Worker stress is insidious, because although it is reportedly widespread and increasing dramatically, it is often unreported. Whether a precast employee is worried about job stability, potential layoffs or lack of job incentive, research tells us that exposure to high levels of stress can result in low morale and decreased productivity. Unresolved stress can adversely affect health at both the worker and the administrative levels.
In this Safety Speak article, precast professionals offer a frank discussion about stress in the workplace. Rob Bundy, safety manager with C.J. Pink Ltd. in Dorchester, Ontario, and Blackie Ochremchuk, group health and safety manager with Expocrete Concrete Products Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, share their viewpoints.
Q: Worries over the poor economy can increase work-related stress, especially as precast plants have had to let staff go to cope with lower market demand for product. In your opinion, how have workers been affected by the economic downturn?
A. Ochremchuk: Long before the crunch hit us here in Alberta, we were hearing that across the border a lot of companies were in financial trouble and major layoffs were occurring. Canadian workers have also definitely been affected by the economic droop.
A. Bundy: Here in Ontario we have experienced a downturn in the economy as in the U.S. In 2010, we had to lay off some of our staff. It is understood by management and by workers that with fewer workers in the plant, there is more stress on remaining staff to complete the work that needs to be done.
Q: In your experience as a safety professional, have you been aware of instances where employees complain (or come forward) about stress? Why do you think people are so reluctant to talk about stress?
A. Bundy: I have to honestly say that, in my experience, workers will not come forward to talk about stress or even discuss stress in the workplace. I think people might understand that there is, at times, stress on the job − either for themselves or for their co-workers − but they do not want to be the one to talk about it.
A. Ochremchuk: Legislation, company benefit programs and other efforts have perhaps made it a little easier to speak of work-related stress or even personal stress. But speaking generally, I would say that most workers would be hesitant to talk about it. I have acquaintances in other professions that definitely feel they would put their jobs in jeopardy by complaining about work stress. I am lucky here at Expocrete in Edmonton, as that is not something I need to worry about!
Q: Does management in the precast industry experience job-related stress in the same way and for the same reasons as the precast plant workers? Can you provide an example of stress at the administrative level?
A. Ochremchuk: I think levels of stress at the administrative level exist and probably can run very high. A wise manager once told me that you can “go from hero to zero in 30 days,” and there’s truth in that statement. While management comes with its own headaches, I am very certain that production workers sometimes feel the same level of stress at every shift. What is stressful for one person may have no affect on another person doing the same job.
A. Bundy: Whether you work in the plant or in management, everyone does their best to cope with conditions. People at all levels feel that you have a job to get done and you do not want to complain about being stressed out on the job.
Q. What do you view as management’s responsibility in relation to worker stress? Does your company safety program specifically address worker stress?
A. Bundy: Here at C.J. Pink, we take worker health and safety very seriously. If a worker comes to us with a problem related to stress, we are happy to do what we can to help remedy the situation and help the employee. I have personally known people who suffered pent-up stress over long periods of time without talking to anyone; in the end, it resulted in serious emotional and health problems. It’s not like work-related stress doesn’t exist because employees don’t talk about it.
A. Ochremchuk: Management has to be able to monitor worker stress. Just look at the economic downturn. Can you imagine going from having a lifestyle that allowed families to earn a certain level of income to a situation where suddenly the pay check size shrinks or one partner is laid off? Where do you draw the line in the sand when you come to work and go home with this kind of stress?
At Expocrete, we try to make all of our employees aware of the employee assistance program through their benefits plan. The safety program offers security in knowing the worker’s safety is priority No. 1. Insisting that workers wear proper PPE and follow safe work practices and procedures, making sure people are properly trained on machines and following strict lockout/tag-out procedures − this all creates an environment where workers can return home safely. Ensuring that all these safety processes are in place certainly results in a workplace with less stress than one where these measures are missing. In our fast-paced world, shortcuts can be tempting, but shortcuts on safety can result in tragic statistics!
Blackie Ochremchuk is group health and safety manager of seven plant sites for Expocrete Concrete Products Ltd. based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has 21 years of nursing experience and is CPR certified.
Rob Bundy has been with C.J. Pink’s Health and Safety Committee for 12 years and a health and safety manager for four of those years.
Sidebar: Job Stress Increasing Dramatically According to Survey Results
Surveys and statistics in the United States and Canada tell us that worker stress levels are increasing dramatically. For example:
- A 1998 Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. study reported that 40% of workers reported their jobs to be “very” or “extremely” stressful. Half of 1,000 full-time employees in a variety of businesses said job stress had reduced their productivity.
- The 1997 Families and Work Institute’s National Study of the Changing Workforce reported that 26% of workers said they were “often” or “very often” burned out our stressed by their jobs and 36% felt “often” or “very often” used up at the end of the day.
- Statistics Canada reports that stress levels in the workplace have been rising dramatically.
- Health Canada reports one in four Canadians are now working more than 50 hours a week, compared to one in 10 a decade ago.
- The NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) 2004 Worker Health Chart Book indicates that workers who report experiencing stress at work also show excessive health care utilization and lost time.
- NIOSH also reports that 25% of workers view their jobs as the No. 1 stressor in their lives, and job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems.
Many conditions may lead to job stress:
- Job insecurity; fear of losing job
- High unemployment and worker anxiety over poor economy
- Lack of opportunity for growth or promotion
- Shift work, unrealistic deadlines
- Conflicting management expectations of the worker; uncertain job expectations
- Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions (crowding, noise, air pollution, inadequate temperature control, lack of privacy)
- Worker layoffs; fewer workers required to achieve same production levels
- Routine tasks that have little inherent meaning
- Lack of worker participation in decision-making
- Poor management communication
Here are some results of job stress:
- Increased tardiness and worker absenteeism
- Low employee morale, high turnover
- Decreased productivity; health and performance problems
- Increased worker anxiety, sleeplessness and depression (seldom reported)
- Increase in alcohol use and health care utilization
- Worker hostility; workplace violence
How management can help identify and alleviate job stress:
- Hold group meetings to discuss work conditions and concerns
- Conduct an anonymous employee survey to measure employee perception of job conditions, stress, health and job satisfaction
- Regularly recognize employees for good performance
- Make sure job responsibilities are in line with worker capabilities and resources
- Support opportunities for career development
- Clearly define worker duties and responsibilities
- Improve work conditions