Work life balance has to begin at work, but it seems that we are currently a long way from balance. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Control have joined forces to help decrease the level of job stress and also to prevent worker burnout. In spite of these efforts, the CDC reports that 63% of all employees want to work less, up from 46% in 1992; 26% of adult Americans report being on the verge of a serious nervous breakdown; and 40% of workers describe their office environment as “most like a real-life survivor program.”
Not good news!
According to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Safety and Health the early warning signs of job stress include the following:
Cardiovascular Disease - Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Musculoskeletal Disorders - It is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Psychological Disorders - Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle differences between occupations may also contribute to some of these problems.)
Workplace Injury - Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.
Suicide, Cancer, Ulcers, and Impaired Immune Function - Some studies suggest a relationship between stressful working conditions and these health problems.
An article in the American Psychologist made the following recommendations to organizations to change and prevent job stress:
- Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
- Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
- Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
- Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
- Improve communications-reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
- Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
- Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
Although this might all seem obvious and simple, following recommendations is not always the case.
Having stress management training is a must, but more so is the support of the company, which may result in significant organizational changes.
Nearly one-half of large companies in the United States provide some type of stress management training for their workforces. Stress management programs teach workers about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health, and personal skills to reduce stress, for example, time management or relaxation exercises. Stress management training may rapidly reduce stress symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disturbances; it also has the advantage of being inexpensive and easy to implement. However, stress management programs have two major disadvantages:
- The beneficial effects on stress symptoms are often short-lived.
- They often ignore important root causes of stress because they focus on the worker and not the environment.
In contrast to stress management training and EAP programs, some companies try to reduce job stress by bringing in a consultant to recommend ways to improve working conditions. This approach is the most direct way to reduce stress at work. It involves the identification of stressful aspects of work (e.g., excessive workload, conflicting expectations) and the design of strategies to reduce or eliminate the identified stressors. The advantage of this approach is that it deals directly with the root causes of stress at work. However, managers are sometimes uncomfortable with this approach because it can involve changes in work routines or production schedules, or changes in the organizational structure.
As a general rule, actions to reduce job stress should give top priority to organizational change to improve working conditions. But even the most conscientious efforts to improve working conditions are unlikely to eliminate stress completely for all workers. For this reason, a combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work.
Work life balance has to begin on the job and with the support of the organization. Without balance, more Americans will suffer from burnout and work related stress illnesses.