by Sydne Tursky
April is Stress Awareness Month, and for good reason. Although often ignored or even expected, job stress can have lasting negative consequences on health, productivity and business outcomes. Thanks to a growing awareness of the issue, employers and employees can take steps to manage stress and ensure a positive and productive work environment for all.
Job stress is “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,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Essentially, job stress happens when employees feel unable to complete the tasks assigned to them at work, because of time, ability, number of tasks or another factor.
According to a study from the American Psychological Association, about one-third of workers experience stress during their workday. Twenty percent report their average level of stress to be an eight or higher on a 10-point scale.
Research indicates that employees who experience high job demands that they cannot control tend to experience more negative psychological and physiological health outcomes than those with less stressful jobs, said Chris Rosen, an associate professor of business at the University of Arkansas. Rosen has done extensive research and written many articles about the effects of job stress.
However, people are impacted by work stress in different ways; personality traits, support structures, personal relationships and other factors affect how employees perceive and respond to work stress, Rosen said.
“In addition, chronic forms of work stress, [like] high workload, working for an abusive supervisor or in a highly political context exert different influences on employees than more acute forms [like] having an argument with a colleague or a negative interaction with a customer,” Rosen said.
Regardless of the cause, job stress can create serious health problems for workers. Long-term stress can lead to fatigue, and the body’s ability to repair itself or fight off disease can be compromised. Other issues like trouble sleeping, upset stomach, headaches, depression and strained personal relationships can be caused by stress. Most concerningly, “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,” according to the NIOSH.
According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress.
Job stress also presents problems for employers. When employees’ resources are depleted, they are less effective at accomplishing tasks, so job stress has the potential to undermine their performance at work.
“Employees experiencing more work stress [high job demands, low job control] tend to experience less positive emotional states and, therefore, demonstrate deficits in creativity which have the potential to impact innovation,” Rosen said.
Besides suffering from reduced productivity, employers pay in other ways when their employees have stress-related health issues. Chronic disease linked to stress, like cardiovascular disease or depression, lead to both financial and time-related costs when employees have to seek medical care and take extended time off work, Rosen said.
The good news is that employers can take steps to manage and mitigate job stress among their employees. Many organizations have implemented stress-management programs, especially for workers in leadership positions and anyone interested in improving their well-being, but they aren’t yet widespread. Though awareness of job stress is growing, employers and employees often have no idea how to mitigate it. Even when stress-management programs are available, employees may be reluctant to sign up.
“They either don’t want to admit that they are having difficulty managing stressful aspects of their work, or they have concerns about privacy issues and what information will be shared with other members of the organization,” Rosen said.
Employers can help their employees manage job stress by providing positive support in the workplace and encouraging and allowing employees to care for their mental health. Employees can mitigate stress on their own by taking breaks when they need to, exercising, having a hobby, disconnecting from work-related activities like email while not working and making use of their vacation time, Rosen said.
“In addition, it is important for employees to have a sense of autonomy and control over work processes and outcomes,” Rosen said. “Work stress will be reduced and subsequent mental health outcomes improved to the extent that employees can anticipate work demands and feel that they have a sense of agency or control over what they encounter on a day-to-day basis.”