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April 2014

PS Asks

PS Asks: Malgorzata Milczarek

PS: What prompted the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) to look into work-related stress?
Malgorzata: Work-related stress is one of the biggest safety and health challenges that we face in Europe. Nearly one in four workers is affected by it, and studies suggest that between 50% and 60% of all lost-time events can be attributed to work-related stress and psychosocial risks. It is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem in Europe after musculoskeletal disorders. Over a 9-year period (1999-2007), nearly 28% of European workers reported exposure to psychosocial risks that affected their mental well-being. This represents a huge cost in terms of both human distress and impaired economic performance.
Although European employers are obliged to assess, eliminate or reduce any risks to workers’ safety and health, studies show that when it comes to stress and psychosocial risks, there is still a gap between legal obligations and practice. A need for practical support to deal with this issue is especially reported by smaller organizations.

PS: What are the implications of poor stress management in a workplace?
Malgorzata: For the individual, the negative effects can lead to health problems, poor mental health, burnout, difficulty concentrating, making mistakes, problems at home, substance abuse and poor physical health, particularly cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal problems.
For the organization, the negative effects include poor overall business performance, increased absenteeism, presenteeism (workers turning up for work when sick and unable to function effectively) and increased incident and injury rates. Absences tend to be longer than those arising from other causes, and work-related stress may contribute to increased rates of early retirement, particularly among white-collar workers. Estimates of the cost to businesses and society are significant and run into billions of euros at a national level.

PS: What are the key components of controlling stress in a workplace?
Malgorzata: The employer is responsible for implementing a plan to prevent or reduce psychosocial risks, enabling workers to play their part and create a healthy psychosocial work environment. By being approachable and sensitive, and promoting a supportive workplace environment, managers will allow workers to raise issues and encourage them to help find solutions. In larger organizations, middle managers have a crucial role to play as they interact with workers on a daily basis; they should be encouraged to develop their competencies in creating a good psychosocial work environment.
Although challenging, psychosocial risks can be assessed and managed in the same systematic and structured way as other OSH hazards using the risk assessment model. The process covers five main steps: identify the hazards and those potentially at risk; evaluate and prioritize the risks; plan preventive actions; implement the plan; monitor and amend the plan to enable continuous improvement. Based on this approach, stress can be effectively tackled in organizations of all sizes, even when resources are limited.

PS: When it comes to stress and job insecurity, what role do gender and age play?
Malgorzata: Perceptions about work-related stress differ somewhat by gender and age. EU-OSHA data show that women are more likely than men to say that stress is common where they work (54% vs. 49%). Workers ages 18 to 54 are more likely to perceive stress as common (53%), compared to workers 55 and older (44%). Health or care workers are significantly more likely than other occupational groups to say stress is common (61%).
When asked about the causes of work-related stress, 72% of workers surveyed indicated “job reorganization or job insecurity.” By age, workers are split as follows: ages 18 to 34, 69%; ages 35 to 54, 73%; ages 55 and older, 70%. Although the differences are not significant, the results indicate that middle-aged workers may especially be affected by stress stemming from job insecurity or reorganization.

PS: How can employers tackle this issue if hiring more workers is not an option?
Malgorzata: Eliminating work-related stress completely may not be feasible, especially during economic uncertainty. If adding staff is not an option, establishing clear priorities and having good work organization, such as proper task assignment and proper training, are crucial.
Organizational measures to tackle stress should always be considered and implemented first, whenever possible. Nevertheless, when eliminating stressors in the workplace is not feasible, increasing workers’ individual resources is also beneficial. For example, providing training on individual stress management and enhancing resilience will contribute to better coping.

Malgorzata Milczarek, Ph.D., is a project manager in the European Risk Observatory unit for EU-OSHA, where she manages projects on work-related stress and other psychosocial risks such as violence and harassment. Prior to this, she was a researcher in the Central Institute for Labor Protection in Poland’s National Research Institute. She graduated in Psychology from the Warsaw University and earned a Ph.D. in Work Psychology from University of Silesia.

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