Of the various factors affecting a worker’s safety performance, stress is one of the least discussed, even though we all feel stress in our lives. Stress is a legitimate health and safety issue that affects workers, new and experienced, across every industry. An employee working while stressed has the potential to be unsafe, yet the traditional mindset of employers is that stress is a “personal” problem that workers bring from home to work. What some employers fail to realize is that even if a worker’s troubles stem from home, their safety at work could be jeopardized.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as a "mechanism where the human body attempts to adapt to the environment.” In everyday terms, it is a feeling that people have when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with demands. These demands can be related to finances, work, relationships, or anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to a person's well-being.
Stress can be a motivator. It can be essential to survival, as the "fight-or-flight" response in one’s body can tell us when and how to respond to danger. As lifesaving as the stress response can be, it is only meant to solve short-term, life-threatening problems, not extended difficulties. If this response is triggered too easily, or when there are too many stressors at one time, it may lead to a loss of focus which is a common contributing factor in workplace incidents.
The relationship between stress and workplace incidents
There are several ways that stress can lead to increased workplace incidents.
Stress coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, illegal drugs, or medication, even when not consumed during work hours, can have an impact on worker health or reaction times. As mentioned before, stress can also contribute to distraction and lack of concentration. A stressed worker may be thinking about his or her stress source and therefore less focused on the task at hand. This distraction or loss of focus can lead to accidents and injury. Stress can also lead to fatigue, low morale, anxiety, irritability or short temper, and forgetfulness.
It’s easy to tell when a worker isn’t wearing a hard hat, safety goggles or other PPE. It is not so easy, however, to identify something as intangible as a person’s stress level. Management, supervisors, and safety professionals should look for signs of stress among workers. If a worker is suffering from stress, the issue should be taken seriously. Let the worker know that help is available and that his or her safety is paramount. Doing so could prevent an incident from taking place.
Helping workers who suffer from stress
To address stress in the workplace and prevent workplace incidents, employers can:
- Coach managers and supervisors to approach personal worker issues with sensitivity and understanding.
- Extend an invitation to the worker to hold an open, non-judgmental conversation to discuss their issues.
- Educate workers about stress and the effects it could have on their safety and well-being.
- Establish stress management programs and training.
- Provide readily available counseling for workers.
- Ask workers if all is well in their lives when conducting walk-around inspections.
- Try to be flexible in work hours and tasks when workers have responsibilities or other factors in their personal lives that are creating stress.
Not addressing stress early enough can be costly for both the employer and employees. Raising awareness and understanding of the effects stress can have on worker safety performance, building trust with your employees that they can communicate issues they are facing in their lives, and encouraging participation in stress management programs can help employers eliminate or reduce the risk factors created by stress.