The rise of employment
stress claims in recent years concerns employers, with
broadening workers compensation laws as well as
new federal avenues for litigation making it more likely
that any employer can be sued. In addition, workplace
violence is frequently seen as either the result of
tension within an organization or as a source of tension
to all employees. Ultimately, stress related illness
and stress claims cost the employer. Employers pay eighty
percent of health insurance payments along with required
workers compensation coverage. Legal fees to defend
stress claims can also be substantial. Finally, there
are indirect consequences to the employer in the form
of absenteeism and reduced quality of production. This
translates to a higher cost for goods and services.
While much has been written about the causes of this
rise in employment stress claims, the employers
focus should appropriately be on preventing them. A
two-fold strategy is recommended: reducing workplace
stress and protecting against litigation.
stress can be approached by addressing the factors within
both the organization and the employee. Where the emphasis
should be greater has traditionally been a point of
difference between management and labor. For example,
management typically sees stress as an individual employee
response. Studies show that managers choose to recommend
interventions that teach individual responsibility and
improve coping skills of the employee. On the other
had, labor (and union leaders) typically advocate interventions
at situational and environmental stimuli. They would
recommend changes in organizational structure and other
system variables such as work content, task demands
and quality of supervision.
factors is not only helpful to reduce employee stress,
but presumably helps the efficiency of an organization.
Analysis of working conditions starts with an assessment
of physical plant factors, i.e. noise, lighting, air
quality, etc. It also includes an assessment of the
effectiveness of the company structure and job design.
Most people want to work, not only for the money, but
also for what work brings to their lives. They want
to work in spite of the fact that many hold jobs that
do not use their abilities well. Successful jobs are
those that recognize a personss inherent need
to be useful and productive. In surveys of employees,
task content is rated as the most important factor in
whose personal style and background is suitable for
a job is also important. Subsequently, adequate training
and development will increase the security and sense
of challenge that the employee feels. Certainly, no
one type of structure fits every company, but companies
that allow participation and some level of autonomy
in preferences and practices i.e. decision latitude,
are less likely to be stressful for an employee. Some
research studies, for example, have shown that lack
of decision latitude, as well as job dissatisfaction
generally, are important predictors of industrial disability.
The interface between
employer with employee, and employee with other employees
is a critical area which is frequently a source of stress.
Company objectives should, as a minimum, attempt to
foster the development of an atmosphere of mutual trust
and cooperation. From a management perspective, that
requires proper leadership training. Constructive means
at motivation, team work, and effective conflict resolution
are all points of concern. Conducting internal surveys
or investigations of stress generators allows employers
to identify an hopefully rectify those problems before
they lead to a stress claim.
on employee factors have received a great deal
of attention throughout business and industry, and stress
management interventions have become popular. Some of
these interventions help employees to cognitively redefine
their environment. This means that employees are taught
to learn alternate and more effective ways of appraising
stressful situations. This can be in the form of modifying
their own expectations, reality testing, and improved
understanding of individual differences. In a simple
analogy, employees learn to rethink how they understand
their work e.g. this is not a problem, this is a challenge.
Other means of stress
management intervention focus even more specifically
on an employees emotional responses. Many corporations
today are committed to general wellness and health programs.
The theory, of course, is that healthy employees are
more satisfied with their life and with their work.
They are also more likely to see their employer as concerned
with their welfare. Programs that promote exercise,
smoking cessation, hypertension screening and control,
weight and nutritional counseling are examples of this.
In addition, a number of programs have been introduced
to more directly deal with emotional and stress issues.
Meditation, relaxation techniques, group discussions
and sensitivity training are examples. Also, time management,
goal setting and interpersonal effectiveness can be
taught in a program format. While some of these programs
have had a slow start, studies show that there has gradually
been increased participation when they are available.
Outcome research has documented their beneficial effects.
assistance programs (EAPs) have been widely used to
give an opportunity for early intervention when problems
arise. Many of these programs started in recognition
of the substantial percentage of the work force that
may have alcohol or drug abuse issues. However, they
have now grown to be a first line intervention in many
psychological and stress problems. EAPs can be established
within a company itself or contracted out to a private
organization. Confidentiality is maintained for the
employee, but the EAP can serve as an important interface
between the employee and employer on issues that concern
both. Early interventions of this kind can prevent a
stress problem from becoming a stress claim.
Probably the best
protection against litigation is making the right selection
of an employee at the time of hiring. Frequently, employees
who have had problems in previous work settings will
continue to show similar problems in any work setting,
and create personnel issues. Many employment stress
claims are a result of personnel issues either directly
or indirectly. So, for example, when an employer had
to then take corrective action for performance problems,
disturbing personality traits, poor motivation, or frank
misbehavior, this creates stress. Such personnel issues
are often the background of not only workers compensation
claims, but also of sexual harassment, wrongful termination,
defamation, lack of accommodation, etc. If the employee
has created these issues in the workplace because of
the employees own behavioral patterns or maladaptive
personality, then the stress claim may serve as a convenient
escape, retaliation or opportunity for financial security.
It is important, therefore, to recognize employees that
may have such propensity through a careful background
search. Screening for personality disturbance, of course,
must be done with great care to avoid a potential claim
on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But, inquiry
into how this candidate performed in other work settings
is appropriate. Frequently, background checks are not
done and previous employers are not actually contacted.
After hire, it is
important that performance evaluations be a routine
part of tracking an employees progress. Some employers
avoid performance evaluations because they are uncomfortable
with confrontation or are afraid to disturb morale.
However, this is a mistake. Carefully documented performance
evaluations, done in a constructive but honest manner,
can be helpful to both employer and employee. The significance
of this cannot be overstated. For example, once an employee
had filed a stress claim, a pattern of poor performance
may be a relevant issue. Yet, if performance evaluations
have not been done or previous difficulties have not
been documented, the employee may be presumed to have
been performing well prior to the incidents which are
now raised as the cause of stress.
Because of the rise
of employment stress claims, employers should create
an atmosphere of heightened sensitivity to such issues.
Allowing employees to provide input on stressors within
their organizational structure may help diffuse a potential
claim. Understanding that some employees may be unusually
sensitive is also important. Training managers to know
what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behavior,
and what will not be tolerated can be helpful. For example,
with sexual harassment issues, there should be a generally
accepted policy of no tolerance. Employers and employees
should be aware that even if some behavior is not technically
illegal, it may still result in a stress claim.
develop established procedures for dealing with complaints.
In the case of sexual harassment and discrimination,
especially, complaints should be encourage. Once raised,
complaints should be investigated promptly and completely.
Employees should know that there will be no negative
consequences form issuing a complaint. By establishing
and implementing such procedures, employers give their
employees the message that their complaints will be
treated fairly and there will be no coverup. Following
an investigation, the employee who made the complaint,
should have proper feedback about the results. If discipline
is to be applied, then it could be done in a methodical
and consistent way, which is both incremental in response
as well as sensitive to more egregious behavior.
Employees with mental
impairment may need to be accommodated if they can still
perform the essential functions of the job. Flexibility
in this regard by an employer will not only avoid an
ADA claim, but may result in a productive satisfied
worker. Typical accommodations include flexible leave
from mental health problem, time off for professional
counseling, extra tolerance for unusual behavior, written
instructions where appropriate and flexible work schedules.
Identifying which mental impairments substantially limit
major life actives and which are merely being raised
ot accommodate behavioral disturbances, is an important
area of assessment.
In general, good
labor practices which increase morale, motivation and
productivity will also help avoid employment stress
claims. Because work, by its very nature, is stress,
it is impossible to completely avoid stressful conditions.
The actions that an employer takes out of organizational
necessity or because of a business climate, may result
in stress regardless of the manner in which they are
enacted. However, taking employees stress seriously
and protecting employees from undue stress is humane
and responsible. Being sensitive, therefore, to the
threatening effect of reorganization, expansion, downsizing
and lay-offs, and other such employment decisions may
help avert negative reactions. Steps can often be taken
to accommodate particularly sensitive individuals to
help deal with these potentially negative damaging consequences.
claims are a complex organizational and socio-cultural
problem which cannot be explained by one set of factors
alone. Employers will be helped to deal with this phenomenon
and will prevent unnecessary litigation by addressing
the problem through a multi-level approach that looks
at factors within both the organization and the employee
(See Ivancevich, J.J., et al: Worksite Stress Management
Interventions. American psychologist, 45 (2)
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