The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines job stress as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury. Studies suggest that work stress may increase a person's risk for cardiovascular disease, psychological disorders, workplace injury, and other health problems. Early warning signs may include headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, job dissatisfaction, and low morale—but sometimes these clues are not apparent. Stressful working conditions also are associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, disability claims, and other factors that reduce a company's productivity and competitiveness.
Job Conditions Causing Stress
According to NIOSH, the following job conditions can lead to workplace stress:
• Poor design of job tasks (e.g., hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, or provide little sense of control).
• Poor organizational communication and lack of family-friendly policies.
• Poor social environment and lack of support or help from co-workers and supervisors.
• Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many "hats to wear."
• Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion.
• Rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.
• Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions, such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.
Signs of job stress include feeling worried, angry, irritable or depressed, having low morale or short temper, an inability to focus, and disturbed relationships with family and friends. Stress also affects the body. Physical signs of stress include headaches, back pain, problems sleeping, upset stomach, weight gain or loss, tense muscles, and frequent or more serious colds.
When stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of developing or worsening of chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders increases.
Tips for Preventing and Managing Stress
Preventing and managing chronic stress can help lower risk for serious conditions like heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. Companies can consider implementing the following measures to alleviate job stress:
• Ensure that the 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 communications—reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
• Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
• Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
Supervisors and managers can also play a role in reducing employee stress, by boosting employees' perceptions that management supports and values them. Supervisors and managers can help to reduce employee stress by:
• Setting the tone by treating employees with respect and valuing their contributions.
• Holding regular staff meetings to plan, problem-solve, recognize accomplishments, and promote staff cohesiveness.
• Clearly communicating the rationale behind procedural or supervisory changes and performance expectations.
• Creating a formal employee suggestion system and encouraging staff to contribute.
• Setting realistic deadlines. Supervisors can encourage greater employee participation in work scheduling to reduce unrealistic deadlines.
• Involving workers in decision-making.
• Resolving conflicts early and quickly. Your company can hold more frequent meetings between workers and managers to keep supervisors and workers updated on developing problems.
• Preparing workers for concrete tasks that they may perform through technical training.
• Acknowledging that work is often stressful and connecting staff to professional help if necessary.
• Promoting an atmosphere where attention to one's emotional state is acceptable and encouraged, rather than stigmatized or disregarded.
Employees can also take measures to reduce job stress. These include:
• Relaxation with deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. These exercises can clear the mind.
• Relaxing the muscles. Stress causes tension in the muscles. Employees can try stretching when sedentary for a long period of time, or taking a hot shower after work to help relax.
• Taking advantage of workplace physical activity programs. Regular physical activity can help prevent and manage stress and improve mood.
• Eating healthy workplace foods. Vegetables, fruits, and lean sources of protein are healthy choices.
• Talking to friends and family. Employees can tell friends and family if they are feeling stressed. Friends and family may be able to help.
• Getting help. Stress is a normal part of life. However, if stress does not go away, or keeps getting worse, an employee may need help. Over time, stress can lead to serious problems like depression, anxiety, or post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Employees who are feeling down or hopeless should talk to a doctor about depression.
- Employees who are feeling anxious should seek treatment for anxiety.
- Employees who have lived through a dangerous event can find out about treatment for PTSD.
- A mental health professional (such as a psychologist or psychiatrist) can help treat these conditions with talk therapy (called "psychotherapy") or medicines.
Stress Management in a Crisis
In the event of a workplace crisis, you, as a manager, can provide certain supports for workers to mitigate stress and help them effectively perform the tasks at hand.
Minimizing Stress During a Crisis
During a crisis, employees will look to managers for advice and instruction. Managers can do their part to minimize stress in a crisis by:
• Clearly defining individual roles and reevaluating them if the situation changes.
• Instituting briefings at each shift change that cover the current status of the work environment, safety procedures, and required safety equipment.
• Partnering inexperienced workers with experienced veterans. The buddy system is an effective method to provide support, monitor stress, and reinforce safety procedures.
• Requiring outreach personnel to enter the community in pairs.
• Rotating workers from high-stress to lower-stress functions.
• Initiating, encouraging, and monitoring work breaks, especially when casualties are involved. During lengthy events, implement longer breaks and days off, and curtail weekend work whenever possible.
• Establishing respite areas that visually separate workers from the scene and the public. At longer operations, establish an area where responders can shower, eat, change clothes, and sleep.
• Implementing flexible schedules for workers who are directly affected by an event. This can help workers balance home and job responsibilities.
• Reducing noise as much as possible by providing earplugs, noise mufflers, or telephone headsets.
• Mitigating the effects of extreme temperatures through the use of protective clothing, proper hydration, and frequent breaks.
• Ensuring that lighting is sufficient, adjustable, and in good working order.
• Lessening the effect of odors and tastes, and protecting workers' breathing by supplying facemasks and respirators.
• Providing security for staff at facilities or sites in dangerous areas, including escorts for workers going to and from their vehicles.
• Providing mobile phones for workers in dangerous environments and ensuring that staff know who to call when problems arise.
Minimizing Stress After a Crisis
The ending of a disaster assignment, whether it involved immediate response or long-term recovery work, can be a period of mixed emotions for workers. Though there may be some relief that the disaster operation is ending, there is often a sense of loss and "letdown," with some difficulty making the transition back into family life and the regular job. The following are action steps that can help ease the disengagement and transition process for workers after a crisis:
• Allow time off for workers who have experienced personal trauma or loss. Transition these individuals back into the organization by initially assigning them to less-demanding jobs.
• Develop protocols to provide workers with stigma-free counseling so that workers can address the emotional aspects of their experience.
• Institute exit interviews and/or seminars to help workers put their experiences in perspective and to validate what they have seen, done, thought, and felt.
• Provide educational services or workshops around stress management and self-care.
• Offer group self-care activities and acknowledgments.