Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – An epidemic of repetitive strain injuries in Australia more than 30 years ago holds valuable lessons for employers today. It seemingly began with the sudden transition from manual to computer-based technology for routing calls in the Australian telecommunications network. Layoffs, reorganizations and new supervision followed, leaving workers stressed and wondering whether their jobs were secure.
“The response of the workplace was, ‘this is not our problem.’ But what they had not dealt with is how stressful it was for the employees. By not acknowledging this, people felt worse,” said Glenn Pransky, MD associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Scientific advisor to the Lincoln Financial Group. “They went to physicians with arm and hand problems and mental health issues and were out on disability for a long, long time.”
Two lessons can be learned from the situation in the 1980s, Pransky explained. Stress, regardless of where it originates, can create a wide range of problems. Also, medical treatment is not going to be very effective for these sorts of disorders.
“The distinction between workplace problems and personal problems as stressors is often blurred,” explained David Berube, MD chief medical officer at Lincoln Financial Group. “Employers need to focus on the totality of the employee rather than on what’s work related.”
During a session as part of the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s annual conference, Berube and Pransky outlined four categories of stressors facing employees and offered solutions for employers to help their employees be most productive.
Current State of Stress
“Workplace mental health is at an all-time low as a consequence of what’s going on with COVID,” Pransky said, “Even though we may be through the worst, there is still a lot that is unresolved.”
Anger, depression and distress are just some of the feelings among many workers. Understanding how different employees feel at this point can help prevent these issues from becoming significant metal health problems.
A number of problems emerged with the transition to working from home. “First and foremost, loneliness and working longer hours [were] the number one and number two complaints,” Berube said. “The inability to engage with people; getting out in the community. That may have value not previously considered.”
Other complaints included the separation [or lack thereof] between work and personal life, less support from supervisors and/or coworkers, reduced visibility and advancement opportunities, and technology challenges.
“Stressors can add up. The accumulation can create stress,” Berube said. “Concurrently with job changes we have the pandemic and lots of unknowns.”
“A little stress may be a good thing, such as before competing in a race,” Pransky added. “But the problem we see in the time of COVID is too often people’s stress is just too high. They become less productive, develop adverse symptoms and their performance goes down at work.”
Stress in the Workforce
Several specific types of business problems contribute to stress, which can result in symptoms and reduced productivity. Employers can recognize and try to diffuse these.
Job Dead/Resource Imbalance. When the demands of a job persist despite a lack of needed resources, stress may result. For example, a technical problem at the worksite could typically be handled by someone in IT.
“I’m struggling with technology, I have a help center where I can’t easily show them my screen, and my internet problems are my own to figure out,” Pransky said “The demands of the job stay the same, but [employees] don’t have the resources.”
Employers can help by finding out what challenges their workers are facing. Employee surveys can help. Setting up collaborative support groups among employees is another strategy.
Autonomy Paradox. “We all will perform well when in control of our surroundings and we can execute on our plans,” Berube said. “What happens when we are no longer in control and there are issues beyond our control we can’t solve? It’s a setup for failure – especially if we don’t have the connections and resources to resolve them fairly quickly.”
Employers, he said need to be aware of what is happening with their employees. The young family living in a small apartment with a tiny table and children learning remotely, is an example. “It’s very important employers understand all these challenges so they can determine which ones they can assist the employee with so they have good productivity, vs. signing off and saying ‘that’s your issue, you’re in control, you figure it out,’” Berube said. “Regular huddles, engaging employees with supervisors – that’s number one. That will, hopefully, help the supervisor identify some challenges and [help employees] engage with coworkers going through the same issues.”
Role conflict. The pandemic has resulted in many workers having to wear multiple hats, such as to care for children and/or elderly parents at home while they are working.
“Organizations that have really tried hard to address this started out by providing expert resources; employee assistance programs, or [partnering with] a separate organization that has expertise in dealing with caregiving issues to try to brainstorm solutions that might be effective,” Paransky said.
Sudden Transition. The sudden move from worksite to home was done with poor planning by some organizations, creating stress for their workers. Reassuring employees their jobs are secure and providing crisis leadership can help. Among the principles in crisis leadership that can help ease the stress of employees are:
Reassurance about those issues that are of greatest concern – job stability, safety in the workplace, positive reinforcement
- Reassurance the company is stable and doing well.
- Empathy to the extent leaders can indicate they are experiencing the same issues
- Getting people focused on the facts from reliable information sources
- Knowing what is most concerning to employees and responding to it
- Being honest with employees