High stress has an adverse effect on the whole of a business. Research shows that more working days are lost due to stress than any other single factor. In fact in seems that this is probably just the tip of the ice-burg because not only are many other illnesses triggered by stress but people are often reluctant to admit that they are under too much stress.
Lunch is for wimps
This is a common belief amongst hard working executives. There is a professional status that is somehow enhanced by working long hours with no breaks. Sadly the reverse seems to be true with those who work long hours without breaks showing signs of severe stress.
On the other hand too little work (or too repetitive work) can also lead to high levels of stress.
This has led to a conspiracy of silence where workers are reluctant to admit that they are under stress either because they fear that they will show a poor work ethic and be penalised for it or in the worst cases they fear they will lose their job.
What are the signs of too much stress?
Work-related stress is defined by HSE as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.
Stress can be experienced in its physical manifestations in the following ways (according to the American Psychiatric Association):
- heart pounding
- sweaty palms
- skin breaks out
- shortness of breath
- holding breath
- cold hands
- sleep too much
- tight stomach
- tight muscles
On top of this there are emotional responses:
- depressed anxious
- lack of sense of humour
And mental symptoms:
- loss of concentration
- poor judgment
- fuzzy perception
- lack of interest
- math errors
- stop thinking
- diminished fantasy life
- negative self-talk
Of course one must be careful of making a self-diagnosis as there are many other illnesses that can manifest in this way. If you believe you are under too much stress then you should seek medical help to diagnose the problem. Too much prolonged stress can kill.
What causes stress in the workplace?
We have already mentioned that too much or too little work can be a factor but there are many causes.
Culture of the organisation
- People are reluctant to talk about stress and it is seen as a necessary evil to get the work done. Lack of communication between bosses and bosses being unapproachable. Long working hours (and no breaks) seen as a sigh of good working practices. If it isn’t finished then take it home approaches. Also asking employees to do things they find unethical.
- Too much work is an obvious example. Not enough thought given to a persons capability or training. To quote Regulation 13(1) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and paragraph 80 of the Approved Code of Practice on the Regulations: “When allocating work to employees, employers should ensure that the demands of the job do not exceed the employees’ ability to carry out the work without risk to themselves or others … Employers should review their employees’ capabilities to carry out their work, as necessary”
- Too little work can lead to boredom and high levels of stress
- Physical environment including noise, vibration etc
- Working with the public e.g. possible verbal abuse or even risk of physical violence. The abuse or violence doesn’t need to be present just the perceived risk is enough to cause high levels of stress.
- Presentations and other performance related stress. Some employees are expected to undertake activities that cause them great stress.
- How much control does the employee have over their work load and their environment? Can the worker make any input into how the work might be done and what the deadlines etc might be
- Relationships are also important but here we are talking about working relationships in particular. Bullying and harassment can cause stress. Bullying can happen by work colleagues or bosses and seems to be a major problem in most societies and organisations. A person has a right not to be harassed for reasons of sex, race, colour, religion, nationality, ethnic or national origin or disability.
- Many organisations have undergone significant change in the last decade or so. Work must be adapted to compete in a modern world and can include such things as technology, working practice, downsizing, outsourcing etc. Most of this is unavoidable but it does lead to work related stress that must be addressed in some way.
- Problems can arise where employees do not fully understand what they are required to do and who they are responsible to.
- Where too little training is provided it can lead to extreme stress. Workers who are expected to operate machinery or software that they do not understand are often very stressed. Workers who are expected to do things for which they have no formal training or experience can also suffer from stress.
- This is a complex subject and will vary from one business to another. However the factors above should be given attention in any working environment.
Why should I bother?
There are many reasons to bother and here are some of them.
Many countries insist that employers take responsibility for the welfare of their employees. This should include being concerned about the stress that employees are under. There have been several court cases recently where employers have been found negligent in managing stress and have been fined for this negligence. I’m not trying to scare anyone but employers are legally bound to manage stress in their organisations.
As an employer you have a moral obligation to help your employees work in as stress free an environment as possible. You cannot be expected to handle the stress outside the place of work but while employees are at work they need to be given the respect and help that is due any human being.
I have saved this one till last. It is impossible to put an actual figure on the cost of stress to industry but the research that has been done is conclusive. Workers under stress work less efficiently and get less done. The old believe that you need stress to work hard is simply not true. We do need motivation and sometimes stress can help us prepare for important events but in nearly all cases stress is detrimental to production.
Healthy workforces that are not stressed tend to perform better. They produce more. They have a more positive attitude to their work place which means less absence and a more positive message presented to the outside work. Workers who are happy tend to stay where they are rather than seek employment somewhere else. This means investment in training and time is better realised.
Stress in the workplace is a serious matter. Not only are you putting your own business at risk if you don’t address it but you are also putting the future health of your employees at risk, possibly even shortening their lives. There are many things that can be done to reduce stress and to help employees deal with the times when stress is inevitable.