Suppose you’re under a tight deadline at work—too tight for you to realistically get everything done properly. To make matters worse, you’ve no choice but to follow rigid procedures that don’t make sense under the circumstances. You soon come across something you don’t understand, but there’s nobody to ask for help. According to public-health authorities, working in a situation like this isn’t merely unpleasant; it’s unhealthy.
The World Health Organization distinguishes between workplace “pressure” and workplace “stress.” A moderate amount of pressure can keep you alert and interested in learning. But when that pressure becomes unmanageable, your preprogrammed response is stress.
Humans are adapted to deal with occasional stress, but chronic stress can cause permanent damage. It’s strongly correlated with ulcers, migraines, mental illness and heart disease. And it’s thought that up to 80 per cent of visits to primary-care doctors are stress-related.
According to the 2010 Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 27 per cent of Canadian workers described their lives on most days as “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful. An Ipsos Reid poll found that 16 per cent felt their jobs were an ongoing source of depression or anxiety. The economy could be playing a role in the problem: the fear of layoffs, and increased demands on the staff that survives them, can add to the intensity.
Some employers assume that stressful conditions are necessary if a company is going to stay profitable. But studies show that in the long run, overstressed workplaces have more absenteeism, tardiness and employee turnover—all bad news for the bottom line. Because of this, approximately one-third of Canadian companies offer stress-management training. These programs, which emphasize relaxation exercises, are easy to set up, but they ignore the issue’s root causes.
In a 2006 study, a hospital in Quebec tried a different approach, and the results were documented in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Throughout a series of meetings, employees came up with 56 preventable reasons for their stress. For instance, they said whenever a staffer left, it took a long time to replace him or her, and other employees had to fill the empty position while keeping on top of their own duties. The solution was logical: revamping the hiring process to make it quicker. A year after several fixes were applied, the hospital’s stress level declined significantly.
For employers serious about creating a healthy workplace, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends tackling stress in two ways: providing relaxation training and—as that one Quebec hospital did—pinpointing the most taxing aspects of the work and designing strategies to lighten the burden.