Over the past decade many parts of society have been in economic upheaval. Layoffs, down-sizing, and bankruptcies have cost millions of people their jobs. Millions more live in constant fear of the same fate. Many people have accepted pay cuts, and one employee may be assigned the tasks formerly performed by two or three. People are working longer and harder just to maintain their economic status.
The result of all these changes? Many research studies have now confirmed that workplace stress is, by far, the major source of stress for American adults, and it has been escalating during the last several decades. (1,2)
In a 2007, nationwide poll by the American Psychological Association, more than half of those surveyed indicated that their work productivity suffered due to stress; almost half stated that they did not use their allotted vacation time and even considered looking for a new job because of stress.
Job stress is a concern for employers, costing U.S. businesses an estimated $300 billion per year through absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, medical, legal, and insurance fees. Health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. More than half of respondents said that job demands interfered with family and home. (1)
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the U.S. federal agency that conducts research and makes recommendations to prevent worker injury and illness. It’s August, 2013 report compiles the results of several recent surveys on stress at work:
- Northwestern National Life – 40 percent of workers say their job is “very or extremely stressful.”
- Families and Work Institute – 26 percent of workers report that they are “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”
- Princeton Survey Research Associates – 75 percent of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
- Yale University – 29 percent of workers say they feel “quite a bit or extremely stressed at work.”
Defining Job Stress
The NIOSH defines job stress 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. It can lead to illness, injury, adrenal fatigue, and burnout. (3)
The concept of job stress is often confused with challenge, but the concepts are not the same. Challenge is energizing, physically and psychologically. It motivates people to learn new skills and master their jobs. When the challenge is met, there is a feeling of satisfaction that is important to healthy and productive work. Often people are referring to challenge when they say, “a little bit of stress is good for you.” (2)
Causes of Job Stress
There is general agreement that job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. There are differing opinions about the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. The distinction is important because they will respond to different methods to lessen and prevent stress at work.
Some believe that differences in individuals, such as personality and coping skills, are most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress. What is stressful for one person may not be bothersome to someone else. This belief suggests that prevention methods should focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions. (1)
Individual differences are important, but scientific evidence also suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. The most stressful work conditions are those in which workers have a sense of powerlessness, in a situation of extreme demands. (4)
Based on experience and research, NIOSH’s view is that exposure to stressful working conditions (job stressors) have a direct influence on worker safety and health, but individual and other situational factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence. Some individual and situational factors that can reduce the effects of stressful working conditions include: balance between work and family or personal life, a support network of friends and coworkers, and a relaxed and positive outlook. (5)
Job conditions that may lead to stress include:
- Design of tasks – Heavy workload, infrequent breaks, long work hours and shiftwork, hectic and routine tasks with little inherent meaning, lack of skills needed, and little sense of control
- Management style – Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies
- Interpersonal relationships – Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors
- Work roles – Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many “hats to wear”
- Career concerns – Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared
- Environmental concerns – Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic conditions
Job Stress and Health
Just some of the ailments studied to determine if they were associated with stress at work include: mood and sleep disturbances, nausea, headaches, disturbed relationships, short temper, job dissatisfaction and low moral. These early signs of job stress are easily recognized. It’s more difficult to see the effects of job stress on chronic diseases, because they develop over time, and are influenced by many factors other than stress. Evidence is rapidly accumulating that stress has a significant role in chronic health problems – especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders and workplace injury. In New York, Los Angeles, and other major municipalities, a police officer who suffers a heart attack, on or off the job, is assumed to have a work-related injury and is compensated accordingly. The officer may be cheering on a favorite football team or skiing the slopes in Aspen when the heart attack occurs – it’s treated as work-related. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers who must take time off work because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder will be off the job for about 20 days. (6,7,8)
Research suggests that suicide, cancer, ulcers and impaired immune function are associated with stressful working conditions. More research is needed to form definitive conclusions. (6)
Some employers believe that stressful working conditions are necessary for increasing productivity and remaining profitable. Research shows, however, that stressful working conditions are associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs – all costly to the business. (4)
Recent studies of healthy organizations suggest that policies benefiting workers also benefits profits. A healthy organization is defined as one that has low rates of injury, illness and disability, and is also competitive in the marketplace. NIOSH has identified organizational characteristics associated with both low stress and high productivity.(3) Some of those characteristics are:
- Recognition of employees for good work performance
- Opportunities for career development
- An organizational culture that values the individual worker
- Management actions that are consistent with organizational values
The pressures of today’s connected world have a role in stress. Cell phones, email, and the Internet make it increasingly difficult to switch off from the stresses of the workplace and give full attention to personal priorities. “While technology undoubtedly improves our lives, information overload can add to the stress of an already overworked nation and lead to using unhealthy behaviors to cope with that stress,” says psychologist David Ballard, PsyD, MBA, with the American Psychology of Association. Smoking, poor dietary choices, drinking alcohol, and other unhealthy behaviors can lead to long-term, serious health problems. “What is important is to learn how to effectively manage your stress, so you can be at your best both at home and at work,” Ballard states. (3)
Strategies for Work-Related Stress
Recognize warning signs
A worker loses confidence when overwhelmed, and may become irritable and withdrawn. The result is less productivity, and work seems less rewarding. Ignoring the warning signs of work stress leads to physical and emotional health problems. Early warning signs include:
- Anxiety, irritability
- Depressed feelings
- Social withdrawal
- Fatigue, problems sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension or headaches
- Loss of sex drive
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope
Taking care of yourself
When work stress interferes with job performance, personal life, and adversely affects health, action is needed. When needs are met, you are stronger and more resilient. Small things can improve mood and increase energy, and yield a sense of control. These include:
- Regular exercise is a powerful stress reliever, even if it feels like just another duty. Aerobic exercise – increasing your heart rate and making you sweat increases energy, clears thinking, and relaxes mind and body. Thirty minutes a day of aerobic exercise is best; you can break it into two or three segments if necessary.
- Eating small but frequent meals helps you maintain even blood sugar, energy, and focus. It helps to avoid mood swings.
- Alcohol may temporarily reduce anxiety, but too much causes rebound anxiety. Drinking to relieve job stress may lead to abuse and dependence. Smoking when stressed and overwhelmed may seem relaxing, but nicotine is a stimulant, leading to greater anxiety.
- Stress can cause insomnia; lack of sleep contributes to stress and emotional imbalance. Keep a sleep schedule; aim for eight hours per night.
- Close relationships are vital to riding out periods of stress. Sharing feelings with family and friends, especially face to face, helps relieve stress.
Prioritizing and organizing
When job stress feels overwhelming, simple steps can be taken to regain a sense of control over yourself and work. A newfound ability to maintain self-control is usually well received by coworkers and may create better relationships at work. The steps include:
- Balance your schedule between work, family, social activities, responsibilities and downtime.
- Don’t over-commit yourself. There is a tendency to underestimate how long tasks will take. Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Less important tasks can drop to the bottom of the list or be eliminated.
- Try to leave home earlier. Getting to work even 10 -15 minutes earlier can make a remarkable difference. Running late adds stress.
- Plan regular breaks throughout the day, to take a walk or just clear your mind. Getting away from the desk or work station for lunch increases productivity.
- Prioritize tasks in order of importance. If there is something unpleasant to do, get it done early. It will improve the quality of the rest of the workday.
- Break projects into small steps; focus on one step at a time.
- Delegate responsibility to other people capable of doing the task. Let go of the need to control every small detail.
- Compromise should relieve stress for everyone. When expecting other workers to change, you must be willing to change.
Improve emotional intelligence
Recognizing and using emotions in positive and productive ways is emotional intelligence. Even in an increasingly stressful job environment, a worker can maintain self-control and confidence using emotional intelligence. It’s as or more important than intellectual ability. It’s about effective communication with others. It soothes wounded feelings and drains off stress. The essential skills for practicing emotional intelligence consist of:
- Awareness of personal stressors and responses to those stressors
- Mindfulness of your internal emotional environment, and its effects on communicating with orders, motivation, and meeting personal needs
- Using nonverbal cues and body language are often more influential than the words used. Eye contact, facial expressions, posture, touch and other signals can create or inhibit trust, interest, and connectedness. Sending, reading and responding to nonverbal cues are major components in setting the tone of the workplace.
- Develop the ability to use humor to diffuse stress and strengthen work relationships. The humor should never be at the expense of an individual.
- Resolve conflict constructively. Stay focused in the present, disregarding old resentments and disagreements. Sometimes the best solution is to agree to disagree.
- Don’t try to control the uncontrollable – especially the behavior of others. Focus on the things that you can control – your self-management.
“When you live in the problem, the problem gets bigger. When you live in the solution, the solution gets bigger.” – Anonymous
1) Wolever, RQ, Bobinet, KG. J Occup Health Psychol 2012 Apr; 17(2):246-58.
2) The American Institute of Stress: http://www.stress.org/workplace-stress.
3) American Psychology Association: Stress in the Workplace; Overwhelmed by Workplace Stress; http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/workplace-stress.aspx.
4) Gadinger,MC, Schilling, O, Litaker, D, Fisher, JE, The Work-Health-Check (WHC): a brief new tool for assessing psychosocial stress in the workplace. Work 2012; 43(3):345-60.
5) The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/.
6) Johnson JV, Lipscomb J. Impact of long work hours on police officers and the communities they serve. American Journal of industrial Medicine. 2006; 49:972-980.
7) Folkard S, Lombardi DA. Modeling the impact of the components of long work hours on injuries and accidents. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 2006;49:953-963.
8) Montano D, Hoven H. Effects of organizational-level interventions at work on employee health: a systematic review. J BMC Public Health 2014 Feb 8; 14(1)135.