Back to Basics, EHS Management, Mental Health and Psychological Safety

Back to Basics: Identifying and Managing Workplace Stress

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to identify and manage workplace stress.

There are many safety hazards to avoid in any given workplace, but stress may be the most insidious because it can lead to many other problems. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has done extensive research on work stress and how on-the-job stressors can lead to accidents and injuries.

According to NIOSH, early warning signs of job stress include headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, and low morale. Job stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders, workplace injury, and possibly suicide, cancer, ulcers, and impaired immune function.

The first signs of job stress can come through low morale, health and job complaints, and employee turnover. But there may not be obvious signs if workers are worried about losing their jobs.

In one of its publications, NIOSH offers steps toward prevention of workplace stress.

Step 1: Identify the problem

To determine the scope and cause of a suspected stress problem in the organization, hold group discussions among managers, labor representatives, and employees. In a small company, these discussions may provide all the information you need to locate and deal with stress issues. But in a larger organization, use the discussions to help put together surveys to gather more information about stressful job conditions.

Information should be obtained about how employees perceive their job conditions and levels of stress, health, and satisfaction. Also examine objective measures such as absenteeism, illness and turnover rates, or performance problems to gauge the presence and scope of work stress. Keep in mind these are rough indicators of stress.

Summarize and analyze data from discussions, surveys, and other sources to home in on the location of a stress problem and job conditions that may have led to it. Are these problems widespread throughout the organization or only found in a single department or specific jobs?

You may want to get help from experts at a local university or consulting firm to design a survey, analyze data, or put together a stress prevention program, but overall authority for the program should remain in your organization.

Step 2: Design and implement interventions

Once you’ve identified the sources of stress in your organization and understand the scope of the problem, you can design and implement an intervention strategy.

For smaller organizations, the informal discussions that helped identify stress issues may also provide prevention ideas. A more formal process may be necessary in larger organizations, where a team is asked to develop recommendations after analyzing the data from Step 1 and consulting with outside experts. The team should do the following:

  • Target the source of stress for change
  • Propose and prioritize intervention strategies
  • Communicate planned interventions to employees
  • Implement interventions

If certain problems, such as a hostile work environment, are pervasive throughout the organization, they would require company-wide interventions. Some problems, such as excessive workload, may occur only in some departments and require narrower solutions (e.g., redesigning the way a job is performed). Other problems may be specific to certain employees and call for stress management or employee assistance interventions. Some interventions might be rolled out rapidly (e.g., improved communication or stress management training) while others may require more time (e.g., redesign of a manufacturing process).

Step 3: Evaluate the interventions

Evaluation of the interventions is essential to determine whether the intervention is producing desired effects and whether changes in direction are necessary.

Establish time frames for evaluating interventions. Those that involve organizational change should receive both short- and long-term scrutiny. Short-term evaluations could be done quarterly to provide early indications of program effectiveness or the need to change direction. Many interventions produce initial effects that do not last. Long-term evaluations are often done annually and can determine whether interventions have lasting effects.

Focus evaluations on the same types of information collected during the problem identification phase of the intervention, including information from employees about working conditions, levels of perceived stress, health problems, and satisfaction. Employee perceptions are usually the most sensitive measure of stressful working conditions and often can give you the first indication of whether your intervention is effective. Adding measures such as absenteeism and healthcare costs may be useful. But the effects of job stress interventions on those measures can be less clear cut and take a long time to show up.

Job stress prevention doesn’t end with evaluation, according to NIOSH. Job stress prevention should be seen as a continuous process that uses evaluation data to refine or redirect the intervention strategy.

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