Is workplace stress hurting your practice?

October 1, 2006
William J. Lynott

William is a former management consultant and corporate executive who writes business and financial articles for a variety of consumer and trade publications.

There are effective techniques for minimizing the harm of workplace stress.

Fortunately, the deadly violence that jarred the U.S. Postal Service a few years ago is a still a rare consequence of workplace stress. More often, this growing phenomenon simmers just beneath the surface, covertly eating away at morale, productivity, and, in a medical practice, patient relations.

If you think that workplace stress does not exist in your practice, you're probably wrong, according to Peter J. Frost, PhD, professor of organizational behavior, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Emotional pain exists in every organization at some point, and it takes a heavy toll," Dr. Frost said. "More frequently than we'd like, valuable employees have negative experiences in the workplace that leave their hopes dashed, their goals derailed, or their confidence undermined."

"Sometimes, the major toxic handler is the principal or manager, and that can mean serious damage to both the organization and the individual," Dr. Frost said.

What is workplace stress?

The concept of workplace stress is not given to overly simplified explanations. However, for the busy physician concerned about the health of the work environment in his or her practice, a brief characterization may be helpful.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in its publication Sources of Workplace Stress offers this definition: "Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands. In general, the combination of high demands in a job and a low amount of control over the situation can lead to stress."

What are the symptoms?

According to CMHA, there is a wide range of symptoms that may indicate difficulty coping with workplace stress:

Physical: headaches, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, chest pain, shortness of breath, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, increased perspiration, fatigue, insomnia, frequent illness.

Psychosocial: anxiety, irritability, sadness, defensiveness, anger, mood swings, hypersensitivity, apathy, depression, slowed thinking or racing thoughts, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or of being trapped.

Behavioral: overeating or loss of appetite, impatience, quickness to argue, procrastination, increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased smoking, withdrawal or isolation from others, neglect of responsibility, poor job performance, poor personal hygiene, change in religious practices, change in close family relationships.

If left untended, workplace stress eventually can lead to employee turnover, reduced efficiency, illness, or even death. Absenteeism, illness, alcoholism, petty internal politics, bad or snap decisions, indifference and apathy, and lack of motivation or creativity are all visible by-products of an over-stressed workplace.

What are the causes?

One school of thought suggests that personality characteristics and the ability of the worker to cope are the primary factors that determine whether conditions on the job will result in workplace stress. In other words, conditions that are stressful for one person may not pose a problem for someone else. Supporters of this position suggest that preventing workplace stress calls for concentrating on the workers themselves and finding ways to help them cope with the demands of the job.

However, most scientific studies suggest that there are common working conditions that will be stressful to most people. These include such things as the imposition of unreasonable workloads, uneven or biased treatment by managers and supervisors, and lack of control over working conditions. Supporters of this viewpoint argue that improved working conditions and more attention to job design are the most important ways to minimize job stress.

While these opposing viewpoints may suggest different ways to prevent stress in your workplace, Dr. Frost feels that there are effective techniques for minimizing the harm of workplace stress no matter what the cause.

Six ways to be an effective toxic handler