Employee stress: Why it’s a safety as well as a productivity issue
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Employee stress: Why it’s a safety as well as a productivity issue

HR pros are well aware that workers under stress are likely to suffer from declining productivity and plummeting morale.

But have you stopped to think about the occupational safety and health consequences of stress? This isn’t just a concern for your Safety department; it’s also an HR issue.

And it’s a timely one, too: Over the past 20 years, the number of people reporting that stress affects their work has increased fourfold.

Yet stress is often overlooked by managers from both the productivity and the safety standpoint.

Reasons to care
Here are the two main reasons why stress is worthy of your attention and that of line managers:

  • Stress makes people sicker. People who take time off work for stress miss an average of 20 days. Stress creates more lost workdays, and the absenteeism creates even more stress on other workers.
  • Stressed-out workers will have more accidents. Look closely at any injury or near miss, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a stressed worker. They’re the ones who get distracted, cut corners and put safety on a back burner.

Subtle, insidious
According to Ted Boyce, a behavioral scientist who specializes in workplace issues, the psychology of stress is subtle and insidious. Unless people are made aware of its causes and symptoms, they may get caught in a “cycle of distress” – where stress leads to fatigue leads to more stress – before they can figure out what’s happening.

So what can you do to manage and mitigate stress in your workplace?

Boyce sees both macro- and micro-answers. The former have to do with overall workplace culture, the latter with employees’ daily routines.

Let’s check the big picture first. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sees five big stressors in the workplace:

  1. Lack of participation in decision-making, leading employees to feel their work lives are out of their hands.
  2. Lack of support from co-workers and/or supervisors, creating feelings of isolation.
  3. Conflicting or unclear job expectations.
  4. Physical environment problems like noise or crowding.
  5. Job insecurity.

You may not be able to address all these issues directly. But you can bring them to the attention of top managers and point out the consequences.

Also, you could organize a company-wide initiative to look at stress, in partnership with Safety, Operations and Facilities Management. You can start with NIOSH’s research to help persuade others that stress is both a productivity and a safety issue.

Changing it up
Where you and your allies can have an immediate impact, though, is by helping workers “bust stress” through healthy changes in their routines.

Here are some of the changes you could encourage them to adopt:

  • Be punctual. Employees can reduce their feeling of being rushed – a major contributor to stress – by arriving at work on time, and returning from lunch and breaks on time as well.
  • Enjoy R&R. Employees need their scheduled breaks. Anybody who frequently works through breaks is a high-potential stress candidate.
  • Break the monotony. Even an efficient routine can become stressful if it’s never varied. Encourage workers to mix things up a little.
  • Monitor physical responses. Help workers heed the physiological signs of stress – such as rapid breathing or heart rate, tenseness and headaches. When these symptoms strike, even a two-minute break for fresh air and deep breathing can help a lot.
  • Take control where possible. Encourage people to personalize their areas, and keep their workplace clean and organized. Frustration at an inability to find materials or tools adds substantially to existing stress.
  • Say “no” when appropriate. The stress of conflicting expectations can be better managed by employees who know how to say “no” at the right times, in the right way. You’ll need to educate both employees and supervisors on this one.

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