In terms of occupational health and safety, stress is the misfit between a worker's needs and capabilities, and what the workplace offers and demands. Another definition is "the reaction people have to excessive demands or pressures, arising when people try to cope with tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their jobs, but find difficulty; strain or worry in doing so". (Health and Safety Executive, UK).
The forerunner to the Safe Work Australia, the National Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) identified stress as the most significant psychological hazard in the workplace, affecting both the mental and physical well-being of people. In 2013, Safe Work Australia released its first report on work-related mental stress and its associated costs based on an analysis of Australian workers' compensation claims data from 2008-09 to 2010-11. The report revealed that mental stress is costing Australian businesses over $10 billion dollars per year. The latest report is the Work-related mental disorders profile 2015.
Of course, in addition to the cost to business, stress is one of the major OHS issues confronting workers in Australian workplaces. The ACTU conducted a survey in 1997, with over 12,000 responses being received. The survey showed:
- One in four people took time off due to stress at work - even if they did not claim workers compensation.
- The most stressful conditions at work reported were management issues including lack of communication and consultation; increased workload; organisational change and restructuring; and job insecurity.
- People reported a range of symptoms. More than 60 per cent reported headaches; continual tiredness; anger and sleeplessness.
- Over half the respondents nominated better management, including more communication and consultation, as the solution to stress at work. Other solutions included less workload; less performance monitoring; better work organisation; more training; job security and better career opportunities.
Despite this, and the fact that stress has been recognised as a major occupational hazard by unions and government OHS authorities world wide, many Australian employers still do little about the issue. As recently as 2002, the view of one of the largest employer organisations, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), was that "...in spite of the substantial amount of work by academics and researchers over the last 20 years or so, we are no closer to providing proof of a linkage between so called workplace stress and disease" (ACCI Press Release, January, 2002: Stress as a Community and Workplace Issue)
What are the causes of stress?
A 'good job' usually involves a measure of positive stimuli, which encourages the worker to perform well and gain job satisfaction as a result - this is not stress. Many jobs involve negative factors that put unwanted pressure (stress) on the worker, leading to adverse consequences. Stress is not a disease or injury in itself, but can lead to mental and physical ill health, and can also be a factor in workplace accidents.
Many work factors can be identified as potential causes of stress, or stressors, and most can be divided into three areas:
- Working conditions
- Doing the job
- Work relationships
|Working conditions||Doing the job||Work relationships|
|Too hot or too cold||Excessive workload or long hours||Bullying or harassment|
|Too noisy||Boring or repetitive work||Discrimination|
|Poor equipment / work station||Deadline pressures||Client hostility|
|Inadequate security||Too little training or support||Conflict with supervisors/ managers|
|Poor lighting||Confusion over, or too much, responsibility for others||Poor relationships with colleagues|
|Overcrowding||Lack of control over work||Lack of communication or consultation between manager and employees|
|Inflexible work schedules or unpredictable hours||Organisational change/relocation||Negative culture based on blame for and denial of problems|
|Toxic fumes and chemicals||Unnecessary monitoring of employees|
|Poor childcare facilities||Inadequate pay and conditions|
|Poor maintenance||Confusion over priorities, timeframes and standards|
|Inadequate or unclear procedures: eg disciplinary, promotion, transfer, etc|
Workers attempt to cope with stress in a number of ways and with varying degrees of success. However, if the person is consistently exposed to stressful situations, adverse consequences will result. When the body is exposed to a stress, the level of hormones in the body increases to mobilise energy resources in preparation to 'fight or flee' the situation. This response may be appropriate in the case of a Stone Age person confronted by a wild beast, but should be out of place in today's work environment.
Download a powerpoint presentation on Stress, Workload and Job Control - put together by Andrea Shaw (Shaw Consulting) and Verna Bluett (New Horizons Consulting)
A note on other sources of stress
Climate change, global warming and natural disasters
Natural disasters, such as bushfires, which affect our ability to work or on the viability of our work can lead to increased psychological stress. This is a problem that can arise not just for everyone as natural disasters strike, but specifically for emergency service and frontline workers who are tasked with responding to these disasters - the frequency and severity of which is rising due to climate change.
Natural disasters can lead to increased risk to mental health alongside the physical risks. Often, these mental health impacts may last longer than some of the physical health impacts arising from natural disasters. As seen in the aftermath of the 2019-2020 bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales, mental health claims by people directly impacted- including emergency service workers as well as residents- sharply rose. (See: Australian bushfires 2019-20: exploring the short-term health impacts, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The report examines a range of health data sources to assess the short-term health impacts of the bushfires, including: emergency department visits, prescription and purchase of asthma medicines, mental health service use and GP visits. Results show clear associations between increased bushfire activity, including poor air quality, and people seeking assistance for their health.)
Combating climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an OHS one as the impacts of climate change are far reaching and are felt by workers in a myriad of industries. Australian unions are working in this space.
The symptoms of stress can include indecision, anxiety, depression, altered appetite, changes in weight, headache, backache, skin rashes and difficulty sleeping. They may lead to heart disease, ulcers and other long term ill health.
Diseases of the blood circulation system:
- Coronary heart disease
- Heart attacks
Diseases of the digestive system:
- Colitis (inflammation of the bowel)
Other problems include:
- Headaches, backaches
- Increased risk of suicide - a 2018 paper published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Psychosocial job stressors and suicidality: a meta-analysis and systematic review provided some evidence that job stressors may be related to suicidal outcomes.
- Hostility and aggression
- Psychosomatic complaints
- Cancer (research has associated major life trauma with a number of cancers, and recently a South Australian court found that workplace stress contribute to a worker's fatal bowel cancer)
Just as the ways the body reacts to stress can be harmful if stress is prolonged, so too are some of the ways which people can use to try to cope with stress. As levels of stress increase, so too can the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and prescription/ non-prescription drugs.
You can watch the June 2019 episode of the OHS Reps Live Show where we discuss the causes and responses to job stress below.
Last amended August 2021