Workplace stress and accident levels are closely related. Studies show that that workers distracted by stress are significantly more likely to be involved in accidents, and significantly more likely to report work-related injuries than other workers. And that leads to greater expenditures and lower profits for their employers.
Nationwide, the cost is massive: According to Mental Health America, workplace stress costs employers some $300 billion every year. Stress contributes to 550 million lost work days each year – and 8 out of every 10 workplace accidents can be attributed in some degree to stress.
Mental Health America also found that stressed employees have lower levels of employee engagement. Among these disengaged workers, a majority (65 percent) report spending between 31-50 hours a week distracted in their workplace. And 70 percent are thinking about and/or actively looking for a new job. Job stress may account for up to 50 percent of worker absences and 40 percent of all employee turnover.
Stress also has a direct negative effect on physical health. For example, stress causes the body to release pro-inflammatory chemicals like epinephrine and cortisol – the ‘stress hormones,’ that may contribute to tendon and joint conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, which can lead directly to workers compensation claims and lost productivity. Over time, stress is directly associated with high blood pressure, back and neck pain, migraines, heart attacks and strokes. Stress induced abdominal fat secretes chemicals that can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes.
As stress increases, workers are more likely to be thinking about their stressors than about the job at hand. High stress contributes to job disengagement, which leads in turn to higher turnover and to higher propensity for accidents. We noted in our other blog that high turnover is associated with higher accident rates as vacancies are filled by untrained and less experienced workers who are several times more likely to have accidents in their first 90 days on the job.
The American Psychological Association estimates that high stress levels lead to up to 50 percent more turnover. Meanwhile, disengaged workers were 49 percent more likely be involved in an accident than the average.
Employee engagement levels are directly correlated with workplace safety and injury rates. A 2016 Gallup study of 82,000 business units and 1.8 million employees in 230 organizations across 49 industries and in 73 countries found that organizations with employee engagement levels in the top quartile had 70 percent fewer safety incidents than organizations in the bottom quartile.
The International Labor Office has found that “of all the personal factors related to the causation of accidents, only one emerged as a common denominator: a high level of stress at the time the accident occurred.”
Workplace and Personal Stressors
Not all stress is directly related to the workplace. Workers can experience stress from all manner of circumstances. No matter how much effort an employer puts into mitigating or preventing unnecessary workplace stress, workers will still incur stress from personal circumstances:
- Relationship and family problems
- Medical issues
- Mental illness
- Financial problems
- Fear of losing one’s job/layoffs
- Legal problems
- Alcohol and addiction
Employers should not only consider strategies for eliminating/mitigating direct work-related stressor, but also maintain strategies to help deal with personal stress as well, which no employer can prevent.
Recognizing the Signs
Employers and first line supervisors should be alert to the symptoms of employee stress. These include:
- Increase in number and length of bathroom or smoke breaks
- Increase in mistakes/error levels
- Suicidal ideation/expressions of self-harm
What Employers Can Do
Keeping workplace stress at manageable levels takes constant vigilance by an engaged management team at all levels. At the field supervisory level, managers should pay careful heed to workloads and ensure they are distributed fairly, and in accordance with employees’ ability and experience levels. They should also eliminate improper discrimination and harassment and ensure the work environment does not become hostile or toxic.
At more senior levels, employers can help mitigate stress by supporting work-life balance initiatives such as telecommuting and work-from-home opportunities. Employers can also provide access to an employee assistance program (EAP). Benefits directors can look for ways to boost mental health coverage for workers, so that they don’t put off getting needed help and are able to get any counseling and medication they need to reduce stress.
Lastly, leaders at all levels should look for ways to build teams and provide employees experiences to help them form bonds among themselves, such as via retreats, team building exercises and other social events. This will help create a social support system that will help employees a great deal in ways management may never hear about.