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Workplace Stress: A Silent Killer of Employee Health and Productivity

Greg Okhifun

Having a job in many ways improves an individual’s health and overall attitude toward life. However, many people face significant stress in the workplace that it outweighs any possible benefits and even poses a threat to their health.

The United States’ National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 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. Job stress can, in turn, lead to poor health and even injury.

Many workers report experiencing work-related stress at their jobs and this compromises their performance and health. A recent survey by Northwestern National Life revealed that about 40% of workers reported that their jobs were extremely stressful. In another survey by Yale University, 29% of workers reported feeling extreme stress because of their jobs.

Stress levels vary between professions and population groups. Some workers are at a higher risk of stress than others. Studies reveal that younger workers, women, and those in lower-skilled jobs are at most risk of experiencing work-related stress and its attendant complications. Casual full-time workers, who are likely to have the lowest job control and high job demands are most at risk of job strain.

What are the Workplace Stressors?

Workplace stressors are classified as physical and psychosocial. Physical stressors include noise, poor lighting, poor office or work layout, and ergonomic factors, such as bad working postures. Psychosocial stressors are, arguably, the most predominant stress factors. These include high job demands, inflexible working hours, poor job control, poor work design and structure, bullying, harassments, and job insecurity.

The Impacts of Workplace Stress

Workplace stress not only affects the worker, it also has adverse effects on company performance well. The effects of job-related strain are evident in workers’ physical health, mental health, and their behavior. These effects occur in a continuum, beginning as distress in response to stressors. Distress, in turn, leads to elevated blood pressure and anxiety, which increase the risk of coronary heart disease, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders.

The impact of stress on cardiovascular disease has been well established: Studies have shown that workplace stress is a strong risk factor for preludes to cardiovascular disease (obesity, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure) and of adverse cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke.

There is also a growing body of evidence that work-related stress increases one’s risk of diabetes. Other physical health problems linked to workplace stress include immune deficiency disorders, musculoskeletal disorders including chronic back pain, and gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Workplace stress also has adverse effects on workers’ mental health, with an increased risk of anxiety, burnout, depression, and substance use disorders. Workers who are stressed at work are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor dietary patterns.

With these attendant health effects, workplace stress reduces employee productivity, increases absenteeism and presenteeism, increases the number of days taken off work for doctor visits, and increases healthcare costs incurred by employers. Workplace stress is also linked to higher accident and injury rates and higher turnover rates, both of which increase administrative costs.

Workplace Interventions for Reducing Stress

Workplace stress is preventable and identifying the potential sources of stress to employees in an organization is the first step in addressing them. Effective interventions for reducing workplace stress can be classified as primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary interventions involve proactive measures to prevent stress by removing or reducing potential stressors. This level of intervention focuses on the sources of physical and psychosocial stress in the workplace. Examples of primary interventions include:

  • Redesigning the work environment
  • Providing breaks and nap-times for employees
  • Increasing employee participation in decision making and work planning
  • Increasing time and resources for completing specific job tasks
  • Matching job description with employee skills and qualifications
  • Creating clear promotion and reward pathways.
  • Eliminating physical hazards
  • Substituting with safer equipment and technology
  • Establishing control measures to reduce worker’s exposure to occupational hazards.
  • Promoting the use of personal protective equipment

Secondary interventions are corrective and are focused on altering the ways workers perceive and respond to stressors. These interventions aim at improving worker’s ability to cope with stress and detect stress-induced symptoms early. Examples of secondary interventions include:

  • Training and education of employees
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy training for workers
  • Routine health surveillance – screening for high blood pressure and stress symptoms.

Tertiary interventions are forms of control at the level of the illness. These are initiated for workers who are already experiencing stress. Tertiary interventions involve providing treatment, compensation plans, rehabilitation programs, and return to work programs for affected workers. Tertiary interventions include:

  • Providing medical care and employee assistance programs to affected workers
  • Return-to-work plans including modification and redesign of work.

Workplace stress is a silent, and oft-neglected, factor which impairs employee health and productivity. It not only affects the workers but also contributes significantly to a decline in a company’s overall success. Employers should begin to tackle this worrisome concern to create a healthier, safer, and more productive work atmosphere.

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