The Globe and Mail, September 17, 2003
A Statistics Canada study on job stress, reported last week in the journal Canadian Social Trends, ought to rivet the attention of Canadian economic and political leaders.Work-related stress takes a high toll on the emotional well-being of millions of employees, undermines the health of many and incurs a forbidding financial penalty. Stress-induced absences have been calculated to cost employers about $3.5-billion annually, and that figure that does not include the medical expenses of treating stress-induced illness. Much job strain could be prevented if those who have the power to make decisions understood some basic principles.
Much more than emotional upset, stress is a wide-ranging sequence of physiological events involving virtually every organ in the body. The emotional centres in the brain that process stressful stimuli are directly linked with the nervous system, the hormonal apparatus and the immune system. Chronic stress, therefore, has profoundly negative effects on health. It weakens immunity, exhausts the nervous system and upsets the body’s hormonal balance.
Job stress has been implicated in many conditions, from infections and pain in muscles and joints to multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure and heart disease, and mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. “Even among workers with only short-term psychological distress and adverse work-related psychosocial factors, the risk of musculoskeletal pain is increased,” one British study concluded. Were the research net to be cast wider, job stress would likely be found to play a role in numerous other conditions as well, including autoimmune disease and cancer.
The Statistics Canada study sought to identify the major sources of job stress experienced by employees. Lack of time and excessive workload demands were the factors cited most commonly, by as many as 34 per cent of working Canadians. “Other triggers,” writes Cara Williams, author of the journal article, “include fear of accident or injury, poor interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors [and] the threat of layoff or job loss.” Ironically, technologies that are supposed to save time and make work easier have also added to job strain. Having to learn computer skills is perceived by some as stressful, and being wired to their jobs via the Internet, instead of freeing people, has made them feel less autonomous.
The StatsCan findings are in line with the extensive scientific literature on stress. The major psychological triggers for physiological stress are loss of control, uncertainty and conflict. These irritants can all be exacerbated by poor social relationships and ameliorated by strong emotional bonds with others — the more genuinely we are connected with each other, the safer we are physiologically.
What could political and business leaders do to reduce job stress for working people? The first step would be to re-examine the wisdom of shortsighted bottom-line economics as a primary goal. While cutting public services and downsizing businesses may save money in the short term, the long-term consequences of increased stress are increased social costs and reduced productivity. It is no coincidence that in the StatsCan study health-care workers claimed the highest levels of stress among all classes of employees. No less than 50 per cent complained of excessive job demands and long hours, and 21 per cent — double the national average — reported poor interpersonal relationships at work. These stresses are the natural outcome of deep cuts in national and provincial health budgets. Hospitals and health services are now dominated by administrators whose mandate is to impose business-style structures and procedures on workers whose own commitment is to humane service but who have less and less say in how those services are provided.
Although some jobs are by nature demanding, it is possible to diminish the attendant stress by, for example, encouraging more consultation and employee control over how the work is carried out, and by providing more social support. Better human relationships would increase economic gain, reduce stress for employees and go far toward making everyone’s work experience more meaningful.