Stress on the job can impact workplace safety

Workplace stress can contribute to higher accident rates.

Workplace stress can contribute to higher accident rates.

Many people experience stress on the job at some point in their careers. However, the problem may be more pervasive and dangerous than some employers realize.

According to a recent poll from NPR News, 43 percent of working adults say their job negatively impacts their stress levels, eating and sleeping habits and weight. While the poll found 25 percent of workers surveyed said their employers offer health or wellness programs in the workplace, 40 percent said the programs were "fair" or "poor."

Additionally, 22 percent of participants said something at their job was harmful to their health, including chemicals and contaminants. This number was higher for construction workers, with 43 percent saying they had health concerns about their workplace. Construction and outdoor workers were also the second highest ranking group for reporting negative impacts of stress in the workplace on their personal health.

The study concluded many workers experience higher levels of stress due to being overworked. This may include working long shifts, overtime and not taking vacation or paid time off even when available. Many workers also work when feeling ill even when they have sick days available. In these instances, 28 percent of workers said they work when sick because there is not enough staff to cover for them when they are absent from work.

How stress impacts safety
According to  Safety + Health magazine, stress can also contribute to an increase in workplace accidents. Speaking with the magazine, Dr. David Spiegel, medical director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, said there is a direct correlation between an increase in worker stress and an increase in workplace accidents.

"It's very clear that a big proportion of safety problems are due to human error, and some of that is related to stress," Spiegel said.

Safety + Health magazine reported some of this can be related to stress coping mechanisms – such as alcohol or medication, which even when not consumed during work hours, can impact worker health or reaction time. However, stress can also contribute to distraction. A stressed worker is more likely to be thinking about his or her stress source and be less focused on the task at hand, the magazine noted. Poor attention can lead to accidents and injury.

Other job stressors that can lead to fatigue and inattention, and correspondingly accidents and injury, include excessive workload, fear of being laid off, unreasonable performance demands and infrequent breaks.

How employers can address workplace stress
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers training resources for employers to help them recognize worker stress and address the issue. When analyzing the work site for common stress sources, NIOSH advises employers to look to:

  • The design of tasks: Including heavy workload, infrequent breaks, hectic routines or long hours
  • Management style: Such as poor communication, unrealistic expectation and disrespect for workers' families or personal lives
  • Interpersonal relationships: Workers should not experience harassment or isolation in the workplace
  • Work roles: Including conflicting, unclear or unrealistic job expectations or responsibilities
  • Career concerns: Job insecurity, poor training, and lack of career growth can all contribute to stress

Safety + Health added there are many warning signs of stress on the job that employers should not ignore, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Low morale
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Changes in  appetite
  • Frequent headaches
  • Fighting in the workplace
  • Difficulty concentrating

Not addressing stress early can be costly for both employer and employees. NIOSH found the long-term impacts of stress can lead to increased incidents of cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders and impaired immune systems. For employers, stress even in the short term can affect health care cost and employee retention and absenteeism. NIOSH noted workers who had to take leave for stress-related issues needed an average of 20 days off before returning to the job.

NIOSH encourages employers to reduce workplace stress by creating recognition systems to reward employees for good work performance. Opportunities for career development and advancement and managerial actions that are consistent with organizational values also help to lower workplace stress.

Employers can also enact administrative controls such as reducing shift length or physical demands of tasks. Stress management and other wellness programs can also be introduced to help workers cope with stress sources. NIOSH also advised employers to be flexible in work hours and tasks when workers have responsibilities or other factors in their personal lives that are creating stress.