Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Easing the Stress: Will Employers Heed the Doctors' Advice and Stop Pushing Employees So Hard?

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Easing the Stress: Will Employers Heed the Doctors' Advice and Stop Pushing Employees So Hard?

Article excerpt

Is stress the Catch-22 of workplace safety and health? At the same time researchers are revealing more about how stress can contribute to rising healthcare costs, a variety of physical and psychological ailments and lower productivity, it seems as if many employers are fashioning workplaces designed to create more stress. As a Families and Work Institute report stated, "Some employers believe that pushing employees to do more and do it faster is the only way to remain competitive in the global economy."

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, which launched a campaign last year against workplace stress, observed that while work-related stress causes people "misery, both at work and at home," many people have "put off doing something because they see work-related stress as a very complex issue that is impossible to tackle."

Nor is the current uncertain world helping, noted Dr. Robert Yufit, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University Medical School. "There is a lot of additional stress with the world situation," he said. "What is the world going to be like? Since 9/11, there are a lot of concerns about that. People lose money in the stock market, then gas prices go up. They get worried about financial matters that they didn't have before. All these external factors play on a person. There are a lot of people I would have to call vulnerable' who are very deeply affected by these kinds of things."

How pervasive is the workplace problem? In May 2001, the Families and Work Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers released a study that found 28 percent of the employees in the United States felt overworked "often" or "very often" and 54 percent felt overworked at least sometimes in the previous three months. And 43 percent of employees who felt overworked said they feel angry toward their employers "often" or "very often" versus only 3 percent who experience low levels of feeling overworked.

Findings in Europe are similar. Work-related stress affects 40 million employees in the European Union, or 28 percent of the workforce. EU officials estimated the annual bill for job stress is $20 billion. Some 50-60 percent of absenteeism has been tied to work-related stress.

"If you look across U.S. surveys and across some European surveys, there is a clear tendency toward work becoming more intense and more demanding," said Dr. Steve Sauter, a psychologist with NIOSH and an expert on workplace stress issues.

While Sauter is cautious about drawing the conclusion that work intensification is necessarily resulting in more stress, he points out a study showing people with high levels of stress have approximately 50 percent higher health care utilization than workers with low levels of stress. When you combine stress and depression, the figure jumps to 150 percent.

Stress vs. Challenge

Stress experts are careful to make a distinction between "challenge" and stress. Challenge, says NIOSH, "energizes us psychologically and physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. When a challenge is met, we feel relaxed and satisfied. Thus, challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work."

Lennart Levi referred to this positive aspect of work as the "spice of life." Levi, emeritus professor of psychosocial medicine at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said the benefits of work on health are more likely to occur when work demands are optimal, workers are allowed to exercise a reasonable degree of autonomy and when the climate of the work organization is friendly and supportive.

NIOSH defines job stress, on the other hand, as "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." This negative aspect of high-pressure work, which Levi calls the "kiss of death," can contribute to ill health effects ranging from headaches to depression to heart disease and stroke. …

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