Stress - A Mutual Responsibility
With workplace stress and mental health issues on the rise is it incumbent on organizations wishing to have long term success to consider the very real impacts on their employees, and the impact on the bottom line, as well as the part they can play in decreasing stress and helping employees build resiliency in stressful situations.
The American Psychiatric Association found that 61% of employees say they suffer from workplace stress, and it estimates the associated health care costs at $190 billion annually. In Canada, workplace stress is a top cause of mental health issues (34%). Beyond the health care costs and associated increasing health benefit costs, there is also a cost of absenteeism, decreased productivity, and turnover that are borne by employers. The World Economic Forum estimates burnout (resulting from chronic workplace stress) has a global price tag of $322 billion. Clearly workplace stress is not a trivial issue and should not be ignored. In general terms, most people can manage a reasonable amount of stress on a periodic basis. We are physiologically wired with a flight or flight response when faced with stressful situations. But what happens when that flight or fight response is not given a chance to subside? When the stress is sustained and prolonged? Humans simply aren’t designed to continue to cope in flight or fight mode on a consistent and prolonged basis.
Long term stress can impact individuals in many ways including: cardiovascular disorders, mental health issues, gastrointestinal disorders, weakened immune system, musculoskeletal disorders and can also increase the risk of accidents.
But where does the responsibility lie? Is it the worker or the employer that is ultimately responsible? The answer is likely a little of both. Employees are arguably in the best position to take care of their own mental and physical health and can benefit from focusing on resiliency and positive coping mechanisms in order to manage workplace stress. However, employers also have a significant part to play, in not only helping educate their employees on resources and supports available, but the responsibility goes beyond that.
Jobs can be structured in a way that helps to reduce stress. Jobs with high demands and low control as well as those requiring high effort and little reward are known to increase levels of workplace stress. Employers should be mindful of these trends and modify the work environment to the greatest extent possible to provide employees with more control over their work and to foster a work environment that builds rewards and recognition into the fabric of the workplace. Being aware of employee workloads and allocating it in a balanced and equitable manner is also a challenge that employers are advised to undertake. For many of us it is a force of habit: when you want something done quickly and done well who do you go to? We tend to go to those the high performers over and over again. This can lead to a hyper-utilization of high performers while other employees are under-utilized and the high performers burning out.
Employers also need to consider the role they need to play in encouraging healthy behaviours and not overtly or inadvertently encouraging bad behaviours by rewarding employees that put the work first at all costs, especially personal health. Employees that work extended hours for weeks on end without breaks and who habitually have lots of unused vacation days can be a recipe for disaster even if the signs of stress may not yet be evident.
When employers reward workers that neglect their own personal health and well-being they are contributing to the problem. Leaders that exhibit a lack of boundaries create employees that emulate the same poor behaviours and the cycle continues to become worse. The adage of doing more with less resources is inherently a recipe for disaster regarding workplace stress and burnout.
There is a delicate balance when it comes to workplace stress and burnout and ultimately, like many health & safety matters, it is a joint responsibility between an employer and employee.
1. Jan Bruce, Forbes, “It’s Official: Burnout is a Global Profit Vampire”, June 6, 2019
2. The Mental Health Experience in Canada’s Workplace survey March 2017, the Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell
3. Jan Bruce, Forbes, “It’s Official: Burnout is a Global Profit Vampire”, June 6, 2019