Stress sets off an alarm in the brain, which responds by preparing the body for defensive action. The nervous system is aroused and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse, deepen respiration, and tense the muscles.
This response (sometimes called the fight or flight response) is important because it helps us defend against threatening situations. The response is preprogrammed biologically. Everyone responds in much the same way, regardless of whether the stressful situation is at work or home.
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.
In the past 20 years, many studies have looked at the relationship between job stress and a variety of ailments. Mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems that are quick to develop and are commonly seen in these studies.
These early signs of job stress are usually easy to recognize. But the effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers who must take time off work because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder will be off the job for a total of about 20 days.
There are several warning signs of job stress. Here are just a few:
Many studies suggest psychologically demanding jobs which allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
On the basis of research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is widely believed job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Several studies suggest 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.
Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.
Employees may also experience psychological injuries from aggressive or violent incidents that occur in the workplace. Psychological injuries from aggression can occur from either cumulative events or as a result of a traumatic event. For more information on workplace violence, please see OSHAcademy course 720 Preventing Workplace Violence.
St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included:
In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities.
-Journal of Applied Psychology
Physical and chemical risk factors (as well as biological agents) can influence employees’ comfort and performance within the work environment and contribute to work-related stress. Environmental sources of work-related stress include:
People respond to work-related stress differently. This can be related to a person’s previous experiences, coping styles, personality style, available support, and physiological factors.
Differences in people’s responses to stress do not reduce employers’ legal duty and responsibility to minimize exposure to work-related stress.
The effects of stress tend to build up over time. Taking practical steps to maintain your health and outlook can reduce or prevent these effects. The following are some tips that may help you to cope with stress:
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