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In our career-driven society, work can be a pervasive source of stress. According to a report cited in an edition of the Financial Times, stress at work is one of the biggest problems in European companies. It is evident that the prevalence of stress at work majorly influences job satisfaction, work performance and productivity (Mullins, 2002). The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” (ISMA, 2004). Stress can be accumulated through constant tension and frustration, and can arise from a number of issues including individual, group, organizational and environmental factors. In this essay, I am going to discuss the implications that stress incurs on the individual, and on the organization as a whole by looking at some of the most important issues such as cost, stress-related illnesses, and how to tackle stress in the workplace for a better and healthier workforce.
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With the changing lifestyles of people today (25-year mortgages, easier credit arrangements, etc.) most people are looking for permanent, full-time employment. Nevertheless, with the current economic crisis, many businesses are cutting back on staff and many jobs are being lost. This has lead to an increase in stress levels. An article published by the Daily Mail on 5 November 2008 (National Stress Awareness day) stated that almost 2/3 of 2700 workers polled said that ‘they felt more run down, stressed and prone to illness than they did three years ago’. This has resulted in many of them putting in seven hours of unpaid overtime a week. The article urged employers to tackle this problem as the research shows the credit crunch is having serious implications on the nation’s workforce, with people working and worrying more (Daily Mail, 2008). As these findings demonstrate, the stress caused by the current economic situation will lead to grave consequences for both individuals and organizations; if the individual suffers, the organization is inevitably going to suffer, and vice-versa.
Certainly, a healthy workforce gives a larger contribution to a business. Working in a stressful environment means that not only performance is decreased, but productivity is also reduced. So what causes stress? Some would say that being under a lot of pressure causes one to be stressed. However, there is a difference between working under pressure and working under stressful conditions. It is said that a certain level of pressure is needed in our daily life to motivate us and enable us to perform at our best (ISMA, 2004). Cooper et al. (1988) have identified six major sources of stress at work: intrinsic to the job, role in the organization, relationships at work, career development, organizational structure and climate and home-work interface. He also added that conflicts, such as bullying and harassment, at work are another cause of stress. However, stress is said to be a very personal experience as individuals respond and cope differently with the causes and effects of stress.
One major source of work stress develops from role incongruence and role conflict. When workers are not clear about their roles in the company, it creates difficulties in communication and interpersonal relationships. In addition, it can have an emotional impact on morale, performance and effectiveness at work, and health. In order to improve business, many organizations restructure and reduce staff, leading to more pressure on the remaining staff. This often results in an increase of work-related health problems, work stress and a less efficient workforce (Mullins, 2002). Handy (1993) has suggested five organizational situations that are likely to produce role problems, and thus stress for the individual: having responsibility for the work of others such as reconciling conflicting objectives of groups and organizations; conflict between the routine aspects of the job and the creative side; being the outside contact is particularly stressful due to the lack of control over demands or resources; relationship difficulties in the company, such as problems with a boss or colleagues; and last but not least, having career doubts if future career prospects are uncertain. Role ambiguity has greater effects on the physiological and psychological well-being of the individual, among them being low self-confidence, low motivation, higher job-related tension, and even depression (Handy, 1993). Karasek and Theorell (1990) have predicted that the most unpleasant reactions of psychological strain such as fatigue, anxiety, depression and physical illness, occur when the psychological demands of the job are high and the workers’ have low freedom in deciding the task. This model of the high strain situation suggest that arousal energy is transformed into damaging, unused residual strain because of an environmental constraint on the person’s optimal response (e.g. trying to get lunch and queues are very long, travelling distance involves a crowded, heavy traffic road; this results on the residual strain which lasts longer than a normal arousal reaction). Basically, this model implies that environmental stressors that we are presented with in our everyday life can leave us aroused for hours, thus leading to psychological strain and therefore stress. This has great implications for individuals that tend to be more affected by these environmental factors than others. The burden of strain that workers experience on a daily basis has therefore an indirect implication for the organization as performance is affected by the unpleasant, unproductive, and in the long term, unhealthy state of workers.
In respect to the unhealthy state of workers and psychological strain, extended exposure to stress has been linked to almost every illness imaginable: heart disease, high-blood pressure, metabolism problems, colds, depression, obesity, memory problems and migraines (Jaffe-Gill et al. 2007). It all comes down to the biological response to stress, ‘Fight or Flight mechanism’, which prepares us for emergency. When in danger, the hypothalamus in the brain sets off a chemical alarm. The sympathetic nervous system responds by releasing a flow of stress hormones, including adrenaline, nor epinephrine, and cortisol, which race through the bloodstream, preparing us to either escape the scene or battle it out. However, the more the stress response it’s activated, the harder it is to shut off which causes the stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure to remain elevated even after the crisis has passed. In addition, continuous activation of the stress response causes havoc on the body. This implies that workers who are continuously responding to stress are damaging their body; the stress response system will eventually become exhausted causing the immune system to break down, thus making it easier for various illnesses to attack the body. Consequently, this will have enormous effect on the individual, leading to reduced performance in every domain of their life, in particular work. Not to mention the number of increased absence from work that will affect the organization, financially as well as performance wise.
In the December 2008 issue of Glamour Magazine, there was a very interesting article about the consequences of stressful life situations. Research shows that women are more prone to negative effects of stress as they tend to be more emotionally tuned in than guys. Women seem to stress more over a problem, they keep thinking about it over and over in their head. The stress caused by a bad day at work is an example of what experts call acute stress, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, but it is temporary and therefore it is harmful as such. It only leads to a tiring day as it burns up a lot of energy. However, when every day at work is a bad day, the acute stress turns into chronic stress, which could cause a lot of damage to your body. As mentioned before, this leads to the fight-or flight response being constantly activated and thus causing strain on the body which in turn can lead to stress-related illnesses. All body systems are affected by this. Recent British research found that while stress doesn’t necessarily cause cancer, women that have high-pressure jobs had at least a 20% higher risk of breast cancer than those with less job strain. Research also shows that we are getting more stressed with each decade.
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In a report that looked at the incidence of work-related stress and mental ill-health in the United Kingdom (1996-2001), an estimated annual average of 3624 new cases were reported by psychiatrists (reported higher rates for men), and 2718 by occupational physicians (reported higher rates for women). Anxiety/depression or work-related stress were mainly diagnosed, and post-traumatic stress accounted for ~10% of cases reported by psychiatrists. Inherent to the job factors (for instance work overload) and interpersonal relations problems were generally the most common causes. Nevertheless, those in personal and protective services and professional workers also showed high rates of ill-health (Cherry et al. 2006). Managing mental ill-health requires the adaptation of the workplace to meet legitimate expectations and capacities of the worker, as well as the adaptation of the worker to increase his/her capacity to cope with work demands, through training and cognitive therapy. Therefore to be able to do this, workers and managers need to collaborate together in order to ensure that both parties know what is expected, thus stress levels reduced.
In collaboration with stress management professionals, the Health and Safety Executive has developed the Management Standards approach to reduce levels of work-related stress. This approach displays good practice through risk assessment, allows for the current situation to be measured using various data-collection techniques, and encourages active discussion with employees to help decide upon the practical improvements that can be made (HSE, 2005). This was developed after figures of stress have risen to 1 in 5 people finding work very or extremely stressful. The Management Standards include six key areas of work, which if not properly managed, can cause poor health, lower productivity and increased sickness absence. These primary sources of stress at work are: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. As the main causes of stress are now well-known, managers can work with employees to find solutions in order to reduce stress at work, unlike in the past that modest attempts were made to deal with them. This approach will be excellent news for organizations if followed and applied in the right manner, as well as good news for the worker as hopefully, stress levels will be reduced.
One huge factor that has lead to the development of such an approach is the financial cost that work-related stress incurs on the organisation and the society. Stress is the single largest cause of occupational ill-health in the public sector, accounting for around half of all days lost to work-related ill health. In financial terms the estimated cost of sickness absence to the UK as a whole is around £12 billion a year, and around £4 billion of this has been attributed to the Public Sector (HSE, 2006). Each case of stress-related ill health leads to an average of 29 working days lost. A total of 13.4 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2001. Work-related stress cost society £3.7 billion a year in 1995, a figure which has undoubtedly risen in 2008, as stress levels have undeniably soared considering the sharp fall of house prices, cut of interest rates and the loss of numerous job posts due to the current economic climate (HSE, 2005). The cost factor has great implications for organisations as they are spending ‘unnecessary’ money which could instead be spent effectively to develop their business and create a less stressful work environment, rather than covering the costs of stress-related illnesses that workers seem to endure from working in a stressful work environment.
Stress is upsetting to the individual and detrimental to the business at a time when the need to control business costs and ensure an effective and healthy workforce is greater than ever (Mullins, 2002). Much of ill-health is associated with the discrepancy that is caused when changes in job demands exceed the worker capacities. Mental-ill health which arises from traumatic events at work can be avoided by employing good managerial techniques to tackle stress, and in the event of the occurrence, it should be dealt with promptly and effectively.
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