Stress at Work Is Killing Us

Whether home or at work, at school, shopping, or driving, there’s no shortage of things to stress us out. Our ability to cope, get along with others, get things done efficiently, and be reasonable often hinges on how we manage that stress. Those coping mechanisms have a lot to do with how well our days go and how we get along with family and friends. But when it comes to work, there’s a greater price to pay. Not managing stress effectively costs employers billions of dollars annually in healthcare-related expenses, lost-work hours, and reduced productivity due to illness, depression, accidents, turnover, and worker burnout.

According to research by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors. Stress in the workplace, researchers found, manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work, but not achieving expectations, or working to potential), lower productivity, and increased service errors.

Stress also is a contributor to high blood pressure and other diseases. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise, and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, teamwork, safety, and quality.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), work-related stress is the physical and emotional damage that occurs due to a mismatch between work requirements and the resources, needs, and capabilities of workers. Currently, 40% of American workers say that their jobs are very or extremely stressful. At the same time, 26% of employees say they are very often burned out, or stressed at the workplace. Twenty-nine percent of workers say that their jobs are extremely stressful, and 25% report that their jobs are the leading causes of stress in their lives.

How is that affecting them physically? CDC statistics say that seven out of 10 workers say they experience stress-related psychological symptoms regularly, and close to eight out of 10 employees regularly encounter physical symptoms associated with stress. To avoid workplace stress, 60% of 26,000 U.S. workers surveyed said they would opt for a fresh career start. This dissatisfaction on the job is costing American employers $300 billion annually on employee healthcare and employee absence costs.

Why so much workplace stress?

If you’ve ever worked for or with other people, you probably can answer this question yourself.

Workload accounts for 46% of all workplace stress incidents, and “people issues” account for 28% of stress at work problems. Additionally, juggling work/personal life challenges accounts for 20% of stress incidents reported by American workers, while lack of job security is the fourth-leading cause of stress at the workplace.

The symptoms of worrying, anxiety, and stress at work result in back pain, fatigue, stomach ailments, headaches, teeth grinding, and changes in sex drive. It reduces immunity to disease, and leaves workers unable to sleep well at night due to worrying about their jobs. And it’s costing employers an estimated $10 billion annually in productivity losses alone.

All in all, it sounds pretty dire. Yet we have to work, we have to get along with our co-workers, bosses, and customers, and we have to remain focused on quality, service, and productivity. So how can employers help address the issues that cause this detrimental behavior and side effects, and improve outcomes?

Organizations that have implemented measures to address burnout have a staff turnover rate of just 6%, which is low compared to the national average of 38%. Additionally, in progressive-thinking companies, the rate of staff reporting “chronic work stress” stands at 19% compared to the national average of 35%. Employees at the same organizations registered higher job satisfaction scores, meaning they were unlikely to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

Tips for managing workplace stress

Humans are complicated – there are no easy answers or magic bullets. But based on research, an important first step is promoting a healthy work/life balance. Progressive organizations offer telecommuting, paid time off, and flex time perks. Employee recognition strategies including profit-sharing programs, bonuses, and cost-of-living salary raises. Organizing staff retreats, interacting with staff to learn more about their problems, and monitoring job satisfaction helps, as does providing workers with regular career growth and development opportunities.

While the work has to get done and get done on time, fatigue plays an enormous role in reduced workplace productivity. While napping in one’s car is helpful when coping with exhaustion, some employers provide rest or nap lounges with couches, reduced lighting, and soft music. Ensuring that employees get adequate time for stretching, moving around, breaks, and for lunch or dinner is critical.

Additionally, time during the day for recreation – walks, runs, athletics, bicycling, working out – helps people manage stress and keep themselves healthier. That could be as simple as having a fitness room, basketball or volleyball court at the workplace, or encouraging employees to take a walk or go to the gym at times that work best for them and fit within their work requirements.

Bringing in experts on nutrition, fitness, yoga, massage, and other forms of relaxation or wellness education is inexpensive and helpful. And engaging employees in team problem-solving, or creating and empowering recreation, communication, health and wellness, and “fun” committees goes a long way toward improving morale, teamwork and productivity.

Ultimately, we all have to find ways to deal with our own stress, and the stress that accompanies most jobs. But recognizing the signs of worker stress and acknowledging the importance of providing creative and healthy outlets for employees will help reduce some of the factors that are heavily taxing workers and costing employers a fortune, and employees their health.