Stress Management Programs Decrease Worker Illness, Increase Productivity

Lowering the stress level of your corporate environment may not only improve your employees’ well being but also boost your bottom line.  The demands on today’s workers are increasing and along with it, workplace stress.  Decreased productivity and morale and increased sickness, absenteeism and accidents are just a few of the side effects that can be counteracted by making yours a “healthy organization.”

Job stress, as defined by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities of the worker.  A stressful corporate environment should not be confused with a challenging work environment, which can actually energize employees to master new skills.  When, however, the job demands cannot be met, the excitement of challenge turns to exhaustion and stress. 

Stress causes the body to go into its programmed, biological “fight or flight” response where the nervous system is aroused and hormones are released.  Unresolved stressors keep the body in this activated state leading to physiological wear and tear.  Some of the early signs of job stress include mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends.  This sets up a scenario for increased illness and accidents.  In fact, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress. 

Both working conditions and worker characteristics cause workplace stress.  It is true that what is stressful for one person may not be for another. However, scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions, such as excessive workload demands and conflicting expectations, cause stress to most people. 

NIOSH researchers examined so-called “healthy organizations,” or those that have low rates of illness, injury and disability and are also competitive in the workplace.  NIOSH found that these companies have the very positive combination of low-stress work and high productivity.  Specific organizational characteristics that were identified included recognition of employees for good work performance, opportunities for career development, an organizational culture that values the individual worker and management actions that are consistent with organizational values. 

While it is helpful to provide stress management training and employee assistance programs to help your employees cope with difficult work situations, also implementing organization change to become a more “healthy organization” has been shown to cause the most direct, long-lived results. 

To create a “healthy organization,” NIOSH suggests that companies:

– Ensure that workload is in line with workers’ capabilities and resources;

– Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation and opportunities for workers to use their skills;

– Clearly define workers’ roles and responsibilities;

– Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs;

– Improve employee communications;

– Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers; and

– Establish work schedules that are compatible with the demands outside the job.

There is no one-size-fits-all program to achieve these goals.  Factors such as the size and complexity of the organization as well as available resources and unique types of organizational stress must be considered.  In all situations, however, the process for developing effective stress prevention programs should include problem identification, intervention and evaluation.  Employers can either hire outside consultants or work through the process internally. 

In the identification stage, information should be gathered about employee perceptions of their job conditions and level of stress and satisfaction.  This can be accomplished through group discussions or formal surveys.  If possible, objective measures such as absenteeism, illness and turnover rates should also be considered.  The collected information should help identify the offending job conditions and the location of stress problems.

Next a set of intervention strategies should be designed and implemented.  Before any intervention occurs, employees should be informed about the changes.  The last step is evaluation to determine if the desired effects are being achieved.  Interventions should be evaluated on both a short and long-term basis as some steps may produce initial effects but not long-lasting change.  To create true and permanent organizational change, evaluation must be a continuous process.

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