The management of workplace stress

In the context of a burgeoning economy and the growing influence of "Americanised" work cultures and practices in a number of workplaces, stress at work has increased in Ireland in recent years. The management of workplace stress is thus an important contemporary issue in 2001. Recent research indicates that deficiencies in the management and organisation of work are the main causes of stress at work, and that workplace stress may have a number of negative consequences for workers and employers, including: physical and mental illness; chronic absenteeism; increased labour turnover; and reduced morale, motivation and productivity.

While Ireland's much-vaunted "Celtic Tiger" economy continues to generate strong economic growth and reductions in unemployment, a number of negative aspects are evident in an increasingly frenetic economic climate. One of these is that there is increased evidence of workplace stress, particularly as the pressures of balancing work and outside responsibilities have intensified in recent times. Significantly, an increasing number of Irish workplaces appear to be following a similar trend to, or are influenced by, US models of workplace employment practice and attitudes to work culture. In certain instances, this has meant longer working hours, a culture of "workaholism", and a lack of "work-life balance" (IE0009155F); all of which often promote workplace stress. As such, the management of workplace stress is an important contemporary issue. Workplace stress can be defined as being experienced when "the demands from the work environment exceed the employees' ability to cope with them" ("Identifying organisational hazards that cause stress", J Armstrong, Industrial Relations News 33, September 2000).

Causes of workplace stress

Stress may be related to personal attributes and individual circumstances outside the workplace, such as family and relationship problems. However, three recent studies sponsored respectively by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Third European survey on working conditions, 2001 - EU0101292F), the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work ("Research on work-related stress", T Cox, A Griffiths and E Rial-Gonzalez, April 2000), and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ("Workplace stress in Ireland", J Armstrong, 2001) conclude that the main causes of workplace stress are related to deficiencies in the design and management of work. Some of the main findings from these three studies are compiled below. With regard to the causes of stress, they identify the following factors.

  • Training and career development. A failure to provide employees with opportunities for career development, and adequate training to enhance their employability, may promote stress.
  • Failure to provide workers with significant autonomy and control over their day-to-day work tasks can promote stress. Trusting workers and "empowering" them to make decisions is more likely to promote a positive response than if management attempts to control everything.
  • Work intensification, long hours, and tight deadlines. Workers may become stressed when they feel they have no control over work pace, they work excessive hours, or they are under significant pressure to meet deadlines.
  • Poorly defined and designed work roles and tasks may cause stress. Clearly defined work roles, and variation in work tasks within work roles, are likely to alleviate stress.
  • Irregular work schedules. Unpredictable work schedules, particularly frequent changes in shiftworking, may cause stress.
  • Workers in insecure, "casualised" forms of employment are more likely to suffer stress.
  • Poor work environment. Physical features of the work environment, such as poorly designed workspace and poor ventilation, may promote stress.
  • An inadequate work-life balance. The failure to accommodate workers' interests and responsibilities outside the workplace is a significant cause of stress.
  • Insufficient staffing levels.
  • Exposure to workplace restructuring and "rationalisation".
  • Unhealthy interpersonal relationships. Worker's who are bullied, harassed or isolated, and who do not feel supported by managers or colleagues, may experience stress.

Consequences of workplace stress

The three studies conclude that workplace stress may have a number of negative consequences for both workers and employers, as follows.

  • Workers may abuse alcohol and drugs, and be more prone to accidents and physical and mental illness.
  • Workplace stress is increasingly an issue for litigation, which can entail significant costs.
  • Workplace stress causes millions of working days to be lost through "absenteeism" each year, which represents a significant cost to employers. Far more days are lost through workplace stress than through industrial action, a fact that is frequently overlooked.
  • Stress may promote higher labour turnover, and employers may have difficulty retaining staff.
  • Stress may cause workers to lose morale and become less motivated and committed, which may result in lower productivity.
  • Stress may promote increased industrial relations problems.

Preventing and eliminating workplace stress

So what can be done to prevent and eliminate workplace stress? Some organisations have introduced various stress reduction programmes, such as courses in yoga, to tackle stress. However, these programmes may only go a certain distance in tackling stress because, although they may be useful for addressing the outcomes of stress, they do not address the causes. In other words, they are reactive rather than preventative. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work study cited above concludes that new approaches to the organisation and management of work would appear to be required, in order to prevent and eliminate stress. These include:

  • designing stimulating jobs that provide workers with variety and allow them to use their creativity and skill. This may incorporate various forms of job rotation and job enrichment;
  • reducing close management control and providing workers with greater autonomy over their own work, and involving them in decisions that affect their jobs;
  • consulting and communicating openly with workers at different levels on a regular basis;
  • making sure that workers have some prospect of career development and providing them with adequate training;
  • making sure that workers have an adequate balance between their work responsibilities and their interests and responsibilities outside work. "Employee-friendly" flexible forms of working are likely to be important here, as are childcare provisions;
  • managing and organising work in a coherent and competent manner, so that workers have clear roles and know what is expected of them;
  • organising work to allow workers to interact with their peers; and
  • making sure that work pressure is not too intense, allowing workers to control the pace at which they work, and avoiding setting unrealistic deadlines and targets.

Commentary

As Ireland's booming economy continues to generate strong levels of growth and prosperity, many politicians and business leaders appear to be increasingly attracted to the free market "US model" of economic and workplace governance. Critics of the US model state, however, that it promotes negative outcomes, such as: wide discrepancies between "winners" and "losers" and "rich" and "poor"; limited worker protection against unscrupulous employers; a "long hours" work culture; work intensification; and workplace stress. It is certainly the case that certain aspects of the US model have permeated into Irish society in recent years, and the impact has not been wholly positive. For instance, workplace stress has intensified in a number of Irish workplaces.

The main causes of workplace stress appear to be linked to deficiencies in the management and organisation of work, and to too little attention being paid to the interests and rights of workers. In particular, many workers are currently finding it difficult to juggle the balance between the demands of work and their life outside the workplace. Many of the causes of workplace stress are linked to violations of the so-called "psychological contract" between employers and individual workers. The "psychological contract" is implicit and incorporates a number of reciprocal expectations and obligations that may develop between employers and workers in a particular workplace. Perceived employer violations of the "psychological contract" may promote workplace stress, which, in turn, may have a number of detrimental consequences for both workers and employers, including: accidents and illness; chronic absenteeism; increased labour turnover; reduced commitment, morale and motivation; and lower productivity (Tony Dobbins, CEROP, UCD).

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