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Stress in the Workplace

What is Stress? 

Stress in the workplace could be defined as a subjective interpretation by workers as to what they perceive as an inability to cope with work demands. 

The amount of stress determines whether a person will be challenged toward greater performance or become overwhelmed and buckle under pressure. Unfortunately, there is no set level of stress that is able to predict when performance is enhanced and when performance is adversely affected resulting from what is perceived as a threatening situation. Reactions to stress are a function of each person’s psychological makeup and vary from individual to individual. 

Why is it Important? 

It is important for employers to understand sources of stress in the workplace and how to assess these levels. By being able to maintain optimum levels of stress workers are motivated to perform to their fullest capabilities. When workers perceive that work demands exceed their capacity for effective performance then “distress” develops. These feelings of distress bring on a myriad of emotional responses that have adverse consequences on work performance and possibly the health of the worker.

What are the Physiological Reactions to Stress? 

Hans Selye began pioneering work on stress as a clinical entity in the 1930s. Animal research indicated that when animals were under stress their brains caused the adrenal glands to secrete hormones called catecholamines (adrenalin and noradrenalin). Levels of these hormones could be detected in the urine depending on the level of stress. These hormones were referred to as performance hormones because they served to put the animal in a state of heightened awareness or alertness.  

The effect of these hormones is to stimulate the alertness center of the brain known as the reticular activating system. This system can also be stimulated by incoming sensory stimuli such as the sudden sight of something perceived as dangerous. It is also regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. In nature this mechanism is viewed as adaptive and functions to protect the animal in time of danger. It is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight response.” The effect on the body is an increase in heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, an increase in blood sugar and an increase in metabolism. These physiological responses also adapt the body for work and for that reason the process creates a state referred to as an “ergotropic setting.”  

In humans, however, stress is frequently considered by psychologists to be a maladaptive response to circumstances misperceived as dangerous. As opposed to episodic stress, which may be lifesaving, frequent or long-lasting emotional reactions to stress commonly cause disturbances in the gastrointestinal or cardiovascular systems. In the end the body may manifest this prolonged stress in the form of psychosomatic disease (ulcers, asthma etc.). 

What are the Causes of Stress in the Workplace? 

There are a number of conditions in the workplace that are potential sources of stress. Studies have indicated that a lack of job control may lead to emotional stress on the part of the worker. Job control factors include the employee's input in determining their own work routine. Stress is increased when there is a lack of support from fellow workers and supervisors. Job content and workload excesses may create job "distress" and lead to job dissatisfaction. Deadlines also tend to be a source of stress. 

Anything that is a threat to job security will cause stress over the prospect of becoming unemployed. When a worker becomes overburdened with a sense of responsibility stress becomes intractable and the worker becomes susceptible to things like high blood pressure and ulcers. Anything in the immediate job environment that is counter to a productive work atmosphere can lead to stress. Such factors including excessive noise levels, uncomfortable temperatures and cramped conditions due to poor office layout are all factors that will affect performance. 

A high level of complexity in the job may cause the worker to feel incompetent and this will bring about feelings of stress. An ideal level of complexity brings a sense of challenge to the job and prevents boredom from setting in. Boredom frequently leads to job dissatisfaction. 

How Do We Reduce Stress in the Workplace? 

Stress has especially been a topic of concern in computer users in the last twenty years. Stress levels are especially significant in data-entry type positions especially when workers are introduced to new technology. New technology tends to be perceived as a source of increased workload. Once the workers become acclimated to computerized word-processing stress levels decrease. Computer-breakdowns are also a source of stress because they cause the workload to pile up.  

With the computer workers stress can be avoided by decreasing the frequency and duration of breakdowns and by redistributing the data-entry work to avoid some of the monotony that is inherent in the work.

The solutions to stress in the workplace are, in fact, central to the definition of ergonomics. Stress levels become minimized as the fit between worker and environment becomes more favorable. Managing work tasks through improved organization, more efficient workstation set-up and comfortable seating arrangements lead to increased efficiency, less stress and increased job satisfaction. 

1) Kroemer, D. H. E. and E. Grandjean. “Occupational Stress.” Fitting the Task to the Human:  A Textbook of Occupational Ergonomics. London: Taylor and Francis, 1997

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