Tired and stressed employees can have accidents and injuries.
By Alexandra Walsh
Living and working in a fast-paced world with high customer demands can make fatigue and stress common and normal in the modern workplace.
Achieving a healthy, low-stress work environment is possible. Regularly reminding employees of the common causes of work stress and fatigue and the implications for their mental and physical well-being is a strategic place to start.
What Is Workplace Stress?
Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between the demands of a job and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands. In general, the combination of high demands in a job and a low amount of control over the situation can lead to stress.
Some stress is okay (sometimes referred to as “challenge” or “positive stress”), but when stress occurs in amounts that you cannot handle, both mental and physical changes may occur.
Causes of Worker Fatigue
Several factors can cause fatigue. Most notably among them is too little, poor quality, or interrupted sleep over a period of time. Fatigue is the body’s signal that a rest period is needed.
Long work hours and extended or irregular shifts may be stressful physically, mentally, and emotionally. The body operates on a circadian rhythm sleep/wake cycle. It is naturally programmed for sleeping during the night. Demanding work schedules may disrupt the body’s natural cycle, leading to increased fatigue, stress, and lack of concentration.
Long work hours and extended, irregular shifts may lead to fatigue and to physical and mental stress. Working extended shifts may also involve prolonged exposure to potential health hazards such as noise, chemicals, and injury.
These exposures could exceed established permissible exposure limits or violate other health standards. Employers must implement measures to monitor and limit worker exposures to health and physical hazards in the workplace, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Impact of Worker Fatigue
Worker fatigue increases the risk for illnesses and injuries. According to OSHA, accident and injury rates are almost 20% higher during evening shifts and 30% higher during night shifts when compared to day shifts. Research indicates working 12 hours per day adds as much as a 37% increased risk of injury.
Decreased alertness from worker fatigue is a contributing factor in:
- Industrial disasters
- Increased sleep problems and risk for injury
- Increased costs from lost productivity, increased injury and illness costs, increased time off the job due to illness, and increased workers’ compensation costs
- An annual cost to employers of $136.4 billion from fatigue-related, health-related lost productive work time.
Our bodies are designed with a set of automatic responses to deal with stress. The problem is our bodies deal with all types of stress in the same way. Experiencing stress for long periods of time will activate this system, but it doesn’t get the chance to turn off.
Common effects of stress on the body include:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pains
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Stomach and digestive issues
- High blood sugar
- Increased cholesterol and fatty acids in the blood.
Stress can also affect our mood or thinking by:
- Increasing forgetfulness, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, defensiveness, mood swings, hypersensitivity, anger
- Decreasing the ability to think clearly or focus
- Developing a feeling of unfairness or injustice.
Stress can contribute to incidents because people often:
- Sleep poorly
- Self-medicate or over-medicate
- Feel depressed
- Feel anxious, jittery, nervous
- Become angry and reckless.
When people engage in these emotional behaviors, they are more likely to:
- Become momentarily but dangerously distracted
- Feel withdrawn or isolated from others
- Have sudden outbursts
- Neglect responsibilities
- Make errors in judgment
- Put their bodies under physical stress
- React poorly in normal activities.
Untreated long-term stress has been associated with:
- Muscle pain
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Heart disease
What Employers Can Do
There are many strategies that can help control stress and reduce its impact on a person or the workplace. Since the causes of workplace stress vary so much, so do the strategies to reduce or prevent it.
For example, where stress in the workplace is caused by something physical, it is best to control it at its source. If a workplace is too loud, measures to control or deal with the noise should be addressed. And if employees are suffering pain from repetitive strain, work assignments should be rearranged to reduce any repetitive and strenuous movements.
Job design is also an important factor. Good job design takes into account an employee’s mental and physical abilities. The following job design guidelines will minimize or control workplace stress:
- The job should be reasonably demanding (not based on sheer endurance) and provide at least a minimum of variety in job tasks.
- The employee should be able to learn on the job and be allowed to continue to learn as their job progresses.
- The job should involve some decision-making the individual can call their own.
- There should be some degree of social support and recognition in the workplace.
- The employee should feel the job leads to some sort of desirable future.
Employers should assess the workplace for the risk of stress and look for pressures at work that could cause high and long-lasting levels of stress, and who may be harmed by these pressures. And likewise determine what can be done to prevent the pressures from becoming negative stressors.
Employers can address stress seriously when they:
- Treat all employees in a fair and respectful manner
- Are aware of symptoms that a person may be having trouble coping with stress
- Involve employees in making decisions and allowing for their input
- Encourage managers to have an understanding attitude
- Provide workplace health programs that target the true source of stress
- Survey employees and ask them to help identify the root causes
- Make sure staff has the training, skills, and resources they need to be successful
- Design jobs to allow for a balanced workload
- Allow employees to have control over the tasks they do as much as possible
- Value and recognize individuals’ results and skills
- Are clear about job expectations
- Provide manageable deadlines, hours of work, and clear duties.
In addressing stress, employers should not tolerate bullying or harassment in any form. They can’t ignore signs that employees are under pressure or feeling stressed, nor should they forget that elements in the workplace itself can be a cause of stress. Training and counseling services can be helpful, but employers need to zero in on the root causes of stress and act on what causes them as quickly as possible.
What Workers Can Do
Workers can promote their own restful, healthy sleep by:
- Making sure their sleep period is seven to nine hours without disruptions
- Trying to sleep at the same time every day
- Avoiding drinks with caffeine before bedtime to improve sleep quality
- If working evenings or nights, sleeping eight hours before going to work
- If taking a nap before work, allowing enough time for a complete sleep/wake cycle
- Arranging a sleeping environment that is comfortable, cool, dark, and quiet.
There are many ways to get ahead of the curve when dealing with stress. Regular exercise, balanced diet, healthy weight, mental fitness, and counseling services can all be helpful, but don’t forget to look for the root causes of stress and take steps to address them.
In some cases, the origin of stress is something that cannot be changed immediately. But in the meantime, finding ways to help maintain personal good mental health is essential.