Stress at Work

John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP

Profitability, stress management and satisfied workers characterize the healthy workplace.

Job stress can be defined 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. While many of us need a certain amount of stress to fuel our productivity, too much of it can be harmful to both physical and emotional health.

Short-term stress causes hormone changes that were life-saving thousands of years ago when our nervous systems adapted to deadly threats with a ‘fight-or-flight response.’ Chronic stress that is sustained over time, including job stress, can lead to harmful effects on physical and emotional health. Co-workers and supervisors can be a source of conflict and stress. Overworking to gain recognition or promotion can interfere with family and friendships. Anxiety over job security is epidemic in uncertain economic climates.

Common health consequences of job stress can include job-related injuries and pain, sleep disturbance, exhaustion, unhealthy eating and exercise habits, weight gain and weight loss, high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, cynicism, depression and suicide, digestive disturbances, impaired immunity and premature death. Workers’ pulse and blood pressure have been shown to increase simply from rumors of impending layoffs. Work-related injuries can increase during corporate downsizing. These effects are more common among blue-collar workers who have little control over decisions about their work. All these health impacts can be expected to increase in the older workers that make up an increasing part of the workforce.

Employers are increasingly paying attention as workers describe their jobs as stressful, view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives (more than family or finances) and believe there is more job stress than a generation ago. Employers are especially concerned that highly stressed workers are more likely to be absent, consider quitting and cost the company more in health care payouts.

Employers are also seeing more research showing that striving for a healthy working environment benefits both workers and company profits. Work site programs to combat job stress can include education in healthy eating, physical activity, emotional wellbeing, time management, assertiveness training, communication and social skills. Almost half of large US companies have general stress management programs and employee assistance programs that address individual needs of workers.

Stress management programs emphasize balancing work and personal life commitments, maintaining a supportive group of friends, attitude adjustments, emotional intelligence and simple mind body skills. Just 5 minutes of ‘me time’ on work breaks can manage stress by walking, talking with supportive friends or sitting quietly with eyes closed, feeling the breath coming in and out. These techniques are especially helpful when you encounter emotional challenges.

Workers who talk to their supervisor or employer honestly about job stress are likely to be talking to people with stress of their own.  Together, workers and management can improve the work environment and morale for all employees and even improve the bottom line.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) points out the need to address both worksite issues and employee factors. Heat, noise, fumes, chemicals and moving machinery are examples of working conditions that are stressful to most people. Such worksite environmental factors can provide the basis for employee disability and injury claims.

However, NIOSH believes a combination of organizational/worksite change and employee stress management is the most effective strategy for managing stress at work, leading to a healthy workplace, defined as reduced stress disorders, satisfied and productive workers and profitable and competitive organizations. Steps NIOSH suggests for employers and employees to take together include-

1) Employee surveys and discussions among managers, labor representatives, and employees concerning job conditions, perceived levels of stress, job satisfaction and specific worksite stressors. Personnel records of absenteeism, illness and health care costs can provide important parameters for measuring the impact of the intervention.
       2) Designing and implementing a stress management intervention.
3) Evaluating the intervention by measuring employee perceptions of change in work conditions, levels of stress, job satisfaction and health.

Judging by recent trends, we can expect more polls showing ‘most livable cities’, ‘best places to work’ and ‘best companies to work for.’ Increasingly well-informed consumers want to support organizations that serve the common good and their employees while serving their bottom line. Employees, employers and customers can all benefit from programs aimed at managing job stress.

Resources

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health- Job Stress, 1-800-CDC-INFO, or http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/stress/

American Psychological Association www.apa.org/helpcenter/job-stress.aspx

A psychologist in your area can be found through the
American Psychological Association (APA) 1-800-964-2000

About the Author-

Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations, specializing in burnout prevention for helping professionals and stress management for patients with chronic disease. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org