The Need for Strategic Management of Workplace Stress

11 Feb 2013

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By Linda Eroke

The alarming increase in the incidence of reported stress among employees in recent years and its impact on productivity has brought the need for organisations to make the management of stress an urgent business strategy.

Nearly three-quarters of workers surveyed in major cities of the world in 2011 reported experiencing physical symptoms of stress due to work. According to statistics from the American Psychological Association (APA), a starting two-thirds of Americans say that work is a major source of stress in their lives; up nearly 15 per cent from those who ranked work stress at the top just a year before.

In 2010, slightly more than 1 in 4 Canadian workers described their day-to-day lives as highly stressful, according to the General Social Survey (GSS). This proportion is about the same as reported earlier in the decade by the 2005 GSS and the 2002 Canadian Community Health Survey. The situation is not different for Nigeria, where heavy workload, unfriendly work environment, uncertain job responsibilities and job insecurity are stress factors across organisations.

Thus, the persistently high levels of stress among such a large number of the workforce pose great challenges to both employers and the healthcare system across the globe. Over time, employers record loss in produc¬tivity to stress through absenteeism, reduced work output, and increased disability claims.
Most significantly, the affected workforce are said to incur healthcare costs twice as high than for other employees even as stress-related illness ranging from depression to heart disease are said to cost businesses an estimated $200 to $300 billion every year in lost productivity.
A lecturer in the Department of Educational Foundation, Guidance and Counseling, Lagos State University (LASU), Dr. Olugbenga Abodunrin, who confirmed this figure, stressed that the alarming spike in stress related illness should be of utmost interest to both employers and governments.

According to him, apart from the cost and loss productivity physical and mental stress-related health issues cause employers, the psychological distress it causes workers and their families cannot be quantified.
He listed faltering economy, shrinking incomes and rampant layoffs as undeniable factors responsible for work related stress among employees.

“Stress is any environmental demand that creates a state of tension or threat and requires a change of adaptation. It is pressure caused by the problems in one’s daily life. This can include something that induces in us tension, anxiety, frustration or sadness. Whatever the root causes, stressed workers tend to be fatigued, prone to mistakes and injuries, and are more likely to be absent.
“On-the-job stressors range from unclear job expectations and time pressures to noisy work situations. A significant factor is lack of accommodation for work/life balance, which can add to the stress load, especially for women who tend to be the primary caretakers of children and elderly loved ones,” he explained.
Speaking further, he explained that lack of participation in decision-making, ineffective management style, unpleasant work environments, and longer work hours are other prime stressors.

Forms of Stress
Abodunrin observed that stress is accumulated over time and addictive between different domains. He however explained that there are various types of stress which may cause tension and anxiety in the life of an individual.
Eustress (positive or good stress), he said refers to a state of physical and mental well-being in which mind and body together achieve their full potential. “It occurs when the body’s reactive change is put into productive use. This state is associated with clear thinking that peak physical performance in sports, examination or interviews”, he stated.
He described distress as a negative state or reaction of the body that arises from either under or over stimulation. He added that “our bodies and minds are in disharmony and they do not respond as they should”. This, he said, is the better known form of stress.
Acute stress, he noted, is a situation where the body reacts to immediate short term threat. According to him, it is a very common form of stress that arises from current, future and past demands of the body or person.

“Chronic stress involves continuing stressful circumstances; it is neither thrilling nor exciting. It is the grinding stress that continuously wears people away day after day, year after year. It is the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time. People may get used to it or ignore it. When the body responds to stress biochemical, the majority of bodily systems, including the heart, immune system, lungs and brain alter to encounter the seemly danger. It is the stress of poverty, dysfunctional families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or despised job or career. It comes when somebody does not see a way out of a miserable situation.
“Uncontrollable stress is a form of stress in which we have no say or way out of. We do not have power to modify it. Many studies have suggested that it is more harmful than controllable stress. Examples include mandatory retirement, rape, death or serious injury in a motor accident,” he explained.

Effects of Stress
Although, studies have shown that there are certain amount of stress that the body can cope with from time to time, however, most stress place demand on people and endanger their wellbeing.
For instance, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), USA, disclosed that 60 to 90 per cent of doctor visits are attributed to stress-related illness and symptoms.
Similarly, the American Institute of Stress observed that stress-related distraction or sleepiness account for an estimated 60 to 80 per cent of accidents on the job. As a result workers’ compensation claims for stress have increased substantially every year, threatening to bankrupt the system in several countries.

Furthermore, an estimated one million workers are reported to miss work each day because of stress, costing companies an estimated $602 per employee per year. The institute noted that absenteeism accounts for 26 per cent of health-related lost productivity in business.
Speaking on the effect of stress on productivity, Abodunrin said stress can lower the immune system and play a role in a person’s susceptibility to colds, flu and other infectious diseases. Specifically, he said stressed workers have an elevated risk of mental health problems, ranging from anxiety, substance abuse and most significantly depression.
“As the term used to describe the opposite of absenteeism, “presenteeism” is the phenomenon of employees coming to work yet not functioning up to their capabilities on the job. Presenteeism manifests in a host of ways, including making mistakes, more time spent on tasks, poor quality work, impaired social functioning, burnout, anger, resentment, low morale and other detrimental factors.
“Overall, the price tag related to presenteeism adds up to nearly $150 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. The cost may even be higher if the stress underlying presenteeism is not addressed, as absenteeism, job resignations, chronic illness and disability may be the result,” he said.

He emphasised that “The down-turned economy and corresponding job layoffs, salary cuts and heavier workloads have added to the stress in workers’ personal lives, especially as they confront strained financial issues and compressed time allotment for family obligations”.

Need for Intervention
Numerous studies have shown that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for employees and that it has escalated progressively in recent years. In fact emerging studies have also shown that stress management in the workplace helps stem the tide of healthcare costs, and may be important in the face of the current global economic climate.
It is on this note that the LASU don charged organisations to make the management of stress an urgent business strategy, adding that the risk for job stress can be reduced through smart, strategic action.
He however, emphasised that the success of the strategy depends on a long-term and dedicated commitment on the part of the organisation.

“If changes are to be made to reduce costly stress in the workplace, employers must truly value the health as well as the productivity of their workers. Additionally, the strategy must be a dual approach to manage their stress no matter what the source.
“Strategies need not be elaborate or expensive. Simply planning ways to improve communication and recognise employees can be effective. Also establishing work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job and offering supportive services can help reduce stress,” he explained.

He further enjoined employers to organise stress management workshops where employees can be educated about the sources of stress, effects on their health and how they can reduce stress.
“If all these could be done, either independently or mixed, according to the dictate of the situation, stress can be effectively managed and turned around for the better of the individual. Regular exercise, a very good walk, learning to relax no matter the situation or circumstances will go a long way in helping to reduce stress and help to manage it distinctly,” he added.

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