Occupational stress is an often unrecognized health problem that is costly to both workers and businesses. Work stress is believed to take a toll on physical and mental health, with studies linking it to conditions such as heart disease, depression and anxiety. Personality traits shade how people see their jobs' health effects, as does modifiable work conditions such as stress and long hours. Faulty adaptation to stress, or failure of the body's resistive ability, may lead to various emotional disturbances, headaches, insomnia, chronic fatigue, peptic ulcers, allergic and renal diseases, and even heart attacks.
Workers today must handle numerous arenas of decision-making at once. It is not just the frequency of stress that is increasing, but also the duration. Whereas past generations of workers faced occasional stress periods, people today do not have time in between to recover. The structure of companies, in which there is no opportunity to let off steam, in which people have responsibility but no control, in which a neurotic supervisor can terrorize subordinates, in which computers monitor the hours and productivity of workers, in which workers rarely have a primary group with whom to talk out their troubles – all of these matters contribute to an unprecedented level of stress in the working environment. It affects people at every level: assembly line workers can be affected because of boredom; bus drivers through abuse by passengers, managers can be stressed by recession; even vicars are other care-givers are stressed because of having to cope with everyone else's problems. Also, when jobs are threatened and organizations are run by the bottom line employees may feel pressured to cut safety concerns to keep their production numbers up. Some of the most stressful jobs include inner-city high-school teachers, police officers, waitresses, complaint department workers, secretaries, miners, air traffic controllers, medical interns and stockbrokers. The price in absenteeism, medical costs, and legal costs is growing, as is the human price in damaged lives and families.
In one study, researchers found that plant workers skimped on safety measures when they felt threatened by lay-offs – possibly because productivity became of paramount importance. A second study indicates that people who feel pressured at work or who log long hours believe their jobs are harming their health.
In the UK job stress it has been estimated that job stress may cost the country up to 10% of GNP. In 1992, it was estimated that some 270,000 people take time off every working day because of stress-related mental illness – that is 23 times more than the time lost through industrial action. The cumulative cost in terms of lost production, sick pay and national health service charges is around $7 billion a year. Despite the caricature of the overworked, middle aged executive whose marriage is disintegrating almost as quickly as his liver and lungs, occupational stress is as likely to strike on the production line as in the boardroom. Research has repeatedly indicate that the lowest mental health, in terms of greater anxiety and depression and lower active involvement in life, is found among workers at the bottom of an organization, not among the supposedly over-stressed executives. In a 1991 survey, 94% of companies in the USA thought mental illness should be of concern to them, but only about one in 10 organizations had any programme for dealing with it. For those which do, 80% get back $3 for every $1 invested; in some sectors where training costs and salaries are high and where reducing staff turnover is a very significant benefit, such as the airlines industry, the returns are claimed to exceed 15 to 1. 42% of people in the USA report feeling "used up" by the end of the working day.
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched new guidance Help on Work-related Stress – a short guide to help small firms tackle work-related stress. It followed the results of an HSE survey, Self-reported Work-related Illness in 1995, which found that half a million people suffer from stress-related ill-health which they believe is caused, or made worse, by work. This makes it the second most commonly reported work-related condition after musculoskeletal disorders.
If people are under undue stress they make mistakes, and making mistakes in important contracts can be very expensive indeed. The penalties for allowing employees to become overstressed could become enormous. In the USA workers have successfully sued employers when affected by stress at work. This trend is expected to spread to other countries.
Individuals' personalities play a role in how they viewed their jobs and health. Outgoing people are more likely to say their jobs had positive effects on their health, while nervous, anxious people are prone to feeling their jobs hurt their health. Some employees are predisposed to find stress under whatever conditions they work and should be recognized as stress prone. How such individuals handle their own aggression is then the key factor in determining whether they will experience the kind of stress than can lead to heart attacks, high blood pressure and other health problems.