Killer Work Stress: Enough is Known for Action

Mark Sagor

drowningA new research study from Stanford University and the Harvard Business School has named workplace stress as a contributor to at least 120,000 deaths a year and up to $190 billion in health care costs.

120,000 mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and coworkers who die prematurely, in part, due to work environments that are allowed to remain toxic.

This disturbing number must be reckoned with by any employer attempting to improve the health of their employees and reduce healthcare costs.

The research examined the effects of the following common workplace stressors on employee health:

  1. No insurance
  2. Shift work
  3. Long hours
  4. Job insecurity
  5. Work family conflict
  6. Low job control
  7. High job demands
  8. Low social support
  9. Organizational injustice

With the exception of the first two items, this list matches up well with the comic themes portrayed so cannily by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. His satirical take on these stressors, and the absurdities of a corporate culture that makes them so prevalent, is hilarious.

But it’s gallows humor.

We would be outraged by 120,000 preventable employee deaths every year because of chemical poisoning, industrial accidents or other hazardous workplace conditions so why is the reaction so tepid to the deadly results of workplace stress?

Why aren’t businesses more determined to reduce the risks associated with workplace stress which extend well beyond the domain of health and safety into the arenas of productivity, quality, customer service, innovation, and profit?

These are not rhetorical questions.

To the contrary, these questions need to be answered because they lead to the heart of the problem.

I would like to suggest a couple of reasons why organizations are not consistent and diligent in combatting workplace stress:

  1. Employers are not certain about what they can do and how to be effective in reducing workplace stress. As a result, frontline managers receive inadequate training (or no training at all) on how to lead in a way that both minimizes employees’ stress burden and maximizes their engagement and motivation.
  2. The effects of workplace stress are cumulative and invisible unlike the impact of other occupational safety risks like accidents which are obvious and immediate. You have to do some homework (or accept the homework already done by researchers) to see the connections between workplace stress and health, safety and productivity.

These are complicated but not insurmountable obstacles and, borrowing a phrase from my good friend and Brandeis professor Andrew Hahn, “enough is known for action.”

Specifically, we know that we can reduce the effects of workplace stress by:

  1. Providing leadership training for frontline supervisors and managers. The best way to reduce workplace stress is to teach those leadership skills which promote respectful two way communication, conflict resolution, problem solving and team building. We should measure managers on how well they develop people in addition to how well they make their numbers.
  2. Taking a more integrated approach to wellness promotion in the workplace. Wellness advocates and coaches working to improve employee health should be working in tandem with health and safety, human resources, EAP and frontline management. Workplace stress is a health, safety and productivity issue and requires effective coordination between these traditionally siloed functions.

Yes, we have a lot more to learn about the causes and impact of workplace stress but enough is known for action.

Let’s use what we already know and begin reducing the risks of workplace stress to employee health, safety and productivity today.