Stress in the Workplace: It’s Time to Manage It

Published by Marshall & Gibson Lawyers on the 17 November 2014

Often when there is a consideration of workplace health and safety measures in Australia, people tend to think about ensuring a workplace where the possibility of physical injury is minimised. However, what is often missed in thought is the duty of an employer and an employee to manage stress at the workplace.

Workplace stress in Australia is a very real and significant issue. In November 2013, ABC reported that stress-related absences from work were costing  Australian employers around $30 billion per year. Stress does in fact affects a person’s physical health as well as their mental health, and the employee then needs to take time off work. This affects the productivity of a business, which may then add to the stress of the rest of team members picking up the extra work. It may also add stress to the employer.

In a workforce where there is perhaps a high level of job demand but a low level of resources, this can create an environment conducive to prolonged high levels of stress among workers. Over a period of time, this stress can and will impact on the physical health of an individual.

If stress in the workplace is managed, then this in turn makes for happier, healthier employees, which can only increase morale and productivity.

What does stress do the body?

When a person is placed in an environment which causes mental stress, it disrupts the body’s ordinary processes. If you think about a time when you may have stressed at the thought of a job interview, or stressed after hitting a motor vehicle, you’ll remember that your heart rate rose. Cortisol is released, and energy usually put toward the immune system is diverted to other areas of the body to manage the change in the body’s physical environment. Your reaction at that time helps you to manage the incident, and soon after when you are no longer stressed your body’s functioning returns to its ordinary processes.

However, in the workforce, if an individual is stressed, this physical change caused by the stress is not contained to an incident but rather prolonged over time. This can wear out the body’s key systems, causing major health problems. Stress can manifest itself physically in many forms:

  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Moodiness
  • It can cause stiffness, which could lead to an injury

What are the signs of stress?

An individual suffering from high levels of stress over prolonged period of times may withdraw themselves from the workplace. They may seem moodier or less co-operative as a team member, and the individual may be taking many days off.

Alternatively, the stress may be impacting on the employee’s ability to work efficiently and productively. Perhaps the worker displays an extreme reaction to a change in workplace environment, as this too is a sign of being stressed and unable to cope.

What can be done about it?

If more thought is given to the fact that stress is an aspect of workplace health and safety measures, this can be the first important step to reducing it.

Employers should either be on site to observe the workers or alternatively communicate with a supervisor who is on-site. Ongoing questions should be asked by the employer regarding individuals that may be displaying signs of mental stress.

It is important to encourage communication. The employer should demonstrate a willingness to hear from an employee, and provide a safe and secure solution. Job security should be openly discussed, and hopefully ensured by the employer when an employee raises concerns of workplace stress. A liaison that employees can discuss these matters with may be a useful protocol for encouraging communication.

Equally, employees need to communicate concerns about workplace demands or job resources early. The fear of losing one’s job often outweighs the cost of prolonged stress. However, if more employees communicate these concerns to employees then that employer will have to respond to those concerns.

Having a policy and procedure that is publicised around the workplace – regular email notifications or posters around the site – can also show that your business is aware of the impact of stress on your workers and is open to managing it. Perhaps having occasional seminars to discuss the impact of stress can educate and inform workers of what to look for within themselves.

Ultimately, everyone in the workforce should be alive to the impact of workplace stress on the body and the business. It is perhaps time to start managing workplace stress pre-emptively rather than reactively.