Getting a Handle on Workplace Stress
A healthy workplace promotes the total health and well-being of its employees and strives to protect them from psychological harm including stress. A recent white paper released by Morneau-Shepell and the Mental Health Commission of Canada reveals that more than a third (34%) of Canadians cite workplace stress as the primary cause of their mental health issue.
Like many other issues surrounding mental health, stress is often misunderstood or stigmatized. However, if it is treated as an organizational issue rather than an individual fault, stress can be just as manageable as any other workplace safety and health risk.
A psychologically healthy and safe workplace provides workers with work-life balance, reasonable job demands, value and respect, challenging work, opportunity for growth and development, and security. This can lead to a more enjoyable work environment, increased productivity, and happier workers who feel encouraged, supported and recognized for their efforts.
Recognizing Workplace Stress
There is no single cause of workplace stress. There are many factors within workplaces that can influence feelings of stress, including job design, a worker’s role in the organization, interpersonal work relationships, the workplace culture, management style, work-life imbalance, and working conditions. Family, financial, health and community issues from outside work can influence reactions to these workplace conditions. It is safe to say that every worker is affected by a variety of personal and workplace factors at any given time, and that mental health is managed on an ongoing, daily basis.
However, workers may experience stress when the demands of their job are excessive and greater than their capacity to cope with them. In addition to mental health problems, workers suffering from prolonged stress can go on to develop serious physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal problems.
The negative effects of stress in a workplace can include increased absenteeism and presenteeism (workers turning up for work when sick and unable to function effectively) and increased accident and injury rates. Absences tend to be longer than those arising from other causes and work-related stress may contribute to increased rates of early retirement. The cost to businesses and society can be substantial.
A positive psychosocial environment can enhance performance and personal development, as well as workers’ mental and physical well-being. In this supportive work environment workers' skills are appropriately matched with their job duties and they are motivated to perform to the best of their ability.
Good job design accommodates an employee's mental and physical abilities and can help minimize or control workplace stress. Jobs should be reasonably demanding and provide the employee with at least a minimum of variety of job tasks. Employees should be able to learn on the job and continue to learn as their career develops. Allowing for decision making can support employee development and independence. Recognition in the workplace is important and the employee should feel that their job has potential for development.
Tips from the Morneau-Shepell white paper include:
- Support the employee-manager relationship. Employees need to feel safe at work and have trust with their employer. Encouraging open conversations about mental health and reducing stigma can help to create a caring mental health culture.
- Training managers to understand and support employees with mental health problems and illnesses is both advantageous and proactive. Normalize mental health throughout your workforce. Supporting people to share their experiences can help break stigma and prevent negative attitudes and behaviours from flourishing.
- Use the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – the first of its kind in the world. It is a set of voluntary guidelines, tools and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work.
- Additional advice for employers:
- Treat all employees in a fair and respectful manner.
- Encourage open conversations about stress and mental health.
- Be aware of the signs and symptoms that a person may be having trouble coping with stress.
- Involve employees in decision-making and allow for their input directly or through committees, etc.
- Provide workplace health and wellness programs that target the true source of the stress. Survey employees to better understand their challenges.
- Incorporate stress prevention or positive mental health promotion in your policies and corporate mission statement.
- Provide workers with the training, skills and resources they need to be successful in their positions.
- Design jobs to allow for a balanced workload. Allow employees to have control over the tasks they do as much as possible.
- Value and recognize individuals' results and skills.
- Make sure job demands are reasonable by providing manageable deadlines, hours of work, and clear duties as well as work that is interesting and varied.
- Provide access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
Mental health is not merely the absence of illness, but a focus that needs to be embedded in all aspects of the workplace, from its everyday culture to its policies and programs.