Workplace Stress Is on Rise, Leading to Illness and Absenteeism

Monday Magazine | August 7, 2004
It’s been called a “worldwide epidemic” by the World Health Organization, and was named the “disease of the 20th century” by the United Nations. More than 40 percent of British Columbians report that they’re affected by it. And it can lead to serious health problems, employee turnover and even a decline in the corporate bottom line.

This pervasive scourge and menace? Workplace stress. That’s right, there’s an official name for all those niggling and frustrating things that make the underside of your pillow preferable to another day at the office, shop, assembly line or jobsite. According to experts, it’s up to you and your employer to take care of it before it gets even worse.

And it is getting worse. In numerous surveys, workers report feeling more stressed now than they did 10 years ago. In a 2002 Ipsos-Reid survey, 40 percent of B.C. residents said they were most stressed by their work and finances.

Sarah Hamid-Balma, director of public education for the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, says the perception of stress in the workplace seems to be on the rise, both for employers and employees.

In a national survey, half of employed Canadians listed work as the biggest source of stress in their lives, she says, adding that it’s not all bad -- “Stress in reasonable amounts helps motivate us.” The extra boost of a looming deadline or the buzz of a sale about to close is a good thing. But when that stress doesn’t go away in between deadlines and sales and the ongoing events of life, damage occurs.

“Intermittent stress is part of life,” says Hamid-Balma. “I think it’s the chronic level that gets people worried.”

Chronic workplace stress can trigger absenteeism and illness, and as a result, customer service and employee morale can suffer, she explains.

For example, an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted last March asked a group of Ontario human resources professionals what they thought the main contributor to employee absence was. The respondents cited “depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders (66 percent)” and “stress (60 percent).” And 31 percent of those professionals indicated that stress was the most serious health-related issue in the workplace. Depression, anxiety and mental health disorders can all be triggered by stress, Hamid-Balma points out.

And yet chronic stress isn’t something that workers can legitimately claim as a reason for leaving work. In 2002, the B.C. Liberal government, as part of its overhaul of the Workers Compensation Act, decided that workers couldn’t be compensated for chronic stress.

“The Workers Compensation Board won’t recognize workplace stress as a disability unless a worker has experienced a traumatic event in the workplace,” Hamid-Balma explains. A traumatic event is a one-time thing, while chronic stress builds over time. That means a bank teller who is robbed might qualify for compensation, but a chronically stressed police officer (one of the most stressful professions, along with teachers, lawyers, dentists and taxi drivers) wouldn’t.

But when that police officer starts to get ill as a result of their chronic stress—develops an ulcer, perhaps, or heart disease—they’ll likely end up on sick leave, and perhaps even short or long-term disability. “It costs billions of dollars a year in terms of the amount of lost productivity, and for short and long-term disability leaves,” says Hamid-Balma.

Vancouver physician Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Vintage Canada, 2004), argues that “all illness is stress-related, because of the mind-body unity.” In his book, Maté suggests a strong connection between stress and cancer, which is predicted to be the top killer of British Columbians within 20 years.

“People have to recognize what stress is,” says Maté in an interview. “Stress is a physical reaction to threat or loss, or the fear or perception of threat or loss.” Uncertainty, lack of information or a lack of control all contribute to that physical reaction, he notes. “Many job situations are characterized by those factors.”

He points to current trends towards cutting back workers as part of the reason for that stress. “Downsizing, cutbacks in provincial employees and government jobs—the work hasn’t decreased, but the number of people expected to do it has decreased. People less and less feel they’re in charge. They have to do more, but have less sense of being involved in the decision-making,” says Maté. “It’s no wonder we see an increase in stress-related disease.”

Hamid-Balma agrees: “It’s very stressful for people to watch their co-workers get laid off, and be taking on their duties.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, she points out. To combat stress in their places of business, employers can “cultivate a general environment in the workplace that’s supportive, and encourages mental health,” Hamid-Balma says. “Employee assistance programs can be very helpful.” So can extras like company gyms and daycares, but even those won’t help if workers are feeling overworked, or as though they can’t talk to anyone about what is still, in many cases, a stigmatized condition.

“You have to change the nature of work,” Hamid-Balma says, explaining that if people are overloaded, underpaid and get inconsistent feedback, they’ll be stressed.

But that stress is not inevitable, and if it’s addressed, it can be minimized. “It’s more about your attitude towards realizing your employees are your most important asset,” she says.

“Employers would be very wise to recognize the triggers [of stress in their workplaces]” adds Maté. “People need to be involved in decisions about factors that affect the workplace, but often managers ignore that, and impose demands, restrictions and expectations.”

“A lot of it is preventable,” adds Maté. “If employers realized what stress was, and how it affects people, how it undermines the goals they have, they’d work to create a different situation, different relations with employees.”

And workers can take matters into their own hands, too, which has the effect of giving them some stress-reducing feeling of control.

Hamid-Balma suggests that when they’re looking for work, people can be aware of what constitutes a mentally healthy workplace, and choose to work there. Or, if they’re in the midst of stress, they can talk about it with friends and co-workers. And tell management about it, too: “If there are feedback mechanisms for employees to give feedback to management, they can articulate [their stress] in a powerful way,” she says.

“When you look at research on stress, you find that people who are emotionally connected to each other are less stressed,” says Maté. By creating those connections, we can reduce our experience of stress. “We’re living in a society, for all its technology, wealth and information, that’s completely opposite to the healthy way people need to live,” says Maté. “Young people are feeling more stressed because they’re being more stressed.”


Top 10 Sources of Workplace Stress

• Too much or too little to do. The feeling of not contributing and lacking control.
• Lack of two-way communication up and down.
• Being unappreciated.
• Inconsistent performance management processes. Employees get raises but no reviews, or get positive evaluation but are laid off afterward.
• Career and job ambiguity. Things happen without the employee knowing why.
• Unclear company direction and policies.
• Mistrust. Vicious office politics disrupt positive behaviour.
• Doubt. Employees are not sure what is happening, where things are headed.
• Random interruptions.
• The treadmill syndrome: Too much to do at once, requiring the 24-hour work day.

Source: Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction

More causes of workplace stress

• Noisy environment
• Poor ventilation/lighting
• Too hot or too cold
• Poor workstation or tool design
• Too much supervision
• Shift work
• Too much work
• No decision-making
• Not enough different kinds of tasks
• Unclear job demands
• No job security
• Discrimination (based on race, disability, age, sex)
• Changes or layoffs at work
• New technology
• High unemployment
• Increased competition

Source: MFL Occupational Health Centre, Winnipeg

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Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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