Job stress is defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of a job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker.
Work organization plays a major role in health and illness. While individuals respond differently, research suggests several job conditions that can lead to stress, including:
Early warning signs of job stress may include headache, sleep disturbances, difficulty in concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction and low morale. Short-lived stress poses little risk. But when stressful situations continue for years, wear and tear builds up. Early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize. But evidence mounts connecting long-term stress with the onset of chronic health problems.
- Design of tasks. Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shift work; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, and provide little sense of control.
- Management style. Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.
- Interpersonal relationships. Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors.
- Work roles. Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many "hats to wear."
- Career concerns. Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.
- Environmental conditions. Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.
High levels of stress can interfere with a broad range of physical and emotional functioning, and have been linked to
- Cardiovascular disease: Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Musculoskeletal disorders: On the basis of research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper- extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
- Psychological disorders: Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle differences between occupations may also contribute.)
- Workplace injury: Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.
- Suicide, cancer, ulcers, and impaired immune function: Some studies suggest a relationship between stressful working conditions and these health problems. However, more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that stress-related disorders are a widespread reason for worker disability claims.
Two distinct approaches exist to managing ill health:
Exposure to stressful working conditions (called job stressors) can have a direct influence on worker safety and health. But individual and other situational
factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence, for example:
- Individual - with the focus on helping people cope (e.g., stress management, EAPs)
- Company - at the workplace with the goal of reducing exposure to unhealthy stressors through work redesign, restructuring, etc.
A comprehensive approach to preventing stress at work combines both a focus on organizational change and support to boost individual stress management.
- Balance between work and family or personal life
- A support network of friends and coworkers
- A relaxed and positive outlook
Steps to Organizational Change around Worker Stress
Packaged off-the-shelf solutions applied broadly across an organization can actually have an opposite effect than intended. False or ill-conceived efforts to reduce workplace stress may worsen the very working conditions they were intended to improve.
- Identify the problem:
Incorporate quantitative and qualitative research methods to measure employee perceptions of job conditions, stress, health and satisfaction.
Analyze data to identify problem locations and stressful job conditions.
- Design and implement interventions:
Some problems, like a hostile work environment, require a formal company-wide intervention. Other issues may exist in only some departments. Prioritize your strategies and focus on specific solutions.
- Evaluate the intervention:
Incorporate both short-term and long-term evaluations. Continue to analyze data and identify additional interventions.