Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle examined the working conditions of the slaughterhouse industry, leading to revolutionary changes in the way American companies treat their employees.
While workplace conditions have significantly improved with governmental oversight, legislation and OSHA, Americans in some industries still are feeling the psychological and physical effects of a negative work environment.
The American Psychological Association (APA) lists a number of factors that tend to go hand-in-hand with work-related stress, among them: low salaries, excessive workloads, few opportunities for growth or advancement, work that isn’t engaging or challenging, lack of social support, not having enough control over job-related decisions, and conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations.
Micki Siegel de Hernandez, health & safety director at the Communications Workers of America, discussed these factors with EHS Today as well as what employers can do to recognize and reduce workplace stress.
What causes workplace stress?
Sigel de Hernandez: Workplace stress could be caused by a number of issues. Most often it has to do with:
• how work is organized
• the demands of the workplace
• the kind of control or lack of control that workers may have in their particular job
• hazards that are in the workplace
• dangers that are in the workplace.
It also could be caused by psychological factors and issues around the organization itself, and the kind of reaction that affects that stress can have particular chronic stress.
What are some of the physical and mental issues that could arise?
Sigel de Hernandez: When we’re talking about occupational stress, it can affect people in so many ways. It can cause disease; it can cause chronic conditions —diseases like heart disease and stroke. It’s related to musculoskeletal conditions. It can cause chronic pain conditions. It can cause headaches. It can cause lack of concentration. It can affect the respiratory system, the endocrine system and hormones, and it can also affect the nervous system. It can lead to reduced immune response, and the list goes on and on.
How does chronic stress affect workplace safety?
Sigel de Hernandez: For workers who are chronically stressed, they may also be suffering from anxiety as a result of that. It affects sleep. Depending upon what the stressor is, they’re more prone to accidents or to injuries if they’re constantly in a stressed state. There had been fatalities that had occurred as a result of that, strictly because of the number of hours worked.
Because of the demand and the physiological response in the body, people just start breaking down, It affects a person’s ability to think and to make decisions, good decisions that you would make if you weren’t in that stressed state. This isn’t just in the United States. In Japan they have a word for this. It’s called Koroshi, which is death by overwork, and it has to do with the way certain industries are structured and just excessive overtime of workers in those industries and death – that’s the overwork part, sudden heart attacks, stroke and also suicides as a result of those workplace conditions.
How can companies integrate different programs to reduce stress in the workplace?
Sigel de Hernandez: There needs to be a focus on the workplace conditions that are causing stress. Occupational stress is causing companies a lot of money as well as affecting employee health, and some of those costs are hidden. It’s not as easy to associate those costs, things like absenteeism for example, or a rise in healthcare cost with what is actually going on in the workplace, but I think that it does. It affects the bottom line as well as affecting the employees that work there.
So, I think when the employers really want to reduce their cost and also make the workplace a more humane place, and protect people, and reduce injuries, reduce health effects caused by stress, then you really have to be able to look at the conditions at work.
It’s not just a question of training managers or training supervisors. A company has to be willing to look at the kinds of demands and pressures – the procedures of a particular workplace and involve workers in decisions about how work gets structured. There are so many industries and occupations where the demand is so high.
When it exceeds a person’s capacity or a workforce’s capacity to really deal with stress on a regular basis, those are the kinds of things where you start seeing health problems, and you also start seeing effects on productivity, absenteeism, illness and a potential rise in workplace accidents.
How can a company train its managers and supervisors to recognize stress?
Sigel de Hernandez: Managers and supervisors can be trained to look at some of those clues that exist that there are some underlying problems, but there has to be an honest way of figuring out what that underlying problem is.
Often with occupational stress, the focus is put on the individual worker and in developing programs to help people cope in a workplace wellness program. The focus really should be put on what are those elements that are creating that stressful environment because unless you get rid of those, the conditions that are causing the problems, then you’ll never fix the problem, and you’ll never really have a workplace that’s as healthy as it should be.
It’s not about an individual worker; it’s not about just breathing deeply, or relaxing. All of those things are fine, but it’s really those production issues, the demands which may be unreasonable for people, excessive overtime for example — all of those things can create chronic stress in the people in that workplace.