Workplace stress—Part 2

August 14, 2003
By: Vicki Bell

If you've visited a doctor recently and were told that stress is the cause of or a contributing factor to what ails you, you're not alone. Although you can't expect to eliminate all of the stress in your life, you can learn to manage it and reduce its negative effects.

In his bestseller, Spontaneous Healing, Andrew Weil, M.D., wrote, "All illnesses should be assumed to be stress-related until proved otherwise. Even if stress is not the primary cause of illness, it is frequently an aggravating factor. To say that a bodily complaint is stress-related does not in any way mean that it is unreal or unimportant; it simply means that time spent at stress reduction and relaxation training may be very worthwhile in terms of obtaining relief."

Weil's list of common stress-related ailments includes headaches, insomnia, musculoskeletal pain (especially in the back and neck), gastrointestinal disorders of all sorts, skin disorders of all sorts, sexual deficiency, menstrual problems, and increased susceptibility to infection—ailments that account for quite a few symptoms, doctor visits, and prescriptions. In addressing all of these conditions, he recommends working with the relaxing breath, using mind/body approaches, and other relaxation methods that appeal to you in order to give the healing system the best possible chance to solve any problems on the physical level.

Job Stress

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), job stress has become a common and costly problem in the U.S. workplace, leaving few workers untouched.

The NIOSH booklet, Stress At Work, states that job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ, however, on the importance of worker characteristicsversus working conditionsas the primary cause of job stress. These differing viewpoints are important because they suggest different ways to prevent stress at work.

According to one school of thought, differences in individual characteristics, such as personality and coping style, are most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress—what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. This viewpoint leads to prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions.

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.

NIOSH favors the view that working conditions play a primary role in causing job stress. However, the role of individual factors is not ignored. According to the NIOSH view, exposure to stressful working conditions (called job stressors) can have a direct influence on worker safety and health. But individual and other situational factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence. Individual and situational factors that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions include the following:

  • Balance between work and family or personal life
  • A support network of friends and coworkers
  • A relaxed and positive outlook

Stressful Conditions

Some of the most stressful job conditions include the following:

  • Design of Tasks—Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shift work; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, and provide 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, and 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 Conditions—Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.

What Employers Can Do

According to NIOSH, some employers assume that stressful working conditions are a necessary evil—that companies must turn up the pressure on workers and set aside health concerns to remain productive and profitable in today's economy. But research findings challenge this belief. Studies show that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs-all of which have negative effects on the bottom line.

Recent studies of so-called healthy organizations suggest that policies benefiting worker health also benefit the bottom line. A healthy organization is defined as one that has low rates of illness, injury, and disability in its workforce and also is competitive in the marketplace. NIOSH research has identified organizational characteristics associated with both healthy, low-stress work and high levels of productivity. Examples of these characteristics include the following:

  • 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

So what can employers do to create a less-stressful environment? According to NIOSH, actions to reduce job stress should give top priority to organizational change to improve working conditions. But even the most conscientious efforts to improve working conditions are unlikely to eliminate stress completely for all workers. For this reason, a combination of organizational change and stress management often is the most useful approach for preventing stress at work.

NIOSH recommends taking the following steps to change the organization:

  • 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 and 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.

Employers also should incorporate a stress management component in their safety and health plans. No standardized approaches or simple manuals exist for developing a stress prevention program. Several factors can influence program design and solutions—the size and complexity of the organization, available resources, and especially the unique types of stress problems faced by the organization.

In all situations, the process for stress prevention programs involves three primary steps: problem identification, intervention, and evaluation. For this process to succeed, organizations need to be adequately prepared. At a minimum, preparation for a stress prevention program should include the following:

  • Building general awareness about job stress (causes, costs, and control)
  • Securing top management commitment and support for the program
  • Incorporating employee input and involvement in all phases of the program
  • Establishing the technical capacity to conduct the program (For example, specialized training for in-house staff or use of job stress consultants)

According to NIOSH, bringing workers or workers and managers together in a committee or problem-solving group can be an especially useful approach for developing a stress prevention program. Research has shown these participatory efforts to be effective in dealing with ergonomic problems in the workplace, partly because they capitalize on workers' firsthand knowledge of hazards encountered in their jobs. However, when forming such working groups, care must be taken to be sure that they are in compliance with current labor laws.

One Company's Approach

Mark Paulson, vice president of operations of Aeroglide Corp. and chairman of the FMA/CNA Safety Committee, said that although his company doesn't have a formal stress management program in place, they do take steps to help reduce employee stress.

"We do have an Employee Assistance Program, which gives employees access to counseling for a limited time. I find that EAP typically is used for crisis management, not ongoing stress management.

"On a couple of occasions, when we felt stress levels moving up, we brought in a masseuse for free 15-minute sessions for employees. Those were fairly popular.

"We also make special efforts to communicate during stressful times. For example, if the engineering group is under an especially heavy workload, we work to remind folks in other areas that the engineers are under the gun and need extra measures of grace and cooperation.

"In lean economic times, we try to communicate as much as possible. We let our employees know how we are doing and what they can do to help. Additionally, we have structured our workplace, where possible, with a percentage of contract or temporary employees to protect our full time employees from downturns."

Aeroglide's actions address both stress prevention and management and incorporate key elements of a successful program—communication and making employees feel valued and as secure as possible in their jobs.

What Employees Can Do

One of the most effective things employees can do to reduce stress is sometimes the most difficult—let management know that they are under too much job stress and why. What is it about the job that is stressful and what could be done to make it less so? The fear factor keeps many employees from discussing their stress with managers—fear of making waves and putting their jobs in jeopardy and fear that although the manager may appear to understand, nothing will be done.

It's easy to say that if the employee has these fears and they are warranted, he or she would be better served to look for another place of employment! And sometimes that is the only solution to effectively relieving overwhelming job stress. However, before throwing in the towel and looking for another job in hopes that it will be less stressful, you would be better served to explore options for avoiding and managing your stress.

There are numerous books on stress management that discuss various effective methods for dealing with stress. Some strategies to avoid stress include managing your time and commitments, establishing a healthy system of social support and effective coping strategies, and leading a healthy lifestyle, including getting sufficient sleep and eating healthfully. Stress-relief techniques include physical activity and exercise, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, meditation, and massage.

According to Rob Kall, M.Ed. and Rhonda Greenberg, Psy.D, authors of the article "Do You Control Stress or Does Stress Control You," printed in the Optimal Living Column of the Bucks County Courier Times, handling stress problems takes positive action on your part. There are four approaches you can use that work separately or together:

  1. Give yourself stress inoculations. If you know you are going to be facing a stressful situation, plan. Think about how you can cope with the stress. Imagine facing it and staying calm and relaxed.
  2. Reduce the duration of time you experience stress discomfort by taking several deep breaths and letting go of muscle tension. (Monitor your muscle tension throughout the day and relax your muscles when they feel tight.)
  3. Communicate. Talk about what's bothering you ahead of time or during the time you are stressed. Keep the goal of how to solve the problem in mind, so you don't get carried away with the problem.
  4. Plan rest and relaxation breaks—oases—throughout your day.

Write It Down

While a multitude of circumstances may be causing you stress, it's possible that a single, underlying cause is at the root of all of the obvious causes. For this reason, it can be helpful to keep a stress journal in which you note each time of the day that you're feeling stressed and why. Once you've identified all the obvious causes, look for a common underlying cause, such as time pressure, relationship problems with coworkers, lack of direction from managers, and overload. If you can pinpoint and work to resolve the root cause, you will be able to reduce your stress.

Keeping a daily journal in general is a good practice. The exercise of writing down your thoughts is very therapeutic. It helps you clarify your feelings and thoughts and sometimes, new ways of looking at things and solutions to problems are byproducts of your writing session.

Writer Garson Kanin said, "There are thousands of causes for stress, and one antidote to stress is self-expression. That's what happens to me every day. My thoughts get off my chest, down my sleeves, and onto my pad."

Attitude, Attitude, Attitude

What do your stress level and stress journal say about your attitude? Is your attitude magnifying the stressful events in your life and preventing you from effective stress management? Examine your attitude carefully to see how much it could be impacting your stress level. One way to do this is to talk about your stress with a trusted friend and ask for an objectiveopinion about how you might adjust your attitude to improve your situation.

Hans Selye, M.D., Ph.D.,D.Sc., one of the founders of the Canadian Institute of Stress, said, "Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one." Words to live a life of manageable stress by.

FMA Communications Inc.

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209