Unlike obvious workplace hazards such as lacerations, falls and repetitive motion injuries, workers' psychological issues can be difficult to spot and are nearly always more complex to prevent. But they are no less important.
Left unchecked, workplace stress leads to missed work days, an inability to concentrate (which itself can lead to workplace injuries) and, in extreme cases, danger to other employees. As such, workplace stress is a risk like any other employee safety issue and therefore must be acknowledged and mitigated. But since OHS includes so many different responsibilities, it can be hard to know where to start with stress reduction training.
We all experience stress, and in fact, it's a healthy response to danger. Stress is what allowed our ancestors to escape or kill potential predators and survive in a difficult world. In today's workplace, stress gives us the sense of responsibility needed to meet deadlines. The feeling of stress isn't inherently bad, but when it starts to overwhelm us, leaving us feeling trapped and constantly on edge, it becomes unmanageable and a workplace hazard.
So where does this fit in with OHS goals to improve safety in the workplace? What kind of safety-in-the-workplace tips or training can counteract stress before it reaches unhealthy levels?
Stress-Reducing Safety Tips in the Workplace: What Skills Should You Teach?
1) How to Spot Signs of Stress
It's important to understand that stressors are not universal. That's what makes the issue complex. A procedure or expectation that feels perfectly normal to one employee may cause genuine and undue stress to another. After all, we have different personalities and backgrounds. Because of this, the best way to spot signs of stress is for employees to monitor their own behavior patterns.
The main thing to teach is for each person to pay attention to his or her own behavior and look for unexplained changes. Smoking a pack a day of cigarettes isn't necessarily a sign of stress for someone who has done that for years. But anyone who suddenly takes up smoking or sharply increases the amount he smokes should pay attention.
Other behaviors to pay attention to include:
- Changing sleep patterns or energy levels
- A change in appetite
- A noticeable rise in irritability
- An inability to concentrate
- Headaches, muscle tension or unexplained aches
- Indigestion, heartburn and other digestive upsets
- Changes in thoughts: feeling hopeless, unable to enjoy favorite activities, feeling overwhelmed
2) How to Identify Stressors
Once employees have identified stress, the next step is to narrow down possible causes for that stress. Obvious causes include a move, a death in the family, a divorce, or even happy occasions like marriage or the birth of a child. The workplace can do little to change outside stresses, but you can make employees aware of any stress-management or counseling benefits that are available to them.
If the stress is work-related, see if employees can narrow down the issue, giving them this list of common workplace stressors as a starting point.
- Job description and roles
- Too much or too little communication
- Poor quality feedback
- Lack of recognition and incentives
- Resource scarcity (time, staff or materials)
- Incomplete training
- Changing roles
- Not feeling heard or validated
- Personality or work style clashes with co-workers
3) Strategies to Manage Stress
Once the stressor is identified, sometimes the solution becomes obvious. Other times, it's more complex. While each situation is different, here are some things you and your employees can do to encourage a stronger safety culture.
What Can Employees Do?
- Access whatever counseling is available to them
- Communicate the issue clearly with a manager, including offering two or three workable solutions
- Decide whether their current role is really suited to them, and if not, where else they might better fit in
- Identify areas where they need more training
- Take responsibility for guiding change
What can you do?
- Encourage clear communication, expectations and roles for everyone
- Ask for management to give meaningful and helpful feedback to workers and let them grow in their roles and responsibilities
- Make sure the training process for new employees gives clear and realistic expectations
- Show appreciation for employees who meet and exceed their work expectations
- Help management consider the role of their decisions in creating or reducing overall work stress. Present this as a health and safety issue.
- Look for additional resources to help you in this role. There are plenty of good starting points online.