NSC: Stress and Sleep Deprivation in the Workplace

As part of a dissertation study, William T. Rogerson, BWXT Y12 senior process engineer, surveyed 506 health and safety industry workers to determine the impact stress and sleep deprivation levels have on work performance. The results suggest that chronic illnesses such as stress and sleep deprivation not only cause employees to miss work, but also contribute to unproductive on-the-job hours.

Rogerson presented his research at the National Safety Council’s 2007 Congress and Expo in Chicago. In his study, titled “Employee Perceptions of Health Status and Beliefs: Impact on Work Productivity,” Rogerson set out to determine whether there is a correlation between health and safety professionals’ absenteeism and presenteeism due to health conditions and their self-reported beliefs or attitudes.

“Stress is a reaction to continued excessive pressure or responsibility when you feel inadequate or unable to cope,” Rogerson said. “In small quantities, stress is good. It can motivate you and make you more productive.”

Steady periods of stress experienced over a long period of time, however, can be detrimental to health, a problem too many U.S. workers seem to face. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 40 percent of workers reported their jobs were very or extremely stressful, and 25 percent considered their jobs the number one stressor in their lives. Sleep deprivation, the lack of restorative sleep that affects the ability to perform routine tasks, also is detrimental to work performance.

“Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems,” Rogerson said.

The Study

Unlike previous studies, which traditionally combined all illness-related absences, including sick leave, workers’ compensation, long and short-term disability and other incidental absences, Rogerson’s study accounted for the loss of productivity workers experience when they are affected by chronic problems such as stress or sleep deprivation. Rogerson labeled this problem “presenteeism,” or the decline in performance caused by employees remaining at work while impaired by health problems.

The study was presented to participants as a seven-page, 31-item, self-administered questionnaire and consisted of four sections: demographics and health status; health benefit items; health conditions affecting absenteeism and presenteeism; and health conditions causing absenteeism and presenteeism due to care giving. Approximately 35 percent of the participants were female, and 62 percent were 40 years old or older. The majority of respondents listed their health as good, very good or excellent, while 6 percent listed their health as fair or poor. Fifty-two percent worked more than 40 hours per week.

Respondents who experienced illness at work claimed stress and sleep deprivation were the second and third most common reasons for the illness. Stress and sleep deprivation also were attributed as the second and fourth most common reasons for unproductive hours lost due to illness. High stress was a more frequent cause of presenteeism for female health and safety professionals than for males; presenteeism increased as age increased; and employees who worked more than 40 hours a week experienced more stress. Finally, absenteeism is correlated to presenteeism. If an employee is absent due to illness, it is likely that employee also is less productive while at work.

Based on the results, Rogerson recommended that workplace health promotion and education programs consider specific sub-groups of employee categories, such as age, gender, health status, smoking status and hours worked per week. This way, employers can customize stress reduction programs based on employees’ specific needs.

“The loss of productivity associated with self-reporting health conditions causing presenteeism should be considered by employers in improving work efficiency,” Rogerson said. “Self-reported health status might be useful as a quick retrospective check to see how wellness program is progressing toward its goals.”

Smith: Familiarity Decreases Stress

Susan Smith, director of the University of Tennessee’s Safety Center, discussed how stress affects safety and productivity in the workplace. She explained the main factors that affect stress levels within an organization include familiarity among group members, prior experience participating with groups in collaborative drills and recognizing that stress can influence decisions during a crisis.

“Familiarity among group members actually improves cooperation and reduces stress,” Smith said. “Familiarity is an important issue. Living in the same community or working together routinely can help reduce stress when an emergency arises. Try to figure out a way to have the same kind of [small town] environment in a large company that involves bringing people together and responding to them.”

Smith’s suggestions included providing a practical support program, rotating personnel during a crisis situation, offering stress support groups and implementing an ongoing stress assessment of the management system. Additionally, health and safety professionals should provide relative and spouse support, as well as full mental health consultation for all group members. Organizations that promote a healthy, low-stress atmosphere and high productivity rates often incorporate worker recognition programs and acknowledge when employees work safely.

Finally, a company that acknowledges the role of stress in the workplace is most likely to deal with it successfully.

“If your organization recognizes that stress is an issue, and then plans to deal with it, that itself can also reduce stress,” Smith said.

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