Perhaps now more than ever before, job stress poses a threat to the health of workers and, in turn, to the health of organizations.
Stress on the job impacts all workers, at one time or another. However, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else.
- Job stress: 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 lead to poor health and even injury.
Summary of requirements
The concept of job stress is often confused with challenge, but these concepts are not the same. Challenge energizes us psychologically and physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills and to master our jobs. When a challenge is met, we feel relaxed and satisfied; thus, challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work. The importance of challenge in our work lives is probably what people are referring to when they say a little bit of stress is good for you.
While it is true that some stress probably is a good thing for most people, studies indicate that too much job stress has become a common and costly problem in the workplace. For example:
- One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
- Three-fourths of employees believe that today’s workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
- Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor - more so than even financial problems or family conflicts.
Causes of job stress. Nearly everyone agrees that job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ, however, on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as 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. In other words, 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.
On the basis of experience and research, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (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 as shown in the following job stress model, individual and other situational factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence.
Examples of individual and situational factors that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions include the following:
- Maintain a balance between work and family or personal life.
- Develop a support network of friends and coworkers.
- Maintain a relaxed and positive outlook on life in general.
Job stress and health. Stress sets off an alarm in the brain, which responds by preparing the body for defensive action. The nervous system is aroused and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse, deepen respiration, and tense the muscles. This response (sometimes called the fight or flight response) is important because it helps us defend against threatening situations. The response is preprogrammed biologically. Everyone responds in much the same way, regardless of whether the stressful situation is at work or home.
Short-lived or infrequent episodes of stress pose little risk, but when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of injury or disease escalates.
In the past 20 years, many studies have looked at the relationship between job stress and a variety of ailments. Mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems that are quick to develop and are commonly seen in these studies.
These early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize. However, the effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems - especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.
Stress, health, and productivity. 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 a negative effect 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 is also 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, and
- Management actions that are consistent with organizational values.
Preventing job stress - getting started. No standardized approaches or simple how to manuals exist for developing a stress prevention program. Program design and appropriate solutions will be influenced by several factors, such as the size and complexity of the organization, available resources, and especially the unique types of stress problems faced by the organization.
Although it is not possible to give a universal prescription for preventing stress at work, it is possible to offer guidelines on the process of stress prevention in organizations. In all situations, the process for stress prevention programs involves three distinct 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 through specialized training for in-house staff or use of job-stress consultants.
- Bringing workers or workers and managers together in a committee or problem-solving group to develop 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.
Three steps toward prevention. Low morale, health and job complaints, and employee turnover often provide the first signs of job stress. But sometimes there are no clues, especially if employees are fearful of losing their jobs. Lack of obvious or widespread signs is not a good reason to dismiss concerns about job stress or to minimize the importance of a prevention program.
Step 1 - Identify the problem. The best method to explore the scope and source of a suspected stress problem in an organization depends partly on the size of the organization and the available resources. Group discussions among managers, labor representatives, and employees can provide rich sources of information. Such discussions may be all that is needed to track down and remedy stress problems in a small company. In a larger organization, such discussions can be used to help design formal surveys for gathering input about stressful job conditions from large numbers of employees.
- Collect data. Regardless of the method used to collect data, information should be obtained about employee perceptions of their job conditions and perceived levels of stress, health, and satisfaction. The list of job conditions that may lead to stress and the warning signs and effects of stress provide good starting points for deciding what information to collect.
- Examine objective measures. Objective measures such as absenteeism, illness and turnover rates, or performance problems can also be examined to gauge the presence and scope of job stress. However, at best, these measures are only rough indicators of job stress.
- Summarize and analyze the data. Data from discussions, surveys, and other sources should be summarized and analyzed to answer questions about the location of a stress problem and job conditions that may be responsible. For example, are problems present throughout the organization or confined to single departments or specific jobs? •
- Consult experts. Survey design, data analysis, and other aspects of a stress prevention program may require the help of experts from a local university or consulting firm. However, overall authority for the prevention program should remain in the organization.
Step 2 - Design and implement interventions. Once the sources of stress at work have been identified and the scope of the problem is understood, the stage is set for design and implementation of an intervention strategy. In small organizations, the informal discussions that helped identify stress problems may also produce fruitful ideas for prevention. In large organizations, a more formal process may be needed. Frequently, a team is asked to develop recommendations based on analysis of data from Step 1 and consultation with outside experts.
Certain problems, such as a hostile work environment, may be pervasive in the organization and require company-wide interventions. Other problems, such as excessive workload may exist only in some departments and thus require more narrow solutions, such as redesign of the way a job is performed. Problems may also be specific to certain employees and may be resistant to any kind of organizational change, calling instead for stress management or employee assistance interventions. Some interventions might be implemented rapidly, such as improved communication and stress management training. Others may require additional time to implement, such as the redesign of a manufacturing process.
Before any intervention occurs, employees should be informed about actions that will be taken and when they will occur. A kick-off event, such as an all-hands meeting, is often useful for this purpose.
Step 3 - Evaluate the interventions. Evaluation is an essential step in the intervention process because evaluation determines whether the intervention is producing the desired results. Be sure to establish time frames for evaluating interventions, and verify that interventions involving organizational change receive both short- and long-term scrutiny. Short-term evaluations might be done quarterly to provide an early indication of program effectiveness or possible need for redirection. Long-term evaluations are often conducted annually and are necessary to determine whether interventions produce lasting effects.
Remember that employee perceptions are usually the most sensitive measure of stressful working conditions and often provide the first indication of intervention effectiveness. Also keep in mind that the job stress prevention process does not end with evaluation. Rather, job stress prevention should be seen as a continuous process that uses evaluation data to refine or redirect the intervention strategy.
How to change an organization to prevent job stress. Some proven methods for reducing job stress in any organization include the following:
- 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.