I felt the job was driving me nuts: Stressors and Stress

For two decades now the occupational stressors/stress regulatory debate in Australia has limped along with the same arguments, same objections, same type of discussions.  The same largely impractical documents mentioning psychological effects, physical effects, ‘good stress’ and what is or isn’t a disease and, of course, finger-wagging advice about risk assessments.

Exactly how has all this benefited workers?  So far as I can see across many industries very little indeed.  I can actually identify individual workplaces where 20 year old stressors have still not been eliminated nor controlled, others are worse even though managers have come and gone.

There was a period in this debate when the bio-medical models were prominent (The Fluid Phase) with a focus on the ‘stress hormones’ – adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and dopamine.  Melatonin and serotonin were also discussed, but not nearly as much.  Result?  No benefit to workers.  There was a period of debate about words (The Semantic Phase): what exactly did ‘stress’ mean?  What about ‘strain’?  Or ‘eustress’ (euphoric stress)?  What about ‘distress’?  Or the more insidious ‘good’ or ‘positive stress’ and ‘hardiness’, remember them?  Result?  No benefit to workers at the job.  Then there was forensic interest in ‘which exactly contributes more to occupational stress: life generally, genetics, personality or things at work’ (The Multiplex Phase)?

Changes in organisation, in numbers of workers, in rosters, in workloads (vis a vis process and machinery changes) have resulted in improvements, but these have been rare.  The matters of shorter shifts, longer breaks (say, at 3 am), genuine reductions in levels of fatigue and fear of job loss have generally become worse.Pick an industry, pick a workplace: A mine?  A foundry?  A white goods factory?  A textile factory?  A road construction job?  A supermarket?  A school with its special pressures?  A busy hotel with a restaurant?  An office?  A hospital?  A psychiatric ward?  An aged care facility?  A fishing boat?  Food processing

Now consider some presumably unique workloads

  • A pilot landing a plane with 500 passengers in bad weather;
  • A marine pilot manoeuvring and berthing a giant chemical tanker in port at 11 am 2 kms from the CBD;
  • The surgeon at a delicate moment of risk to life;
  • A school teacher maintaining control of a large and difficult class, day after day, week after week;
  • An offshore platform worker on 12-14 hour night shifts, on a cycle of 14 days at a time away from home;
  • A miner 1200 meters underground working in 400C in a seismically-prone mine that has already killed workers;
  • A bus driver under constant time table pressure in peak traffic;
  • A nurse watching suffering patients, having to manage her/his own prolonged emotion work;
  • The psychiatric nurse trying to handle unpredictable and violent psychotic patients;
  • A soldier being shot at in a battle field;
  • Ambulance medics at yet another road incident with serious injuries;
  • A fire fighter at a 4.30 am house fire;
  • A 54 year old worker in constant (management-orchestrated) fear of job loss

Similarities?  There’ll be workload, various fluctuating demands, at times conflicting massages to deal with, and many kinds of rosters and associated fatigue.  There will be various degrees of control, loss of control or lack of control, and all will be processed and managed through a mix of personal and socio-occupationally influenced perceptions

Certain of these job events will be experienced as stressors by some workers, (they mightn’t call it that), and differently from time to time.  Workers will say things like, “This puts pressure on me”, “This really makes me angry”, “ This really frustrates me”, “The work pace is so hard I barely get time to breathe”, “I can’t stand the constant shrieking noise that gets through the ear muffs and into your bones”, “I can’t stand the smell of the fumes that gets into and stays in my skin”, “I am anxious about using this chemical”, “She always treats me as if I don’t have a brain”, “I just can’t get the paperwork done with all these projects he keeps piling on me”, “I can’t just neglect the patient, but I can’t cope with all the staff that’s gone”, “How am I supposed to know what’s going on in the bloody pressure vessels without proper training?”……. and so on.

These are heard at work daily and are expressions of feelings generally referred to as ‘stress’.  The triggers and causes are usually some easily named job events.

So what’s the point? There’s nothing complicated or esoteric about most of this.  By and large workers suffer under these pressures (pick your favourite descriptor).  The range of such suffering has many variations.  If it were asbestos in the factory (for example) we would not ask workers to walk around with respirators and masks all day.  We’d eliminate or control the asbestos.  Why do some believe that with this particular workplace hazard (the stressors) the best primary approach is to ‘train’ the worker to ‘cope better’ with the resulting ‘stress’?

At work the method ought to be a simple one: ask workers to name/describe the job events that they experience as stressors, and then, just like with any other hazard, either eliminate or control them.  The majority of these ‘noxious’ job events can be handled like that.

Yossi Berger
National OHS coordinator
Australian Workers’ Union

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories depression, OHS, psychiatric, research, safety, stress, Uncategorized, wellness, workplaceTags , , , ,

7 thoughts on “I felt the job was driving me nuts: Stressors and Stress”

  1. Brilliant Marian and so it is with huge numbers of employers.

    Ask for more resources? right, OK, can I have a job reference to go with that.

  2. For mine a \”circuit-breaker\” is needed. I reckon work stress is a bit like racism: it\’s easy to spot, it\’s common, but few people are prepared to take direct action against perpetrators. It all seems to be about the risk of exposure and possible ramifications. I think there is a relatively straightforward way to identify workplaces with \”stress cultures\”.

    We have the Police and hospitals reporting to OH&S regulators when they have evidence of a workplace injury. Therapists and counsellors get to see clients coming from the same companies over and over. Can\’t see why these professionals who have the job of rectifying the damage done by work stress shouldn\’t be encouraged to report to OH&S regulators when they identify a particularly high frequency of clients coming from a company.

  3. I think, Kevin, that there does need to be a strong emphasis on leadership from the top when it comes to workloads because our managers often set the pace.

    One day I got a call from \”Greg\” who\’d mentored me while I was a vocation worker years before. Greg asked me to come for a job interview at his new workplace but I was already happy. Working for a family-owned business in a country town, I had really nice work/life balance and, at 24, was already buying my own house. But because he was so persistent and because I felt I owed him something for his help in my student days, I went. Greg told me he was on a wonderful path. He had new-born twins, was doing his MBA and working 10 or 12 hours a day. Greg was a believer!

    Before the job interview, they let me have a one-on-one chat with my prospective manager. He also had a ridiculous workload coupled with post-grad studies but didn\’t seem quite so evangelical about it as Greg. The panel of 12 at my interview asked about my ability to commit and dedicated nearly an hour detailing the exciting opportunities that lay ahead if I excelled.

    The next morning, I turned down the job and that afternoon got a call from Greg saying the MD, Chip, insisted on meeting the person who had declined such an exciting offer. I told Chip I was happy where I was. He lifted the salary package. I told him it wasn\’t about the money or the \”mind-boggling\” career progression they\’d mapped out on my belhalf. He tilted his head on one side and leaned forward, eager to understand.

    It was the workload placed on his staff members that I didn\’t like and because the company was so pushy, I laid it all out for him. Chip leaned back in his chair and said dismissively, \”If anyone working for me is working too hard, it\’s their fault – they should ask for more resources.\”

    I asked him how many hours he worked on average per week. Chest puffed out with pride, \”I work six and a half days per week but I always set aside quality time for the kids on Sunday afternoon.\”

    In terms of workload, the fish rots from the head.

  4. Stress as a claim usually manifests as \”Depression and Anxiety disorder\” and in the main, the primary concern of the insurer is that the condition has come about as the direct consequence of a workplace issue that is not related to any disciplinary action but identifiable unacceptable work conditions or loading of individuals.

    The same claim can also be a sequelae event to a physical injury where pain of injuries causes depression and anxiety.

    Where such a claim will not get a look in is if it is as a result of claim management issues and treatment of the worker by the claims authority.

    The usual course of action by most insurers is to cast doubt on the claim and put the worker through the \”grinder\” of various Independent Medical Experts (how they can be considered independent I have no idea look who selects and pays them) as well as factual investigations etc. etc.

  5. Did I also hear that an injured worker cannot claim stress from the aftermath of the injury? The stress placed on a injured person trying to get some parts of their life back are often (see web and blogs re workcover insults) is nothing compared to the stress from workcover claims people and the insistance that injured workers make up the difference in medical bills. Where oh where are they supposed to get the money from?

  6. Informative post, very provocative. I once worked in an asbestos riddled building, every Monday wiping clear the white powder that formed on my desk (and others) a report that was \’doctored\’ (terminal man\’s confession) and after seeing my father die from mesothelioma, I feel it is a ticking bomb within me. Is this stress? Sure is, but not immediate, not like the stress from constant \’cutting corners\’ and manipulating statistics to show companies in good light with the threat of injury or death to the unlucky workers in the firing line and the fear of speaking up only to be shot down again and again.

  7. It may be possible to begin building a workplace safety culture by looking at the stress related issues identified by workers, otherwise, why have a safety culture at all?

    There is a strong (over) emphasis of leading from the top but most of this involves listening to the lower organisational levels, those at the coalface, those at most risk of death and injury from work. It acknowledges that a company has been allowed to develop without adequate consultation. Executives are having a epiphany by :let\’s ask the workers what they think\”. Good and safe companies always did this.

    Safety improvements and hazard control is not difficult if you listen to the right people. Mostly this is the workforce.

    One of the current management movements in response to stress is resilience. Resilience is a crude and rude dismissal of the psychosocial stress that harms many workers. If a consultant starts spruiking resilience training, show them the door….. and then throw them out.

    There is no resilience or coping strategy listed on the Hierarchy of Controls but there is Elimination of the hazard. In cultural terms this stage can translate as having the company \”have a good look at itself, at how it treats its people\”. In most circumstance this will identify the toxic element in the workplace AND this is usually NOT an individual. Companies often have a
    \”system of (bad) work\” that encourages or condones a lack of dignity, a lack of respect, bullying and abuse that manifest in absenteeism, resignations and workers compensation claims for stress.

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