Stress is a risk factor for basically every ailment you can think of - from life-threatening conditions like atherosclerosis all the way down the benign and seemingly unrelated conditions like athlete’s foot (no, really).

"Stress" is a catch-all term for various types of social pressure, setting, time constraint, expectation, conflict… the list goes on. All of these factors, which might be roughly captured as someone’s situation, coalesce into a stress level that impacts our interactions, our work, and our daily life.

With such a roomy definition, it's easy to see why it’s hard to pin stress down and take action against it in the workplace.

Perceiving Stress

Everyone experiences stress in their own way. Perception plays a vital role in the weight of each stress factor, which is informed by experience and is necessarily individual.

(Learn about Managing Employee Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents)

There are proxy physiological markers for stress, such as levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in the body, hypertension, and gut function. However, metrics like these tend not to be monitored until someone is already receiving medical attention for stress – in which case it has already caused problems. It’s worth attempting to address sources of stress well before this happens.

In everyday life, we sometimes don’t acknowledge stress until there’s some objectively accepted reason for it, like a death in the family or going through a divorce. The “Rahe Stress Scale” attempts to quantify these stressful events by assigning a number score to them (in a way that should probably be taken with a grain of salt).

In reality, stress can accumulate from many small sources, or spring from no clear source whatsoever. As an experience, it is purely personal. Because of that, it’s important to acknowledge people’s stress as they experience it, and do away with the idea that there are qualifying stressful events. That thinking contributes to the perception that some people aren’t entitled to their stress because they make more money or have a seemingly “easy” role in an organization. This may actually aggravate their stress by encouraging them to hide it until it becomes a major problem.

Even if we acknowledge that everyone has a certain level of stress, it is not always outwardly obvious. It’s often the co-morbid companions of stress that get noticed. When workers are under pressure, they are prone to poor sleep, distraction, and substance abuse – all of which eventually become apparent and workers have to be monitored for signs.

Cumulatively, workplaces try to capture all of these factors under “fit for duty” programs, which range from a simple form acknowledgement to apps that test performance in a game against a baseline. The point is to assess reaction time, focus and working memory believing that these can be taken together as a measure of cognitive readiness. At least it may raise a red flag if there is a sudden dip in performance for any reason, which can be further assessed.

(Find out How to Reduce and Manage Workplace Stress)

Stress as a Root Cause of Hazards

Measures like these have value but fall short of addressing root causes. The work situation itself may be the source of stress, with some studies finding nearly half of reported stressors relate to a person’s job.

The good news is that stress originating from work may be possible to control is proper assessment is done. Determining that workers are stressed is worthwhile; determining why is critical.

Some roles are inherently stressful, and it’s generally accepted that only certain individuals are suited to them. Level of responsibility, failure tolerance, work schedule, and the work environment all contribute to stress levels and may be inflexible aspects of doing a particular job.

A 9-1-1 Operator, for example, doesn’t have the luxury of making a mistake. This is the kind of factor that would be hard to address. On the other hand, a retail job may be just as stressful because the boss is a tyrant and the culture is toxic. Maybe the shift rotation at a manufacturing plant where workers screw together widgets is messing with people’s sleep and they become increasingly irritable over time. Some factors can be easily addressed and others can’t, the former should be the focus of corrective action.

If your workers are stressed, consider that some or all of the following might be creating that situation:

  • Insufficient staff levels to meet demands
  • Inadequate training for workers contributing to frequent errors and a persistent feeling of not knowing what they’re doing
  • Supervisors lacking training in conflict management
  • Inappropriate allotment of hours and shift rotation
  • Monotony and boredom
  • Environmental factors, such as excessive heat or cold, obnoxious odors, and cramped workspaces
  • Inappropriate calculation of deadlines and workloads

Each of the listed root causes have a fairly obvious mitigation, and they should be factored into the organization’s overall management strategy once they have been identified using standard investigation tools. Actively addressing the causes may help to prevent future negative impacts.

(See 9 Strategies to Promote Workplace Mental Health to learn more)

Individual workers may endure any or all of these factors in silence until an incident occurs, they become ill, or they simply leave the job for a better environment. At best, this is an overall risk to the organization because you’re failing to retain good workers. At its worse, it can contribute to poor worker health and an increase in incident rates.

Reducing Stress at Work Is Essential

There is an onus on management to provide a safe and healthy work environment – one free of uncontrolled hazards, including excessive stress.

If anyone in your organization dismisses this as coddling workers, it's worth reminding them of the overall effect stress can have on the bottom line. Fail to control workplace-induced stress and, given enough time, it will cost you.