Worker stress is not just an issue for a Human Resources department. It also directly impacts EHS. Stressed employees are more likely to engage in unsafe behaviors and to be involved in incidents. EHS professionals must familiarize themselves with the topic.
A few months ago, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) released an e-guide to help employers understand worker stress, and provide guidance on how to prevent and address psychosocial risks in the workplace.
Even though the e-guide is designed to respond to the needs of employers and people working in small enterprises, it includes plenty of valuable information for employers of all sizes located anywhere in the world.
Two-thirds of all European Union (EU) employers are exposed to work-related psychosocial risks that can lead to employee illnesses. About 20% of EU workers experience stress, making it the most important workplace health issue, and an important one for employers to address.
Stress occurs when employees perceive that there’s an imbalance between work demands and the mental and physical resources that they have available to cope with these demands. It may result from not having enough time to allocate to work, or having an emotionally difficult role in the company.
Although stress is psychological, there can be physical and other health consequences that can affect work performance and safety. The health consequences fall generally into the following categories:
- Emotional. A worker may show irritability or anxiety, and may become withdrawn from others.
- Cognitive. Workers may find it difficult to concentrate or learn and remember new things, and have difficulty in making decisions.
- Behavioral. People may adopt unhealthy behaviors to cope with stress, such as alcohol or drug consumption. They may become inept or negligent, or exhibit violence or aggression.
- Physical. Workers may come to work unwell, or take longer and more frequent absences from work.
Employers may experience many effects of worker psychosocial stress on their ability to operate, which makes this a key issue to address. Here are some of the major effects on employers:
- Workplace absences. About 50% of workplace absences can be linked to stress, with absence as a way to cope with stress or as a consequence of poor worker engagement or morale. Also, a study suggests that absence due to stress lasts 40% longer than a musculoskeletal issue.
- Reduced work performance. Lowered work efficiency due to poor concentration and difficulty in decision-making can cost employers twice as much as workplace absences.
- Increased incident rate. Stress at work can lead to five times as many incidents because of an inability to concentrate and increased at-risk behavior.
- Staff turnover. About 20% of staff turnover is related to stress at work, such as excessive demands, poor engagement, and coworker conflicts.
The EU-OSHA e-guide also addresses some myths and misconceptions about workplace psychosocial stress and worker mental health.
Employers are responsible for workers’ mental wellbeing, even if stressors come from outside the workplace. This is because when workers are stressed, even if it’s due to non-work issues, it can affect their ability to work effectively and safely.
Another misconception is that employers can do nothing about workplace stress, when in reality most work-related stress is due to poor management practices and procedures, which employers can control.
Keep following our blog for a second post on this topic, which will explore the steps that organizations can take to address and prevent worker stress, and therefore improve occupational health.