Stress and Worker Safety

We’ve all heard for years that stress will kill us, but is it possible that this will be in a workplace accident? Stress is a by-product of the triggering of our fight-flight response. Our bodies sense danger (typically from nonverbal, subconscious information) flood our bodies with more than 30 toxins, most notably adrenaline and before you know it a 90 lb woman is lifting a car off her child. But most often this dynamic is less dramatic. Instead, our subconscious senses a possible threat and drips the toxins instead of flooding our body. These toxins act on our bodies in low doses in much the same way as they would at high doses, but instead of lifting cars, we develop stomach problems. Instead of running at super human speeds, we develop heart disease. The biggest potential danger we are likely to face is change. Biologically speaking, change is stupid, dangerous, and reckless. Consider the animal kingdom. If you are a tern with ideal nesting grounds, an abundant food supply, few predators, and terrific mating prospects then any change you make could transition you from thriving to early extinction. Change is bad for people too; in general if something is working for you and you are successful, changing your situation exposes you to risks that might ruin you. Our bodies are wired to resist change and this resistance takes manifests in stress. Unfortunately we live and work in a dynamic world and change, often as not, is constant. So we are caught in a sucker’s choice, change and face possible extinction or hold the course and almost certainly failing. Fortunately our bodies have a solution: mistakes. Research has found that the average person makes five mistakes an hour (under ordinary circumstances). These mistakes are our subconscious testing the safety of making changes. When we are under stress the urgency of change is profoundly increased and our brain, therefore, needs to increase the number of mistakes it makes so that it is prepared to move quickly and adapt. In a high stress workplace mistakes are rife and human error leads the cause of injuries. But simply reminding people to work safely isn’t enough. Companies need to reduce the stress of the workers if they want to lower the mistakes they are working, and that is far more difficult than it might seem. I recently spoke with the global director of a Fortune 250 company who told me that the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) had noticed a major shift in the nature of the calls that it received. Prior to the economic downturn must complaints involved problems at work, but now calls about personal problems outside of work are about 3:1 to workplace stressors. There are limits to the influence a company can have on the stressors affecting their workforce. People are struggling to keep their homes, pay their children’s student loans. Safety managers must be cognizant of this dynamic and need to intervene in new and creative ways; reminding people to keep their heads in the game will ultimately yield nothing of value. Companies need to shift away from recognition and reward programs and toward stress reduction activities. There’s a real need for caution in selecting the appropriate stress reduction in the workplace, because so many of the stress reduction programs are, metaphorically speaking, big steam heaps of horse crap. So what can an organization do to reduce worker stress? 1. Improve EAP efforts. Your company may not be able create a worker’s paradise outside the workplace, but they can improve the way in which they help workers to work through issues. But organizations need to do a better job of advertising and promoting EAP. 2. Reinstate Benefits and Pay. When the recession hit, companies were quick to ask the workers to share the pain. Many companies acted in good faith, and many used the threat but companies who have been asking workers to share the pain of the economic downturn. It’s time for the “jobs creators” to start paying the workers back, if not in the interest of fair play, then in the interest of self preservation. I fully acknowledge that we are far from the good times of old, but companies need to invest in their organizations, and part of that investment needs to be an investment in the workers themselves. 3. Put Off Big Change Initiatives. Change, as I’ve said, freaks people out. And too many companies are trying to change everything at once. If companies want to reduce stress related injuries they need to slow the pace of change and postpone any change that is not absolutely essential. To a large extent, there is little a company can do to mitigate the stress workers experience because of problems outside of work. Companies can, however, mitigate the severity of the injury. The awareness that stressed workers will make more mistakes should trigger initiatives based at reducing the severity of injuries of the tasks most likely to have injuries caused by human error.


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