Stress in the Workplace: How workers can reduce job stress in their workplace.

Based upon Fact Sheet #31 from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work adapted by SD Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in 2003 in www.stressinfo.ch.

Although many people experience job stress, especially the most unpleasant kind, it is important to remember that there are things that you can do to reduce stress within the workplace. This article presents information on the nature of job stress, signs of job stress, common causes of job stress and steps you can take to reduce job stress.

What is Work Related Stress?

Work related stress is the negative state a worker experiences when the demands of his or her work exceed the worker’s ability to cope with or control them. While stress in and of itself is not harmful, when it is lasting and uncontrolled, it can lead to health problems, as well as cause a loss in quality and productivity of work. Some pressure is helpful in achieving maximum performance, but when it is excessive or lasting, the results are almost always harmful.

This article outlines three aspects of dealing with job stress:
1. Understanding the causes of job stress
2. Recognizing whether job stress exists in your workplace
3. Action you can take to reduce the causes of job stress

Understanding the Causes of Job Stress

The stress a person experiences while at work may be the result of stressful events or situations in one’s personal life that “spill over” into work, or may arise out of work processes that are the cause of stress. Below is a list of the frequent causes of job stress, along with questions for you and your employer to consider when understanding the origins of job stress within the workplace. This list can help to differentiate between stress that originates solely in the workplace and other, more broader sources of stress within your life. Later in this article, we present information on how to discuss these topics with your manager, boss or employee representative.

• Atmosphere or Company Culture

What are the norms of the workplace? What kinds of practices are acceptable or not acceptable? Is it permissible to talk about job stress at all? Do people feel that they have to work long hours to keep their jobs?
Is stress viewed as a sign of personal weakness rather than a sign that something might be wrong with the workplace? Are employees pressured to work faster and produce more and more?

• Demands

What kinds of demands do employees face? Are these demands realistic or unrealistic? Are employees being asked to work under dangerous or unhealthy conditions? Are factors such as noise and poorly designed workplaces contributing to poor performance and health? Are employees being asked to do too much work in not enough time? Do employees feel safe when at work?

• Control

How much influence do employees have over their work? Do employees have a voice in decision making and planning? Do individuals have the option of adapting work conditions to meet their particular (physical, familial or other) needs?

• Relationships

How can one characterize inter-personal relationships at work? Are relationships cordial, respectful and supportive? Is there evidence of good team work? Do people feel threatened, bullied or discriminated against because of their ethnicity or gender etc.?

• Change

How well informed are employees about changes in the organization? Do changes seem well planned? Are employees given opportunities to participate in the change process? Does the rate of change seem too much to cope with?

• Role

Do employees know what exactly is expected of them, or is their role unclear? Do employees experience conflict between what is expected of them and what they actually do?

• Support

Do employees receive adequate support from their supervisors, managers and colleagues? Do people receive praise and recognition for a job well done? Is criticism of the constructive type or is it primarily negative?

• Training

Do employees have the required skills to do the job that is expected of them? Do employees receive adequate training to ensure that they can do the work that is expected of them?

Recognizing whether Job Stress Exists in Your Workplace

By looking at the questions in the above list, you can begin to identify where some of your work stress might originate from, and that you can use as a tool to initiate discussion with your employer. Regardless of whether the stress you experience originates only at work or within other parts of your life, it is important to recognize signs of stress which you may be experiencing. Symptoms of work related stress to watch out for include:

  • Change in mood or behavior such as feeling irritable or indecisive.
  • Problems with job performance
  • Problems with colleagues
  • Feeling like one is not in control or cannot cope adequately
  • Consuming alcohol, cigarettes or other substances to help cope with stress
  • Experiencing health problems such as frequent headaches, sleep problems, heart problems or upset stomach.

Action You Can Take to Reduce the Causes of Job Stress

A good starting point for identifying ways to improve the situation is to look around you at work and identify solutions in partnership with your employer, boss, team or work group. If you are hesitant to speak openly about stress, you may find it easier to speak in more neutral terms- about improving work flow and outcomes of work, as that is a point of interest to employers.

If you have an employee representative or union representative try talking with him or her to see if you can enlist their support. Chances are that certain problems in the workplace (such as unclear work roles, change without adequate communication) are concerns shared by more than one worker, and ultimately have an impact upon the functioning and productivity of the company.

When you identify problems and present them to management or your employee representative, try to also present solutions that might help solve or reduce the extent of the problems. Examples of concrete solutions include: asking to be involved in the planning process; asking for weekly instead of monthly feedback; asking for fewer interruptions if it would help your workflow.
Depending upon the atmosphere at work, presenting ideas to improve work processes (and thereby reduce job stress) may or may not be met with a positive response. Effective leaders should be open to ideas of employees, especially if they can see how the suggestions contribute towards productivity. In that vein, try to frame your suggestions not only in personal terms such as “It would help me if we did it this way,” but also in terms that demonstrate potential benefit to the company, (e.g. “If we could do this, it would not only help me do a better job, but also increase efficiency and reduce mistakes…” and so on.)

Proposing suggestions for change has to do partly with one’s individual level of comfort in discussing such topics. The ability to speak up or suggest changes also has to do with the norms and company culture. If you initially feel uncomfortable speaking out, ask yourself why. Perhaps the situation is not as restrictive as you may imagine it to be. Speak with your coworkers if you can. Again, it is quite likely that more than one person is affected by a particular work process or matter. If you can speak collectively, in a way that highlights solutions rather than only problems, you may be able to bring about the desired change in work conditions.

Other concrete steps you can consider taking include: asking for information so that you can be better informed about work processes, changes, work hazards or any other issue that affects your working conditions; asking to be more involved in decision making; seeking to have positive relationships with your co-workers; asking for more training; asking for clarification of roles and responsibilities. If you are presented with more demands than you can cope with, given your skills and resources – such as time and equipment- seek input from your boss or manager to prioritize your tasks. See what can be delegated, what can be dropped or what can be put off for a later date.

If you feel that you are being harassed or bullied in any way, it is important to speak up. Speak with your supervisor or employee representative. If your boss or supervisor is the source of bullying, then speak with his or her boss.

The above items are suggestions that you can begin to adapt for your workplace and situation. We recognize that everyone is different and each workplace may vary in terms of how receptive it is to employee suggestions. Thus it may be more acceptable to speak out in some organizations but not in others. Nevertheless, if you try to specifically identify what can be improved (as opposed to general complaints), and then present specific solutions to the situations, you are more likely to be heard and your suggestions are more likely to be implemented.

Copyright 2005, S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved.