Occupational Health

Stress, March 2012


Key facts

  • Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.
  • Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.
  • Pressure in the workplace is often unavoidable due to the demands of the contemporary work environment.
  • Pressure perceived as acceptable by an individual, may even keep workers alert, motivated, able to work and learn, depending on the available resources and personal characteristics.
  • However, when that pressure becomes excessive or otherwise unmanageable it leads to stress.
  • Stress can damage an employees' health and the business performance.
  • Work-related stress can be caused by poor work organization (the way we design jobs and work systems, and the way we manage them), by poor work design (for example, lack of control over work processes), poor management, unsatisfactory working conditions, and lack of support from colleagues and supervisors.
  • Employees are less likely to experience work-related stress when:
    • Demands and pressures of work are matched to their knowledge and abilities;
    • Control can be exercised over their work and the way they do it;
    • Support is received from supervisors and colleagues;
    • Participation in decisions that concern their jobs is provided.

A healthy job

  • A healthy job is likely to be one where the pressures on employees are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources, to the amount of control they have over their work, and to the support they receive from people who matter to them.
  • As health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being (WHO, 1986), a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones.
  • These may include continuous assessment of risks to health, the provision of appropriate information and training on health issues and the availability of health promoting organizational support practices and structures.
  • A healthy work environment is one in which staff have made health and health promotion a priority and part of their working lives.

Stress-related hazards

  • Stress related hazards at work can be divided into work content and work context.
  • Work content includes:
    • Job content (monotony, under-stimulation, meaningless of tasks, lack of variety, etc);
    • Work load and work pace (too much or too little to do, work under time pressure, etc.);
    • Working hours (strict or inflexible, long and unsocial, unpredictable, badly designed shift systems);
    • Participation and control (lack of participation in decision-making, lack of control over work processes, pace, hours, methods, and the work environment).
  • • Work context includes:
    • Career development, status and pay (job insecurity, lack of promotion opportunities, under- or over-promotion, work of "low social value", piece rate payment schemes, unclear or unfair performance evaluation systems, being over- or under-skilled for a job)
    • The role in the organization (unclear role, conflicting roles);
    • Interpersonal relationships (inadequate, inconsiderate or unsupportive supervision, poor relationships with colleagues, bullying/harassment and violence, isolated or solitary work, etc);
    • Organizational culture (poor communication, poor leadership, lack of behavioural rule, lack of clarity about organizational objectives, structures and strategies);
    • Work-life balance (conflicting demands of work and home, lack of support for domestic problems at work, lack of support for work problems at home, lack of organizational rules and policies to support work-life balance).

Recognition and respect at work

  • Being respected and appreciated is one of the most fundamental human needs.
  • Consequently, people go to great pain to gain acceptance and approval.
  • Recent research in the domain of occupational health psychology shows that many stressful experiences are linked to being offended – for instance, by being offended or ridiculed, by social exclusion, by social conflict, by illegitimate tasks.
  • Such experiences of being treated in an unfair manner constitute an “Offence to Self”, and this may have quite far reaching consequences in terms of health and well-being.
  • Conversely, being appreciated is one of the most important factors that increases motivation and satisfaction as well as health and well-being.
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