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Workplace stress caused by an unsuitable work environment
(Illustration by Henry Holiday in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark" )

Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional response that occurs when there is a poor match between job demands and the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.[1]

Stress-related disorders encompass a broad array of conditions, including psychological disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and other types of emotional strain (e.g., dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension, etc.), maladaptive behaviors (e.g., aggression, substance abuse), and cognitive impairment (e.g., concentration and memory problems). In turn, these conditions may lead to poor work performance or even injury. Job stress is also associated with various biological reactions that may lead ultimately to compromised health, such as cardiovascular disease,[2] or in extreme cases, death.

Contents

Prevalence

Stress is a prevalent and costly problem in today's workplace. About one-third of workers report high levels of stress.[1] One-quarter of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.[3] Three-quarters of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.[4] Evidence also suggests that stress is the major cause of turnover in organizations.[1]

Health and Healthcare Utilization

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.[5] Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.[6] On the basis of research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.[6] High levels of stress are associated with substantial increases in health service utilization.[1] Workers who report experiencing stress at work also show excessive health care utilization. In a 1998 study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were nearly 50% greater for workers reporting high levels of stress in comparison to “low risk” workers. The increment rose to nearly 150%, an increase of more than $1,700 per person annually, for workers reporting high levels of both stress and depression.[7] Additionally, periods of disability due to job stress tend to be much longer than disability periods for other occupational injuries and illnesses.[8]

Physiological reactions to stress can have consequences for health over time. Researchers have been studying how stress affects the cardiovascular system, as well as how work stress can lead to hypertension and coronary artery disease. These diseases, along with other stress-induced illnesses tend to be quite common in American work-places.[9]

There are four Main physiological reactions to stress:

  • Blood is shunted to the brain and large muscle groups, and away from extremities, skin, and organs that are not currently serving the body.
  • An area near the brain system, known as the reticular activating system, goes to work, causing a state of keen alertness as well as sharpening of hearing and vision.
  • Energy-providing compounds of glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream.
  • The immune and digestive systems are temporarily shut down.

Causes of Workplace Stress

Job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. The differing viewpoints suggest different ways to prevent stress at work. According to one school of thought, differences in individual characteristics such as personality and coping skills are very 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. This viewpoint underlies prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions.[1]

Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. 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.[1] Large surveys of working conditions, including conditions recognized as risk factors for job stress, were conducted in member states of the European Union in 1990, 1995, and 2000. Results showed a time trend suggesting an increase in work intensity. In 1990, the percentage of workers reporting that they worked at high speeds at least one-quarter of their working time was 48%, increasing to 54% in 1995 and to 56% in 2000. Similarly, 50% of workers reported they work against tight deadlines at least one-fourth of their working time in 1990, increasing to 56% in 1995 and 60 % in 2000. However, no change was noted in the period 1995–2000 (data not collected in 1990) in the percentage of workers reporting sufficient time to complete tasks.[10]

A substantial percentage of Americans work very long hours. By one estimate, more than 26% of men and more than 11% of women worked 50 hours per week or more in 2000. These figures represent a considerable increase over the previous three decades, especially for women. According to the Department of Labor, there has been an upward trend in hours worked among employed women, an increase in extended work weeks (>40 hours) by men, and a considerable increase in combined working hours among working couples, particularly couples with young children.[11][12]

A person's status in the workplace can also affect levels of stress. While workplace stress has the potential to affect employees of all categories; those who have very little influence to those who make major decisions for the company. However, less powerful employees (that is, those who have less control over their jobs) are more likely to suffer stress than powerful workers. Managers as well as other kinds of workers are vulnerable to work overload(Primm, 2005).

Economic factors that employees are facing in the 21st century have been linked to increased stress levels. Researchers and social commentators have pointed out that the computer and communications revolutions have made companies more efficient and productive than ever before. This boon in productivity however, has caused higher expectations and greater competition, putting more stress on the employee(Primm, 2005).

The following economic factors may lead to workplace stress:

  • Pressure from investors, who can quickly withdraw their money from company stocks.
  • The lack of trade and professional unions in the workplace.
  • Inter-company rivalries caused by the efforts of companies to compete globally
  • The willingness of companies to swiftly lay off workers to cope with changing business environments.

Bullying in the workplace can also contribute to stress.

Signs of Workplace Stress

Stress-related problems include mood disturbance, psychological distress, sleep disturbance, upset stomach, headache, and problems in relationships with family and friends. The effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to ascertain because chronic diseases develop over relatively long periods of time and are influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that stress plays a role in the development of several types of chronic health problems--including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.[1]

Prevention

A combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work.[1]

How to Change the Organization to Prevent Job Stress[13]

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
  • Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
  • Improve communications-reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
  • Combat workplace discrimination (based on race, gender, national origin, religion or language).
  • Ensure hiring is in accord with Affirmative Action guidelines.

St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included (1) employee and management education on job stress, (2) changes in hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress, and (3) the establishment of employee assistance programs. In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities.[14]

Telecommuting is another way organizations can help reduce stress for their workers. Employees defined telecommuting as "an alternative work arrangement in which employees perform tasks elsewhere that are normally done in a primary or central workplace, for at least some portion of their work schedule, using electronic media to interact with others inside and outside the organization." One reason that telecommuting gets such high marks is that it allows employees more control over how they do their work. Telecommuters reported more job satisfaction and less desire to find a new job. Employees that worked from home also had less stress, improved work/life balance and higher performance rating by their managers.[15]

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h NIOSH (1999). Stress at Work. U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 99-101.
  2. ^ "NIOSH Work Organization and Stress Related Disorders". United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/workorg/. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  3. ^ Northwestern National Life Insurance Company [1991]. Employee burnout: America's newest epidemic. Minneapolis, MN: Northwestern National Life Insurance Company.
  4. ^ Princeton Survey Research Associates [1997]. Labor day survey: state of workers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Survey Research Associates.
  5. ^ St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company [1992]. American workers under pressure technical report. St. Paul, MN: St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company.
  6. ^ a b {{Sauter S, Hurrell J, Murphy L, Levi L [1997]. Psychosocial and organizational factors. In: Stellman J, ed. Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. Vol. 1. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office, pp. 34.1-34.77.}}
  7. ^ Goetzel, RZ, Anderson, DR, Whitmer, RW, Ozminkowski, RJ, Dunn, RL, Wasserman J [1998]. The relationship between modifiable health risks and health care expenditure: An analysis of the multi-employer HERO health risk and cost database. J Occup Environ Med, 40:843-854.
  8. ^ NIOSH [2001]. NIOSH Worker Health Chartbook. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Pub. No. 2004-146.
  9. ^ Primm,Dave."What Workplace Stress Research is Telling Technical Communication."TechnicalCommunication52(2005)449-455
  10. ^ "Ten Years of Working Conditions in the European Union, 2005". European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. http://www.eurofound.eu.int/publications/htmlfiles/ef00128.htm. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  11. ^ "Report on the American Workforce". United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/opub/rtaw/rtawhome.htm. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  12. ^ Jacobs JA, Gerson K [2004]. The time divide: Work, family, and gender inequality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  13. ^ Sauter SL, Murphy LR, Hurrell JJ, Jr. [1990]. Prevention of work-related psychological disorders. American Psychologist 45(10):1146-1158.
  14. ^ Jones JW, Barge BN, Steffy BD, Fay LM, Kuntz LK, Wuebker LJ [1988]. Stress and medical malpractice: organizational risk assessment and intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology 73(4):727-735.
  15. ^ Gajendran,Ravi and Harrison,David."Telecommuting Win-Win For Employees And Employers."Journal of Applied Psychology92.6 (2008) 5-5

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