|Occupational Health and Safety
Stress in the Workplace
Have you ever been "hot under the collar" when a foreman has criticized you unfairly before your fellow workers? If this has
happened to you, you were exhibiting a stress response.
Types of stresses include: physical stresses such as heat or cold; chemical stresses such as ammonia or carbon monoxide; and
emotional stresses such as marital problems or unfair treatment by a supervisor.
The Stress Response
These stressors produce a biological reaction in a person which is called a stress response. The stress response includes increased
blood pressure; increased metabolism (e.g. faster heartbeat and breathing); increased stomach acids, increased production of
blood sugar for energy; faster blood clotting; increased cholesterol and fatty acids in blood for energy production systems and
decreases in the protein synthesis, digestion, immunity, and allergic response systems.
The stress response is therefore called "non-specific". Regardless of the type of stress (physical, chemical, or emotional) the
biological response is always the same.
The stress response undoubtedly served a useful function in primitive humans. Confronted by a physical threat, the body
understandably activates its alarm system so that maximum energy is available for meeting and combatting an emergency, or for
fleeing, if that is the logical alternative. Because of this, the stress response is sometimes called the "fight or flight" reaction.
Stress Can Cause Ill Health
The reason that too much stress is harmful is because the biological aspects of the stress response can produce ill health. For
example, excessive production of stomach acids combined with steroid production (also part of the stress response) eats away at
the stomach lining which can produce peptic ulcers. Heart disease can result from a rise in cholesterol and changes in fatty acid and
blood-sugar content, all part of the stress response. Persons exposed to excessive stress produce fewer white blood cells
increasing their susceptibility to infectious diseases.
Stress in the Workplace
Consider these issues, all of which may increase or decrease stress:
- is the area well lit?
- is the pace of production too high?
- is the worker a new employee or new to the area?
- has the employee been properly trained before starting to operate the machine?
- is the work area too hot or too cold?
- is the worker being pressured by supervisors resulting in unsafe work practices?
Stress in the workplace can assume a number of forms. It is important to remember that a number of these stress-causing agents
may also create an acute or immediate effect. e.g. excessive heat may produce heat exhaustion and the worker may collapse.
However, these agents also produce chronic or long-term effects which will produce the stress response in the worker. The stress
response may in turn produce ill health not normally deemed to be caused by the workplace such as heart disease.
Physical agents that cause stress include noise, heat or cold, or other stresses such as sitting too long in an awkward position,
which will produce unnatural stresses on the worker's back. Excessive glare from improper lighting can bring about fatigue and
headaches especially among bench workers or office workers. Shift work and overtime may also elicit the stress response.
The hazardous chemicals found in the workplace which we assume are dangerous to our health also produce the stress response
in our bodies.
Stress in the workplace comes fundamentally from the fact that in our society workers who produce goods do not have control over
the production process. Job dissatisfaction, boredom, repetition, and lack of creativity all lead to the stress response.
Being ordered to do work tasks rather than being asked and being disciplined unfairly can both produce the stress response. Even
the fear of discipline or losing one's job can also cause stress.
Reducing the Stress Response
Adverse physical stresses must be reduced if the effects of ill health are to be eliminated. It is important to remember that a
physical stress such as noise can produce the stress response at a level below that required to produce hearing loss.
Chemical agents should be reduced to levels below those recommended in order to protect workers from ill health effects specific to
Reducing the emotional stressors in the workplace is a difficult task. Job security through seniority provided in union contracts and
control of the employer's authority through union protection are important first steps down the road to reducing the level of stress
in the workplace.
Source: CAW Health, Safety & Environment Department