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FACT: Workplace stress can kill

Workplace stress presents a major challenge for managers because it is difficult to identify and because of this many are unaware how to spot early warning signs; the extent of its impact is also often underestimated or overlooked says Michelle Hunter, Business Psychologist

February 4, 2013 9:42 by

Whilst most would expect loyal employees to commit to working harder when their organisation experiences difficult times, there is a limit to which one would expect them to go.  Some employees however do not know where to draw the line, which can be to the detriment of their own health and well-being. In Japan, for example, an alarming 30,000 members of their workforce work themselves to death.  This phenomenon is often referred to as  “Karoshi”.


The above example, may for some appear to be extreme, it is however an undeniable fact that excessive working induces stress and illness, and claims the lives of many employees each year.  So, what is workplace stress/work-related stress and, how can its aetiology be traced?  It is according to the Health and Safety Executive “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”.


Much of the stress and pressure has filtered-down to employees due to the global competition and economic downturn that has caused reductions in the workforce everywhere.  Although it is often difficult to establish a direct and causal link between such factors and reported stress levels, the relationship is mediated by workload, as one study found.   For example, a recent survey conducted by YouGov of UAE residents revealed that 65 percent were stressed out due to increased workloads.  However, as is the case with most illnesses that rely on individual self-reports, there may be unreported incidences – taking this into account the percentage of those suffering from work-related stress may therefore be higher than the stated statistic.


‘Only the weak can’t handle stress’


There are many reasons for this.  Employees refrain from reporting illnesses such as stress because they fear the negative impact it might have on their employment record, particularly in terms of how it might shape the opinion of future and prospective employers. Also, they fear that their current managers and colleagues might treat them differently on the basis of false beliefs that people who fall victim to stress are “weak” and often referred to as “softies”.  Some managers, employees claim, are insensitive and irresponsive to their needs, even when there is a clear mis-match between employee workload and the amount of time in which they are expected to complete their tasks, to ensure quality and quantity.     This helps to demonstrate why the word ‘Efficiency’ has become such a popular and powerful word amongst organisational leaders.


Employees who are perceived as being efficient are considered to posses a “competitive edge”, which is an attractive feature in there eyes of employers.  Those who fall short of this “edge” worry and fear being placed in the ‘firing line’, which will eventually lead to them being replaced by a more efficient model (highly capable employee) who will worker harder for less.  Feelings of such are associated with job insecurity. Therefore, excessive working becomes a strategy that some employees will attempt to adopt so as to aid their survival in the workplace and justify their worth to their employers.  All of these factors can build-up stress and tension within employees.


Stress affects everyone


Stress is not limited to any one level of employee.   Those with supervisory and management responsibilities show levels of stress that is comparable to those whom they are responsible for. The logic being that, irrespective of ones occupational standing, when employees feel under pressure to perform and when they have no control over their workload, stress and burnout can occur.


Further to this, stress does not impact all employees in the same way – the role played by individual differences in response to work pressures and demands is huge.  Although situational factors such as the economic downturn and organisational change will be encountered by the entire workforce, the way in which an individual interprets and responds to the situation is thought to be influenced by dispositional factors, such as personality.  For example, one study showed that Individuals possessing a Type A behaviour pattern, which is characterised by excessively competitive, hard-driven, achievement -orientated, impatient and hostile behaviours, were shown to be more susceptible to stress*.  Those however, possessing a “Hardy” personality style, which is characterised by commitment, control over their personal lives and the ability to perceive events as challenging and not threatening, are associated with good health.


Workplace stress presents a major challenge for managers because it is difficult to identify and because of this many are unaware how to spot early warning signs; the extent of its impact is also often underestimated or overlooked.  Much of the latter is due to the fact that stress per se, is often viewed as an individual problem that impacts individuals alone.  There have been numerous studies conducted that show strong links between workplace stress and the onset of incidences such as depression, low-self-esteem, memory loss, obesity, strokes, disease and death*.  However, the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) continuously show that stress is the number one cause of extended periods of absence.  Absenteeism, as is known impacts employee performance and productivity, therefore organisations suffer the effects of workplace stress too.


Unfortunately, there is very little organisations can do about factors external to the organisation, such as the global and economic downturn. However, there are many actions that both employees and organisations can take to reduce the impact of stress and burnout including:

For employees:

Get to work 20 minutes early to give you a head start


Undertake regular exercise, yoga and meditation techniques helps to better manage stress


Don’t rely solely on your memory – write everything down. Each evening prioritise deadlines for the next day

For employers:

Create worker empowerment – encourage workers to gain autonomy and control over their workload


Provide adequate training to ensure staff are aware of ‘best ways’ to perform in their role


Ensure that equipment and resources are adequate enough for staff to accomplish their tasks in an efficient manner


Adopt a listening management style – emphasise the importance of an employee voice and show willingness to listen


Use more reliable and valid methods for selecting and developing staff – psychometric testing, 360-degree feedback work wonders


Allow workers to socialise and seek social support from colleagues


Michelle Hunter is a Business Psychologist and Lecturer on the MSc Business Psychology programme at Heriot-Watt University.  Contact her via [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. CPO on February 27, 2013 9:23 am

    Stressed at work? Maybe it’s because your 2 dollar morning cup of coffee has more bargaining power than you do! Why do your bosses and coworkers have so much access to your time for free, when they would never think about negotiating the price of a simple cup of coffee? Visit my blog to read my full rant, if you like :)


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