Short-lived or infrequent episodes of stress pose little risk. But when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of injury or disease escalates. And that kind of stress is a work safety problem.
We all know that continuous exposure to stress damages health. NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, reports that it also creates increased risk of injury at work.
According to NIOSH, exposure to stressful working conditions (called job stressors) can have a direct influence on work safety and health. NIOSH defines job stress as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. It cites the following as possible causes of job stress: Task Design. Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shiftwork; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers’ skills, and provide little sense of control.
- Management Style. Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.
- Interpersonal Relationships. Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors.
- Work Roles. Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many “hats to wear.”
- Career Concerns. Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.
- Environmental Conditions. Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution or ergonomic problems.
Exposure to stress sets off our natural “flight or fight” reaction. The nervous system is aroused and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse, deepen respiration, and tense the muscles. While this reaction serves an important function in protecting us from immediate danger, long-term exposure to stress can lead to health problems.
Stress-related conditions that could affect your workers’ compensation claims include:
- Musculoskeletal Disorders On the basis of research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
- Psychological Disorders Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle differences between occupations may also contribute to some of these problems.)
- Workplace Injury Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.
What About Stress Itself? Is it Compensable?
Although the conditions that stress can cause may be compensable, many states specifically exclude mental stress claims from coverage under workers’ compensation. In many states, such as Connecticut and Indiana, workers’ comp regulations state that emotional stress must result from a physical injury. Other states, such as Oregon, take a middle ground —a job must be extremely stressful to be covered by workers’ comp. In these states, the claimant must clearly prove the job caused the stress. In California, regulations dictate that the job must account for at least 51 percent of the stress in order to be covered.
At least one state, Montana, categorically excludes emotional or mental stress as a legitimate workers’ comp claim. Some states, such as New York, exclude any stress claim that arises from lawful business pressure, i.e., long hours. However, court cases in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have overruled the regulations and awarded damages for unusually stressful situations.
What Can Employers Do to Reduce or Minimize Job-Related Stress?
Individuals under stress often display several symptoms. Managers and supervisors can use these as early warning signals of job-related stress:
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Short temper
- Upset stomach
- Job dissatisfaction
- Low morale.
Factors that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions include the following:
- Balance between work and family or personal life
- A support network of friends and coworkers
- A relaxed and positive outlook.
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can help workers under job-related stress address their problems and find a better work/life balance. A quality EAP can provide counseling and referrals on a broad range of subjects, including personal problems such as substance abuse, financial problems and family conflicts that can also affect job performance.