Why Stress is a Workplace Safety Issue

Silhouette of a worker with their elbows on their desk and their brow resting on their clasped hands.
Category: Industry Insights

By Matt Rowley
Posted on

For many people, the idea of workplace safety is focused on hazards that can lead to serious injury. We may think of dangerous jobs as ones that require workers to climb ladders, use complicated tools or work in dangerous conditions – or all three. A line worker for a power company, for instance, needs to follow significant safety protocols to avoid injuries.

The majority of jobs – especially desk jobs – aren’t inherently dangerous, but some safety factors aren’t as obvious. A growing body of evidence is showing in many workplaces, the greatest threat to employee safety isn’t necessarily the working conditions or tasks themselves; the biggest threat may be stress.

Stress and the Workplace

First, it’s important to acknowledge that stress can come from a variety of work-related and non-work-related sources. There’s no denying that stress affects performance, and Americans in 2020 are experiencing high levels of psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stress in the workplace was on the rise even before the coronavirus outbreak, and the sources of workplace stress vary. In an article about employee burnout, Gallup identified five main causes:

  1. Unfair treatment at work.
  2. Unmanageable workload.
  3. Lack of role clarity.
  4. Lack of communication and support from manager.
  5. Unreasonable time pressure.

How Stress Affects Safety

Many discussions about workplace stress are focused on productivity, but organizations should also pay attention to its impact on safety and health. Here’s a breakdown of four ways that stress can affect employee safety.

  1. Stress is a distraction. When you are under stress, the source of your stress is often at the forefront of your mind. A looming deadline, a confrontation with a manager, rumors of layoffs or any number of things can take your mind off what you are doing. This can in turn lead you to forget safety protocols or make mistakes that lead to injury.
  2. Stress can lead to shortcuts. When a worker is on a tight deadline, shortcuts become a distinct possibility and can lead to injury. Even when all safety precautions are followed, rushing through tasks can cause harm.
  3. Stress can lead to substance abuse. Safety experts note that many people turn to drugs, alcohol or medication to help deal with their stress outside of work, but the effects of substance abuse can spill over into the work day and create safety issues. Even coffee, a staple in many workplaces, can contribute to workplace safety. Workers with full schedules often use coffee or other caffeinated drinks for an energy boost, but too much caffeine can actually exacerbate feelings of stress.
  4. Stress can contribute to violence. An alarming number of workplace injuries are due to assaults. While other factors are often at play in workplace violence incidents, stressed out workers are more likely to engage in acts of violence, which can lead to injury.

Identifying and Addressing Stress

Employers have a responsibility to maintain safe workplaces for their employees. This includes helping employees manage stress, whether it’s from their work, their personal lives or COVID-19. This doesn’t mean that work should be stress free – stress is a part of life – but it’s important for organizations to help their workers manage their stress to be healthy and productive.

It’s important for businesses to work with safety and health professionals to learn to identify the signs of stress and develop programs and policies to keep it in check. Not only will implementing stress management programs keep workers safer, but it can also save the company money by reducing absenteeism, increasing productivity, reducing worker’s compensation claims and other costs related to injuries, and reducing turnover. Stress may be a part of life, but it shouldn’t put anyone in danger.

Education for Safety Professionals

For more than 25 years, Columbia Southern University has been a leader in occupational safety and health education. Taught by experienced safety experts, CSU’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in occupational safety and health are recognized by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals as Graduate Safety Practitioner® Qualified Academic Programs. CSU’s occupational safety and health degree programs meet the educational requirements mandated by the BCSP for the Associate Safety Professional designation (ASP®) and the Certified Safety Professional designation (CSP®).

To learn more about degree programs that will help you meet the safety needs of today’s workplace, visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu/OSH or call (877) 347-6050.