Stress is endemic in the US workforce. An estimated one million workers are absent every day due to stress, according to The American Institute of Stress. In addition, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reports that over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the U.S. from absenteeism are stress-related and that one in five of all last minute no-shows are due to job stress.
According to theatlantic.com, “health problems stemming from job stress (such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and decreased mental health) could end up killing 120.000 people each year, which makes work-related stressors and the maladies they cause, more deadly than diabetes, Alzheimer’s or influenza”.
Stress is also not a stand-alone problem but often leads to more serious illnesses and conditions. 18.8 million American adults, or 9.5% of the U.S population age 18 and older, have a depressive disorder, such as GAD, numbers by medicinenet.com reveals. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a mood disorder that is characterized by multiple and/or nonspecific worries that interfere with the person’s life in some way.
Usually, there is no single cause for it. But numerous studies show that work is a major source of stress among American adults, and that that the issue has escalated progressively over the past few decades.
What makes a situation stressful at work?
Dealing with difficult customers, patients and pupils are among the most common self-reported risks in the workplace, according to a 2014/15 survey of workplace stresses from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Understandably, people working in health and social work industries have the most cases of self-reported illness in the last 12 months, closely followed by those working in public administration and defense.
More generally and outside of these industries, the mean causes of stress include:
- long and irregular hours
- lack of health insurance
- job insecurity
- lack of influence
- time pressure
Interestingly, internal emails are among the worst stress causing factors in many office environments. One would think that quicker communication would have reduced stress compared to the last century when communication was done via the much slower and painful mail or fax machine.
But in actually the brain isn’t made to multitask and communicate so quickly – greater speed and efficiency has led to an inverse ability of the brain to process information, and thus a corresponding increase in national stress levels.
Benefits of improved mental health for employees
The competitive corporate environment is sometimes notorious for taking a hardline when it comes to employee wellbeing. Reducing stress is not just an issue of compassion, it can have financial benefits too.
Some employers believe that stressful working conditions are necessary for increasing productivity and remaining profitable. Research shows, however, that stressful working conditions are associated with intentions by workers to quit their jobs – all costly to the business.
Job stress carries a price tag for U.S. industry estimated at over $300 billion annually as a result of accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity and direct medical, legal and insurance costs.
A study by Harvard found that by offering stressed-out employees treatments, such as psychotherapy, they improved employees’ general mood and productivity up to about 2.6 hours of extra work per week. This is worth about $1,800 a year (based on average wages in the US).
The conclusion to the study was that: “In the long term, costs spent on mental health care may represent an investment that will pay off — not only in healthier employees but also for the company’s financial health”.
Ways businesses are tackling the problem of stress
You might think reducing workforce stress takes a lot of investment, but in there are much simpler solutions to this problem. For example, an Italian textile company recently received complaints about employees feeling under pressure to respond quickly when they received internal emails and it interrupted their workflow. As a result, they banned all internal work emails and get everyone to only communicate face-to-face.
The result of limited emails led to employees experiencing significantly lower stress than before. The company concluded that “lower stress predicted higher well-being on a diverse range of well-being outcomes. These findings highlight the benefits of checking email less frequently for reducing psychological stress”.
Policies and procedures employers should implement
Mental health today is taken much more seriously that in was in the past. The cause of `nervous breakdowns’, for example, used to be considered a weakness of the individual, rather than a fault of management and working procedures.
By creating a policy that recognizes the need to assess work activities that may be stressful, it makes it possible to come up with an action plan to minimize the risk and effects of stress. Brian Richards from health and safety consultants, Arinite says, “The policy should give management an active commitment to encouraging a supportive culture, where colleagues assist each other to ease peaks in workload. Procedures should ensure that staff are properly resourced and trained to undertake their role and that the personnel selection process matches individuals to the demands of each job function.”