The nature of work is changing at whirlwind speed (2). Job stress is defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This type of stress can lead to poor health and injury. Stress is a misfit between a worker’s needs and capabilities, and what the workplace offers and demands (8). The National Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) identified stress as the most significant psychological hazard in the workplace, affecting both mental and physical well-being of people (8). Work-related stress is the natural reaction of people to being put under intense pressure at work over a period of time (7). Some people are motivated by the challenges that their job demands and when overcoming those challenges there is a sense of relaxation and accomplishment. It is when the pressure of work demands becomes extreme and stretched out, that people see that there is a threat to their well-being or interests and that is then they start to be subjected to unpleasant emotions such as fear, anger or anxiety. Stress is not a disease or injury, but it can lead to mental and physical ill health (7). Stress is one of the major OHS issues confronting workers in Australian workplaces. The ACTU conducted a survey in 1997 receiving over 12,000 responses that showed:
One in four people took time off due to stress at work.
The most stressful conditions at work reported were management issues including lack of communication and consultation; increased workload; organizational change and restructuring; and job insecurity.
A range of symptoms including headaches, continual tiredness, anger, and sleeplessness.
Over half of the respondents nominated better management, including more communication and consultation, as a solution to stress at work. Other solutions included less workload, performance monitoring, better work organization, more training, job security, and better career opportunities (5).
Stressors are events or circumstances that lead to someone feeling that physical or psychological demands are about to exceed his or her ability to cope (3). There are numerous types of stressors. These stressors can be because of the type of job such as shift work and threat of violence. Another stressor can arise because of the way the job is organized, this can include physical factors (excessive heat, cold, noise) and physiological factors that can affect the body’s balance (shift work, inadequate recuperative time, etc.) (3). Stressors can appear because of the unrealistic deadlines because excessive work demands. They can also develop because of personal factors (health status, relationships, coping with difficult situations).
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Stress is a complex issue and no two individuals will be affected in the same way (3). Stress can be thought of as a “bucket” model. The bucket model suggests that stress and fatigue result when a person’s reservoir of personal resilience is drained faster than it is replenished (3). Interesting work, supportive relationships, and good health fill the bucket, and difficult working conditions, emotionally draining work, excess work, and difficulties at home can drain the bucket (3). Some signs and symptoms that one needs to watch out for if they start to feel stressed is that employees feel anxious and their heart rate speeds up because of the lack of control over the workload amounts. There are physical, psychological and behavioral symptoms that managers or anyone in control of the organization needs to be aware of. The physical symptoms include headaches, stomach problems, eating disorders, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and chronic mild illness (6). The psychological and behavioral symptoms include anxiety, irritability, low morale, depression, alcohol and drug use, and isolation from co-workers (6). If employees are exposed to these stressors for long periods of time they can turn into chronic health problems. The physical conditions can advance into high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, asthma, and immune system dysfunction (6). The psychological and behavioral symptoms can progress to serious depression, suicidal behavior, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse and burnout (6).
SOURCES/CAUSES OF JOB STRESS
According to Aetna, there is one school of thought, differences in individual characteristics such as personality and coping with style are the most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress – in other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. There are different job conditions that may lead to stress. These job conditions include design of tasks, management style, interpersonal relationships, work roles, career concerns, and environmental conditions. The design of the task is anything that provides little sense of control to the employee, heavy workload, and long work hours, hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning. Another job condition that leads to stress is the style of management. The management style could be due to poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies, and a lack of participation by workers in decision making. Interpersonal relationship can cause an employee stress because of the following possible factors: poor social environment and a lack of support from coworkers and supervisors. Having too many work roles is another job condition that could cause an employee stress. This can happen when the employee is wearing too many hats, having too much responsibility, or uncertain job expectations. Another job condition that can cause stress to an employee is career concerns. The lack of job insecurity, opportunity for growth, or rapid changes in which the workers are unprepared. The last job condition that can cause stress is the environment. The environmental conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution or ergonomic problems are conditions that human resource is going to have to take into consideration. The causes of stress (often called stressors) can be many and varied, and can occur as a result of combinations of more than one stressor (7). The PEF have a list of other stressors that can cause stress. They include hiring freezes; contingent work (part-time or temporary), quality programs and these can lead to stress. These include non-existent career ladders, high demands, workload, time pressures, understaffing and violence/harassment (6).
Short-term stress may make a person aware of being challenged and motivated. This is “some stress is good for you” effect (3). Prolonged awareness of not coping can lead to harm for both the person and the organization (3). This can result in immediate safety problems, depression, burnout, heart disease, and self-abusive behaviors (such as alcohol) (3).
STRESS FROM DOING THE JOB
Most stressors can be grouped into one of three areas (7); stress from doing the job, stress from work relationships, and stress from working conditions. Stress from doing the job can be attributed to repetitive work, too much to do with too little time, too much or not enough training, demotion, confusion of priorities and too much responsibility. Poor colleague relationships, discrimination, lack of communication between employer and employee, and negative culture can be the source for stress from work relationships. Stress from working conditions can be rooted in the physical danger or the threat of the job, poor physical working conditions, restructuring, and inflexible work schedules or erratic hours.
JOB STRESS AND HEALTH
Job stress poses a threat to health of workers and to the health organizations (2). There are potential health problems that if exposed to too much stress can increase the risk for. The early warning signs that one maybe experiencing too much stress. These signs are headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, and low morale. If these early warning signs go unnoticed then there are more serious problems that can arise. These problems include cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders, workplace injury, suicide, cancer, ulcers, and impaired immune function. As levels of stress increase, so too can consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and prescription/non-prescription drugs (5).
WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT JOB STRESS
There are some different approaches for dealing with stress. They are stress management and organizational change. With stress management there are programs that teach workers about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health, and personal skills to reduce stress (1). Employee assistance programs (EAP) are initiated to improve the ability of workers to cope with difficult work situations. EAP’s provide individual counseling for employees with both work and personal problems (1). Stress management training could significantly reduce stress symptoms and is inexpensive to implement. Stress management has two disadvantages: the beneficial effects on stress symptoms are often short-lived; and they often ignore important root causes of stress because they focus on the worker and not the environment (1). The second approach for dealing with stress is organizational change. This approach is the most direct way to reduce stress at work (1). It encompasses the identification of stressful aspects of work and designs strategies to reduce or eliminate the recognized stressors. The advantage of this approach is that it deals directly with the root causes of stress at work (1). This approach can be tricky for managers because it means changing work or production schedules, or changes in the structure of the organization. As a general rule, actions to reduce job stress should give top priority to organizational change to improve working conditions (1). The practical approach to dealing with job-related stress is to combine organizational change and stress management to prevent stress at work.
Managing problems around stress and fatigue requires the same skills and behaviors as managing any other employment relationship problems:
The parties need to communicate, work together, and find a solution that both find satisfactory (3);
Deal with problems before they escalate;
Make sure that you have all the facts, talk the issue through with the all involved, and identify the underlying problem;
Have a third party present so that they could help make certain that all issues are understood by both parties and all probable solutions are taken into account;
Employers who need assistance can consult an Employers’ Organization (3).
WHAT LAWS APPLY
Stress becomes an occupational hazard if it adversely impacts on safety and health in the workplace (7). Employers have a duty to provide safe systems of work, information, training and supervision and to consult and cooperate with employees. Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of themselves in the workplace and to cooperate with the employer on safety and health matters (7). Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 requires employers, where practicable, to adopt a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and controlling hazards at work; employers should identify factors in the workplace that cause stress, review the likelihood that the stress would cause injury or disease, and if the risks are significant they should put controls in place to minimize stress.
HOW ARE THE RISKS ARISING FROM STRESS ASSESSED
As of today, there is no objective way to measure the levels of stress in the workplace, but there are consultants that can measure the sources of stress and set into place subjective measures for the workplace. These solutions will differ based on the size and intricacy of the organization, resources available, and the different types of stress faced within that organization. Minimizing stress can be inexpensive. The employer, main contractor, self-employed person, or anyone with control in the work place, it is their responsibility of assessing the amount of stress within an organization. This involves taking action to prevent growing pressure in the workplace, identifying pressures that could cause high, long-lasting levels of stress, identifying those that might be affected by these pressures, and deciding whether to take preventative action to prevent growing pressure. It is important that there is early intervention if stress is identified (7).
STRATEGIES FOR SOLUTIONS
If the company is in a union then employers need to get the affected members to work together with union representatives to address the reason(s) for job-related stress. The first thing that needs to happen is that the problem needs to be documented that includes worker surveys, hazard mapping, analyzing existing employer data such as injury and illness logs or tracking staffing patterns. If management collaboration is possible, the union, affected worker, and management can come together to identify key stressors and develop programs to reduce stress. This is usually done through health and safety and labor/management committees, training and educational programs. Strategies may include involving workers in job and workplace design, having input on shift schedules, and/or developing a workplace violence prevention policy or program (6). If management is not cooperating, the union can perform its own campaign by holding peer group meetings, filing mass grievances, or engage in public awareness campaign.
MANAGERS’ AND EMPLOYERS’ RESPONSIBILITIES
As a manager and employer you have certain responsibilities and have a duty to look after your own health as well as the health of your employees. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that you carry out a risk assessment to find out whether you are doing enough to prevent stress, and has identified seven factors for assessing work-related stress hazards:
Culture of the organizations,
Demands such as workload and exposure to physical hazards,
How much control people have over the way they work,
How organizational change is managed and communicated,
Whether the individual understands their role in the organization and whether the organization ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles, and
Support and training from peers and line management for the person to be able to undertake the core functions of their job (4).
Stress can affect everyone. Work organizations need to develop a workplace culture that recognizes that job satisfaction factors such as flexibility, autonomy, security, recognition, ownership, participation, and involvement are as essential as stable industrial relations. Employers in such organizations should have no doubt that health, safety, security, and morale are inextricably linked to employee satisfaction, productivity, and customer satisfaction (7). Stress should not be part of a job to the extent that it causes physical or mental illness (4). The solution is good management on both sides (4).