The advent of globalization and advances in technology have made some aspects of many jobs easier but it has also increased the complexities in the workplace through information overload, increased pressure for productivity, and a pervading sense of insecurity in the workplace. So, employees face increased stress levels in the workplace. Workplace stress is considered a huge drain on organizational resources and is estimated to cost American companies more than $300 billion a year as a result of stress-related outcomes such as poor performance, absenteeism, and health costs (ARP, 2007).
About one million people in the United States are absent from work each day because of stress-related disorders. On analysis of different kinds of workplace stress, it has been found that the stress is generally due to the following factors: high demands on the job, real or perceived lack of control concerning those demands, inefficient organization and communication, and an unsupportive work environment (ILO, 1992). Due to all these reasons, companies recognize the urgent need for proactive corporate stress management. Knowledge of stress management has expanded over the last five decades and there are many tools and techniques available for managing workplace stress in healthy and productive ways.
There are two ways by which workplace stress can be reduced: through stress management programs and training for employees and through organizational changes that improve working conditions. Many American corporations provide their employees with stress management training and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). These training programs are confidential in nature and include counseling, mental health assessment and referrals, workshops on topics such as time management and relaxation, and legal and financial assistance.
Though EAPs have been found to be useful to counter the symptoms of stress in the workplace (Highley-Marchington and Cooper 1998), they focus mainly on tertiary measures such as stress counseling. IBM’s Global Stress Management program includes a stress intervention Web site, online manager stress intervention training, and location-specific stress management resources (IBM, 2007). According to Cox et al. (2000), it is best to have tertiary action along with some measures at primary and secondary levels.
Technology also brings in new changes in the environment constantly. Workplace stress-related ailments can increase dramatically when workers’ performance on the computer is remotely monitored. Supervisors for data entry workers, for example, often remotely track the number of keystrokes completed each hour. And telemarketers and reservations clerks are monitored to make sure that the number and the average length of calls they handle fall within acceptable limits. Such monitoring methods are counterproductive, says Janet Cuhill, a psychology professor at Rowan College of New Jersey. Simple measures such as allowing breaks and providing time for relaxation amidst heavy work can go a long way in alleviating the stress created by technology in the workplace.
There are three levels of stress intervention: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The primary level of stress intervention aims at preventing stress at its source. It tries to provide alternate work environments, technologies, or organizational structures. Examples include job redesign, employee participation, and flexible working. The secondary level of stress intervention aims at modifying individuals’ responses to stressors through stress management training, communication, and information sharing. The tertiary level of stress intervention aims at minimizing the dangers of stress by helping individuals cope effectively with stress through the provision of employee assistance programs and stress counseling (Cooper, 2001).
Organizations, sometimes aim at preventing stress in the workplace through primary level interventions. Sometimes, when the job is by nature stressful, the job can be redesigned to make it less stressful. Sometimes, it is possible that the organization’s structure or climate is the source of stress; in which case, a more participative management style might be introduced. These interventions act directly in reducing the exposure to stressors.
Primary level stress intervention measures are often connected to the work environment and examples include job enrichment, worker participation, and career development activities. This means, providing scope for improving interpersonal relationships, providing opportunities for social interaction, establishing fair employment policies, building cohesive teams, and ensuring work-life balance. These may be achieved through having flexi-time, compressed workweek, job-sharing, and stable and predictable rotating shifts, and establishing flexible work schedules. Stress due to overload may be prevented by allowing for recovery from demanding tasks and increasing control over the workplace, analyzing work roles, and establishing goals.
Job security is improved by providing employees with accurate information regarding opportunities for promotion and career development (Clarke and Cooper, 2004). Encouraging participative management, providing social support and feedback, and sharing the rewards are also primary stress intervention measures (Greenberg, 2003).
Corporations in the United States generally work as follows: they identify ‘high risk’ individuals and groups of individuals who have symptoms of stress. If they have difficulty in coping with stress, secondary intervention measures are taken and they are provided training to increase their capacity to cope with stressors. If they report high levels of physical or psychological ill-health they are offered tertiary measures such as treatment activities e.g. stress counseling, rehabilitation, and psychotherapy (Jaffe-Gill et al, 2007).
The secondary and tertiary levels of intervention are individual-centered and include programs that encourage a more healthy lifestyle: examples include gyms in the workplace, providing diet and nutrition advice, offering employees relaxation and exercise classes, or hold training sessions on coping strategies (Jaffe-Gill et al, 2007).
The main problem in using secondary and tertiary levels of stress intervention in organizations is that very often, instead of using such measures for ‘high risk’ individuals, there is a tendency to offer such programs to the workforce as a whole. This is termed the ‘inoculation approach’ to stress. It focuses on the outcomes of stress rather than trying to root out the issues causing the stress. However, these measures can be very effective in the short term. In the long run, employees are forced to return to an unchanged work environment with the same amount of stress-causing factors. Thus preventive measures are as important as coping strategies to tackle stress in the long run.
ARP (2007). Corporate Stress Management for a Healthy Workplace. Web.
Clarke, Sharon and Cooper, L. Cary (2004). Managing the Risk of Workplace Stress. Routledge Publishers. New York. 2004. Page 150+.
Cooper, C. L. (1998a). The changing psychological contract at work. Work & Stress, 12, 97-100.
Cooper, C. L. and Cartwright, S. (1994). Healthy mind; healthy organization-a proactive approach to occupational stress. Human Relations, 47, 455-71.
Cox, T., Griffiths, A., Barlowe, C., Randall, K., Thomson, L. and Rial-Gonzalez, E. (2000). Organisational Interventions for Work Stress: A Risk Management Approach. Sudbury: HSE Books.
Greenberg, Jerald (2003). Organizational Behavior: The State of the Science. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Maywah, NJ. 2003. Page 56-82.
Heller, Robert (2007). Stress Management: Bearing the pressures of modern business life. Web.
Highley-Marchington, C. and Cooper, C. L. (1998). An Assessment of EAPs and Workplace Counseling in British Organizations. Norwich: HSMO.
IBM (2007). Employee well-being. Web.
International Labor Organization (ILO) (1992). Conditions of Work Digest: Preventing Stress at Work (V. Di Martino, ed. ). Geneva: ILO.
Jaffe-Gill, Ellen; Segal, Robert; and Jaffe, Jaelline (2007). Job Stress Management. Web.