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The Devastating Effects of Stress

The negative effects of stress impact everyone, and are costing your district money.

Every day, more than one million workers stay home sick due to work-related stress. Many of them may have the ‘blue flu,’ a general feeling of burnout and malaise. Others may have contracted actual communicable disease because their immune system was weakened by stress. More still may have suffered physical impairments like muscle strains due to chronic stress and tension. No matter the cause, the effects on workplace attendance, safety, and productivity are very real.

While stress can come as the result of a sudden trauma or incident, such as an accident, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, or bad diagnosis, it can also come from the routine responsibilities we all face. That’s key: everyone faces stress. It can come from financial hardships, family issues, personal matters, or even external sources such as political or social issues. However the leading cause of stress among Americans today is work.

Long hours and strict deadlines have become common in many industries, especially those crunched by tight margins or narrow budgets. Paired with economic upheavals like the 2008 recession, this has created a tremendously stressed-out generation of Americans. We now work 164 hours more per week than twenty years ago, that’s an extra month of work2. This increase hasn’t come without a cost.

Hangry Judges

In her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Dr. Lisa Barrett explains that the body and mind are linked inextricably. She explains how a person’s judgement can be directly affected by their physical condition, whether they realize it or not. She cites studies that show that judges are significantly more likely to sentence offenders harshly if the hearing takes place right before lunch, when they are hungry.

Barrett’s data suggests that the judges’ behavior is impacted by their own hunger. While those judges may or may not be ‘stressed’ as we understand it, their bodies are experiencing a kind of stress and the result is an approach to their work that is more aggressive than baseline.

Barrett says that one way to avoid the negative affects of stress on your mood is to observe what she calls “the body budget.” Think of the way you budget money. You allocate resources to ensure that all expenditures are paid. To apply this concept to our bodies, you need to ensure that you aren’t overtaxing yourself throughout the course of your day. Prioritize healthy regular meals, exercise, sufficient sleep, and quality time with friends and family.

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Ensuring that your nutritional, physical, and social needs are met means that you have more bandwidth to focus on higher level tasks such as professional goals and responsibilities. It means you are far less likely to feel the physical ravages of stress, and therefore less likely to call in sick or injure yourself at work. You are also less likely to feel derivative emotional and intellectual effects which could dull your senses or make you prone to negative behavior.

While some may dismiss the effects of stress, its physical ramifications are not few, and can lead to very real health complications. These include cardiovascular disease, susceptibility to diabetes, reduced immune function, complications to reproductive systems, and more3.

Body and Mind

Stress is the body’s reaction to a difficult situation. In nature, an animal experiences stress and, as a result, releases hormones. This is usually due to lack of food, high levels of competition, or threats from predators. These scenarios are intense, but fleeting. Our bodies were not designed for the long term, chronic impacts of stress that we experience today.

Common physical complaints include headaches, muscle fatigue, blurred vision, carpal tunnel, repetitive stress injuries, and back pain. Imagine the number of safety incidents that become more prevalent when someone comes to work impacted by several, if not all, of those conditions.

Think about your own experience. Have you experienced any of those physical ailments in the last year? Is it possible that some of those issues were rooted, at least in part, in chronic stress? Some studies have even shown that workers’ compensation claims have been increasing as a direct result of heightened stress.

A study done at the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health analyzed 16,926 employees at 314 companies found that stress had a direct impact on the number of claims. This study was broad. It included small, medium, and large entities in numerous sectors and industries. It also found that stress heavily influenced the severity of the injuries, and therefore the cost of each claim4.

Natalie Schwatka, a professor and researcher on the study, told Risk & Insurance Magazine, “Stress at work is predictive of workplace accidents—if you want to prevent workers’ comp claims, you need to look at the causes of stress in the work environment.”5 They found that work-related stress exceeded home and financial stressors in creating negative outcomes in health and work safety. Some workers’ compensation companies have even begun addressing stress as part of their early return to work programs.

The Stigma of Stress

A large percentage of Americans, 72 percent in one survey, indicated that stress and anxiety interfere with their lives. Thirty percent said they took medication to cope with those problems, and 28 percent said they had experienced an anxiety or panic attack. Of those people, only nine percent said they had actually been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder6.

Natalie Schwatka, a professor and researcher on the study, told Risk & Insurance Magazine, “Stress at work is predictive of workplace accidents—if you want to prevent workers’ comp claims, you need to look at the causes of stress on your district’s stress and culture. Think about how having a more compassionate approach to deadlines, stress levels, and work/life balance could help your employees to feel less trapped. Even if hard deadlines are not something that can be avoided, how could you be more approachable as a manager?

The Money Angle

Set aside for the moment that focusing on the mental and physical wellbeing of your employees is the ethically and morally right thing to do, it is also the financially right thing to do.

Those million absences per day that we mentioned cost employers about $300 billion a year in lost business, health care costs, and missed work7. Additionally, those unhappy workers, even if they are at work, are about 10 percent less productive than they otherwise would be8.

None of those considerations account for the increased likelihood of on-the-job injuries that may occur. Those things, as we know, can be tremendously expensive. We applied Natalie Schwatka’s study results to the Pool’s claims experience. If we reduced the number of stress-related workers’ compensation claims by even just half, it would save the Pool nearly two hundred thousand dollars a year. In the grand scheme, that isn’t a lot of money. But it represents a lot of spending and suffering that was totally avoidable.

Finding Equilibrium for your Employees

The damaging effects of stress to our bodies, our minds, and our budgets are pretty clear. Therefore reducing stress should be a goal for employers and employees alike. Here are some tips for helping reduce stress for your staff.

Tip #1: Communicate

Most managers will tell you they already communicate with their staff a lot, and do so very well, thank you. But very often, managers are experts in their field of work, and it can be difficult for experts to communicate with novices clearly. An expert has years, in some cases decades, of experience and knowledge that contribute to how they send out and receive messages. Novices don’t have that.

Going forward, try to communicate clearly. Set crystal clear goals for your employees. If you find that they are confused or not responding how you’d like, try breaking up the goal into microgoals. If “Bake a Cake” is too vague, break it into three to five smaller goals. “Gather these ingredients, assemble them in this way, bake them for a period of time.”

Tip #$2: Encourage Breaks

Break and meal periods are critical parts of improving stress at work. They are also very useful in helping with positive health outcomes, provided those breaks involve a minimum of snacks and cigarettes. For employees with sedentary jobs, anyone behind a desk, make sure they get a chance to move around every hour or so. More than that, encourage them to. For employees with more active jobs, encourage them to take an appropriate number of breaks to rest and stretch.

Tip #3: Be Flexible

Not every workplace has the luxury of setting flexible schedules. Fires and medical emergencies don’t occur at times convenient for firefighters’ biological clocks. But when possible, try allowing alternative schedules, flex time, or telecommuting options for your employees. While this definitely works better with administrative workers, perhaps there are ways of scheduling shifts for non administrative workers to make it better for everyone. At the very least, it is worth a thought.

If you do offer telecommuting, be sure not to fall into this common trap. Employers frequently give telecommuting options to employees under the guise of improving work/life balance. But often, this shackles the employee with ‘mission creep.’ They are forced to work longer and longer hours, working from home during evenings and weekends in order to meet deadlines that would not have been expected in the past.

Tip #4: Recognition

Create a recognition program that can be used to remind your employees how valued they are. The recognition can be for doing a good job, a fast job, a safe job, or simply for their loyal service. This might seem to some like a “everyone gets a trophy” style of leadership. It isn’t. Your workplace shouldn’t be a competition. Your employees aren’t contestants vying for your affection and gratitude. If you want them to be committed, diligent workers, then treat them as such.

If you would like some help with this, let us know. We have a new program to help you recognize your employees for working safely.

Tip #5: Create a Safe Culture

When someone from the Pool talks about “safe culture,” there’s a good chance we are talking about peoples’ physical safety. That’s what we are talking about here, but not entirely. Make sure your workplace is one where everyone’s safety is important, in every way.

This means that no physically unsafe condition is tolerated, but also nothing that would be unsafe in other ways. For example, ensure that bullying is absolutely not tolerated. Ensure that your workplace is not hostile, and that no one’s performance is impeded by another person’s toxic behavior.

Lastly, ensure that the culture of your workplace is one where employees help one another, look out for each other, and recognize themselves as being members of a team. This translates into the realms of occupational safety as well as into those of emotional safety. Claims arising from a prejudicial or discriminatory workplace can be just as costly as those that come from a slippery floor.

Take this last tip seriously. In her study, Ms. Schwatka said, “Our findings strengthen the argument that businesses should address stress management as part of their safety programs and also focus on the systemic factors in their business that may cause stress, such as poor leadership, poor social support, lack of control over work demands, and lack of work/life balance.”

Unplugging Your Own Stress

Learning to change our mindset can be one of the best ways to handle work stress. Training your mind to focus on what you’ve done well during a work day can help you alleviate extreme stress. While this type of avoidance may not always be possible, there are some other things you can do to help decompress.

Consider unplugging at night. After a certain hour, preferrably at least two hours before bed time, set an unplug time. When that hour comes, turn off your phone, stop checking email, and try not to think about work. This lets your mind have some time to slow down, making it easier for you to get to sleep.

Think about ending all screen time at that point as well. While many people relax and fall asleep more easily after watching television, the light and stimulation of computers, televisions, and video games can keep your brain awake for some time. Instead, try reading, listening to music, or doing some last minute preparations for the next day.

Mindfulness meditation is another easy way to help improve an employee’s mindset. A 2016 study found that meditation had major effects on minimizing stress levels. It had nearly the same effect as taking a vacation. “Results point to both a significant ‘vacation effect’ that benefitted all groups, and a suppression of stress-related responses and immune function related to acute-phase wound healing and inflammation.”9

There are plenty of resources in book stores and on the internet that can teach you about mindfulness meditations. But they are pretty simple. Here are instructions we adapted from the UCLA Health’s Mindful Awareness Research Center:10

  1. Sit in a comfortable position, in a chair or on the floor. Make sure you are comfortable and stable.
  2. Keep your back straight, but not stiff. Pay attention to the feeling in your spine, and the positions of your hands, feet, arms, and legs.
  3. Angle your chin down slightly, and close your eyes at least part way.
  4. Relax for a few moments, focusing only on the sensations coming from your body.
  5. Breath in and out, slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs, and then exit.
  6. Try to stay in this position and focus on these things for 5 to 10 minutes.
  7. If your mind wanders, which it will, simply return to the meditation. Don’t feel bad, don’t judge yourself, and don’t fret about whatever enters your mind.

Meditation takes practice, and it isn’t for everyone. But it has enough real science behind it that it’s a common reccomendation for stress management.

In one study, Dr. Sara Smith found that mindfulness meditation significantly improved nurses’ stress levels by decreasing anxiety, improving focus, improving memory, and improving mood11.

Taking Time Off

At the end of the day, stress is part of modern life. It seems like we are often judged by how well we handle stressful situations. Engaging in mindfulness, taking vacations, managing your health, creating positive atmospheres all contribute to your ability to navigate a stressful event. That makes these things a vital part of your work, and a vital part of risk management.

Sometimes managers and supervisors can be the worst workaholics. If you find yourself neglecting breaks and vacation time, that could be a red flag for your own health, and that you may be setting a bad example for those around you.

Those rest periods are essential to your health and to keeping yourself performing at your peak. So take a few minutes, take a deep breath, and take a break. You’ve earned it.

Sources:
1. https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/
2. https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/7-surprising-facts-about-workplace-stress.html
3. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
4. http://oem.bmj.com/content/74/1/14.short
5. http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/About/news/Pages/Newsroom.aspx?&newsid=900
6. https://adaa.org/workplace-stress-anxiety-disorders-survey
7. https://workplacepsychology.net/2016/07/04/cost-of-stress-on-the-u-s-economy-is-300-billion-says-who/
8. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jul/11/happy-workers-are-more-productive
9. https://www.nature.com/articles/tp2016164
10. http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations
11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24612607

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