Stress at Work: Recognizing and Understanding Symptoms

We all experience stress, in different ways and from different sources and it affects each of us differently. The common denominator, though, is that stress in the workplace manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower productivity and increased service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey released in March 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.

The online survey polled 1,501 adults in January 2013. The majority of those surveyed (53%) work at organizations with fewer than 500 employees, 37% at organizations employing fewer than 100. Thirty-one percent of respondents had frontline jobs, directly involved with the production of products or providing services such as sales, bookkeeping, and customer service. Twenty-nine percent had mid-level positions involving management and supervision or coordination of people or departments. Those with mid-level or senior positions but no management responsibilities comprised one-quarter of respondents, while 15% had upper-level positions, involving coordination of the organization, development of organizational plans/goals, and supervision of managers.

The APA’s most recent Stress in America survey (released in February 2013) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

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, safety and quality.

Why are we so stressed?

For starters, says the Work and Well-Being Survey, many workers don’t feel like they’re being paid enough or getting the recognition they deserve. Less than half of working Americans report that they receive adequate monetary compensation (46%) or non-monetary recognition (43%) for their contributions on the job. Additionally, just 43% of employees say that recognition is based on fair and useful performance evaluations. Just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

In addition to feeling undervalued, employees also report feeling unheard: Less than half (47%) say their employer regularly seeks input from employees, and even fewer (37%) say the organization makes changes based on that feedback.

On the heels of the recession, many employees also appear to feel stuck, with only 39% citing sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, and only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs. “This isn’t just an HR or management issue,” says Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., APA’s CEO, “The well-being of an organization’s workforce is a strategic business imperative that is linked to its performance and success.”

Also, despite many work-related advances for women, the workplace still doesn’t feel like a level playing field for many women who report feeling less valued than men (48%). Less than half of employed women (43%) say they receive adequate monetary compensation for their work, compared to 48% of employed men. Further, fewer employed women than men report that their employer provides sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement (35% versus 43%) or resources to help them manage stress (34% versus 38%). Though employed women are more likely than men to report having good mental health (86% versus 76%), more women say they typically feel tense or stressed out at work (37% versus 33%).

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed – and most of them are outlined in the issues described above. Next month, in the June issue of CBIA Healthy Connections, Wellness Matters will address how to set up a roadmap for decreased stress in the workplace.

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