about casual interruptions such as the phone ringing and avoiding eye contact
    • Calling in sick a lot, being persistently late for meetings
    • Avoiding the office atmosphere and “working at home” a lot
    • Finding it painful to smile openly
    • Finding small talk hateful and tuning out what others say
    • Missing deadlines
    • Losing faith in yourself and others
    • Resenting and even alienating clients

    Overall, exposure to chronic work stress appears to amplify the negative effects of psychiatric and physical disorders and is associated with higher rates of disability. Conversely, increasing decision latitude and support from coworker or supervisors can buffer the negative effects of job strain.

    It is important to note that when considering a variety of direct and indirect measures of costs of depression in the workplace, the cost of treatment is always a small fraction and provides an excellent return on investment for employers, private insurers and public health-care systems through increased productivity and higher rates of sustained employment.