Stress in the Workplace — and the Proof that It’s a Killer

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health recently released some interesting research that claims to prove the negative effects of stress at work. We all know that stressful jobs are bad for our health, but this latest research claims that stress can be linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The study looked into Telomeres, which are located at the end of chromosomes, and how the length of telomeres could be associated with stress. Workers with stressful jobs and severe exhaustion from job-related stress had significantly shorted telomeres than those with relatively stress-free jobs.

The conclusion is that stressful, anxious workplaces can not only age you prematurely, resulting in grey hair, wrinkles and other such cosmetic results, but can bring on the onset of severe illnesses, too. Chronic work stress is a health risk, and should be prevented.

Changing a mentality

There are, in fact, two mentalities that have to be radically altered. First of all, the mindset that working late hours is either a necessary or a good thing. When this becomes a culture within an organisation, it spreads quickly, leading to stress especially in those who struggle to keep up with the marathon working culture. The knock-on effects are obvious: seeing less of family, less time to relax, lack of focus at work due to extended hours… there is almost nothing positive from a business point of view in working excessive hours.

The second mindset is just that last point – that employees need to work more in order to be noticed. We need not only to shift our mindset but our language in tackling excessive hours and job stress. It is not healthy, and on the positive side, you will be noticed even if you put in the traditional 9 to 5. You will be noticed if you work from home. Recognition should go to employees who do great work – not those who do extra work. It’s quality, not quantity – and this is a huge shift in mindset for many businesses. The positives far outweigh the negatives – more profitable, more focused, and more efficient employees.

Readying your organisation

Stress isn’t necessarily the most visible of conditions, and the early signs can manifest themselves in many ways. What organisations need to do – urgently – is train line managers to understand the signs of stress, and train them how to react.

The whole business needs to be made aware that stress is potentially extremely dangerous, not just for the health of the individual, but for profitability. Long-term absence, reduced productivity and errors can all lead to dips in profitability, so the whole business needs to understand the effects of stress. At this point, the whole business needs to understand what they can do to become more resilient.

Equally, as the researchers pointed out, it isn’t just work that causes stress. There are so many external factors, from home life to finance and diet, that can all impact on an employee’s productivity. If, as an employer, you can help provide proactive solutions (e.g. employee assistance programmes, occupational health, flexible employee benefits matched to lifestyle, etc.), then not only can you help drive down stress and ill-health, but you can actually start retaining employees better, thanks to a more attractive employee proposition.

And that’s the challenge. We all want a fitter, healthier, more productive workforce, and it doesn’t cost the earth. By amplifying the stress in their private lives, all we are doing as employers is driving down our peoples’ productivity, and driving down their goodwill towards us. In that case, everyone loses – including you, the employer.

About the author: Gareth Cartman blogs regularly on HR and Occupational Health issues, and works with leading OH provider Corporate Health:

Editor’s note: Founder of Eliza Alexandra Drane presents research on Unmentionables at Health 2.0′s fall conference each year. Unmentionables include factors like money concerns, a crappy boss, bad sex life, caregiver stress and relationship stress, which have a negative impact on health, but often aren’t directly addressed. Here’s Drane’s presentation from the 2011 conference.