occupational stress

Figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),  indicate that 26% of working adults were regularly burned out or stressed by the work they were doing. In addition to that, 29% of team members report being “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressed daily at work. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) found that 26% of the workers that they studied were stressed out by their jobs and a further 50% felt that the stressors they were being exposed to had become more intense compared to the previous year.

When we separate team members into high stress, moderate stress and low stress groups: high stress team members are more likely to have suffered from sickness that was either caused by, or made worse by, their working conditions over the previous 12 months. High stress teams share at least six of these qualities:

  • long work hours,
  • exposure to noise,
  • intense time pressure,
  • high skilled work,
  • requirement to act on initiative,
  • requirement to act on insufficient information,
  • expectation of multitasking,
  • high workload,
  • high responsibility,
  • infrequent and random interruptions,
  • over-time,
  • unfair treatment,
  • lack of respect from peers,
  • and lack of support.

As much as 30% of all work related sickness is attributable to stress. Workplace stress places a huge burden on an organisation and the prevalence of high stress workplaces has been accelerating over time.

In 2004 there was a study combining data from Germany, the UK, Belgium, France and Sweden and there was an interesting pattern that emerges as we look at the health of team members across these five countries. This research revealed that the higher a team member scored on the Effort Reward Imbalance Scale (ERIS), the more likely they were to be experiencing poor health. Reciprocity has a biological basis that is common across all social mammals and the neural structure that tracks reciprocity is over 6 million years old.

The Job Demand-Control (JDC) model and the ERIS model were used to study the well-being of 11,636 team members. What they discovered was that if an team member was experiencing high demand at their job, whether that was a psychological or a physical demand, and at the same time this worker had a low level of control over the job they were doing, then they would be at greater risk of psychosomatic and physical health issues, emotional exhaustion and overall job dissatisfaction.

Although self-determination and control over the day-to-day job is important to team members, it is not as important as receiving a fair reward for the amount of effort being put into the job. We see evidence of a high effort/low reward situation eliciting negative affect from a wide range of animals.

For example, researchers gave monkey A a piece of cucumber as a reward for completing a task and then gave monkey B, next to her, a grape as a reward for completing the same task. The researchers had monkey A complete the task again and tried to pay her with a cucumber again. She becomes extremely agitated, throws the cucumber at the researcher and rattles the bars of her cage, screaming. Analogous scenes are repeated in workplaces across the world.

Social health relates to disorders such as depression, anxiety, burnout, difficulty in decision-making, distress and difficulty in maintaining attention and focus. The social health factors that are relevant to an organisation:

  1. Effort-reward balance.
  2. Social support.
  3. Job strain.
  4. Decision latitude.
  5. Psychological demands.
  6. Job security.

In the past, the only physical effects that doctors associated with stress was peptic ulcers. But these ulcers were not caused by stress, they had bacterial origins. And that was the whole story for a long period of time. Then, scientists discovered that helicobacter pylori bacteria, the specific causal agent of peptic ulcers, is actually found in over 60% of the world population. Yet, peptic ulcers are only found in fewer than 10% of the population. Stress explains the difference.

It reminds me of my childhood confusion over the common cold. When I was a young child I was puzzled when I learned that cold-weather doesn’t cause colds. I would look around and notice that when the weather got cold, more people would have the common cold and flu. It made no sense to me as a child that the cold weather was not causing these symptoms. I would wonder, why is it that you see a greater number of people suffering from colds during the wintertime?

One day I learned about the temperature sensitive rhinovirus. It lives in your nose and is activated when the local temperature in that part of your body drops below 35°C. The nose is an extremity and so when the weather gets cold this is an area of your body that will frequently drop below the ideal core body temperature of 37°. This is why more people have colds in the winter, the cold provides more opportunity for the rhinovirus to proliferate.

During the stress reaction the immune system is suppressed, this allows helicobacter pylori to take hold and cause peptic ulcers. Peptic ulcers are not caused by stress, they are the result of a dormant bacteria taking advantage of a suppressed immune system. The immune system is like insurance, you only notice it when it fails to cover you, there’s no ongoing recognition of the maladies it keeps at bay. This recognition comes during periods of chronic stress as unconnected health problems seem to appear in escalating sequence.