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An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

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Occupational Stress

A term commonly used in the professional business industry, occupational stress refers to the ongoing or progressing stress an employee experiences due to the responsibilities, conditions, environment, or other pressures of the workplace. There are several types of occupational stress, depending on the individual employee, their job role, the company culture, and more.

Major causes of occupational stress

While the sources of occupational stress can vary from person to person, it’s important to know that employees of all organizations—regardless of how big or how small they may be—can be affected by occupational stress. Some major examples of occupational stressors include:

  • Strict policies and protocols implemented by the organization

  • Restricted possibilities for professional and personal self-growth

  • Conflicts among individuals in a department or between organizational groups

  • Workforce micromanagement and mismanagement

  • Lack of support from human resource departments

  • Personal, situational, or professional issues

  • Bullying, belittling, and discriminating

  • Poor time management

  • Little to no occupational guidance or direction

  • Being overworked

  • Performance expectations that far surpass an employee’s training and abilities

  • Regular threats of termination

  • Loss of wages, pay cuts, and benefits

No matter what the cause may be, the effects of occupational stress can be monumentally damaging to the overall well-being and productivity of the employee. Not only can occupational stress cause accelerated aging and other personal issues, but it can also greatly hamper an employee’s motivation, inspiration, and dedication to their work.

The occupational stress scale

Bristol Stress and Health at Work conducted a thorough study that helped determine the scale and severity of occupational stress across a broad and random population of employees. This study also highlighted what occupational stress is and how it affects individuals more than general life stress, and how occupational stress affected performance and efficiency. In addition to finding that 20% of participants suffer from high or extremely high levels of occupational stress due to stressful working conditions, the study also emphasized that this excessive stress had a negative effect on physical and mental health, as well as physiology and mental performance.

As exemplified by this occupational stress scale, workplace conditions can have a great impact on the overall well-being and productivity of employees. HR departments can develop their own occupational stress scale to survey the effects of these pressures in their own organizations. By determining if, when, and how employees are being affected by workplace stressors, HR departments can take the necessary steps and changes to improve occupational stress management tactics, workplace conditions, and employee wellbeing.

Occupational health stress at work

When it comes to understanding what work-related stress is, it’s critical to first be able to identify the signs of stress in the workplace. The most common symptoms of occupational stress include:

  • Lacking the motivation to complete basic job requirements

  • Missing deadlines

  • Frequent feelings of general stress, chaos, and confusion

  • Feelings of inferiority to coworkers

  • Anxiety and abnormally high blood pressure

  • Noticeable changes in diet

  • Increased sleeplessness and irritability

  • Abnormal feelings of depression, hopelessness, helplessness, dejection, and failure

  • Excessive perspiration and heart palpitations

  • Inability to perform or communicate in a productive manner

  • Feelings of excessive burnout

Employees suffering from occupational stress generally exhibit signs of a stress response. There are three stages of the stress response which can be used to identify if an individual is, in fact, struggling with occupational stress.

  • Stage 1: Alarm. Physical, emotional, or mental stress, triggers the “alarm” response which is the body’s physical “fight or flight” response. This acts as an alarm to the physical and mental system, sending a surge of adrenaline to all parts of the body. In the sense of general life stress, this stage is often short-lived. However, with occupational stress, this stage can be long-term, which triggers stage 2.

  • Stage 2: Resistance. After a prolonged surge of adrenaline, the body tries to regain balance by boosting chemicals in the brain like melatonin which counteract and calm the alarm system. However, with prolonged stress, the first stage of alarm overpowers the resistance stage which begins a toxic cycle and can cause sleep deprivation, fatigue, irritability, and concentration issues.

  • Stage 3: Exhaustion. After battling a cycle between Stage 1 and Stage 2, the body simply succumbs to the unending stress and completely shuts down. Once the body’s mental and physical defense systems are inhibited, it can quickly fall victim to illness and infection.

Many people who suffer from untreated prolonged occupational stress present a variety of health concerns like viral and bacterial infections, increased hormone levels, excessive internal damage, and severe skin conditions. For these reasons alone, treating occupational stress is critical.

Coping with occupational stress

There are several ways employees can treat, cope with, and ward off occupational success. By maintaining a diligent, reasonable work pace, employees can prevent procrastination and consistently finish the tasks they begin. Additionally, employees should place importance on things like punctuality, regularity, time management, honesty, diligence, and discipline, as these characteristics help promote a positive, professional attitude that’s often recognized and rewarded by upper management personnel.

HR departments, on the other hand, can do their part in preventing occupational stress among staff members by encouraging a positive, proactive workplace environment. Quickly extinguishing bullying, discrimination, and harassing behaviors is vital, as is promoting an open-door policy in which individuals feel safe and comfortable reporting such behavior. More than anything, however, by implementing activities, initiatives, and tactics that keep employees feeling supported, motivated, and comfortable, HR departments can play a major role in keeping occupational stress levels to a minimum.

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