What is Stress? Workplace stress is a serious health and safety hazard that can have devastating effects. Stress occurs when there is a poor match between workplace demands and a worker’s degree of control. We feel stress as a result of demands that are placed upon mind and body. Like violence and overwork, stress is a significant health and safety hazard directly related to how work is organized.
There are two forms of stress. Normal stress is characterized by:
The Generalized Stress Response is the phrase used to describe a variety of physical reactions to stress: increased metabolism, blood pressure, cholesterol and fatty acids in the bloodstream; decreased protein synthesis; faster blood clotting; increased production of stomach acids, blood sugar for energy; localized inflammation; tensed up muscles; and sweating to cool muscles.
Stress can be associated with severe physical and/or psychological effects, such as sleep disorders; fatigue; chronic aches and pains; depression; changes in sexual activity; conflict with family, friends, and co-workers; weight gain or weight loss; greater susceptibility to injury; immune system depression; and greater vulnerability to illness and disease.
What causes stress? Stress is largely caused by poor work organization factors such as: lack of control and conflicting work demands; lack of decision-making participation; lack of training and direction; unclear work responsibilities; privatization, outsourcing, downsizing, mergers, staff cutbacks, and restructuring; overwork and poor work shift schedules. Cutbacks, privatization, reorgs, and downsizing have contributed to a heightened sense of job insecurity. All of these factors cause or compound workplace stress.
Control is central work organization factor linked to stress. Lack of control at work, not having the ability to decide how a job is done, can make workers sick. Excessive demands also cause stress. When lack of control is combined with high demands, a worker will almost certainly suffer high stress levels. These factors can create toxic workplace stress, causing increased heart disease and possibly death, depression, exhaustion, low self-esteem, and increased upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Physical working conditions such as noise and vibration, temperature extremes, overcrowding, exposure to toxic substances, and poor air quality also cause stress. Bullying, harassment and violence can cause stress and are linked to work organization.
What are the hazards? Stress affects the physical and psychological health of CUPE members. But it also spills out of the workplace, negatively affecting members’ family lives. The cumulative effects of stress can be devastating.
Major outcomes of stress are:
Actions: Stress hazards largely centre on issues of control and work organization. Taking action on stress involves members exercising their own control at work.
The following actions can help combat stress:
A stress policy is a good starting point for change. The health and safety committee in your workplace should be instrumental in tabling and pushing for the adoption of a workplace stress prevention policy. Stress can be addressed through collective bargaining, as agreements should always aim to improve workers’ health and safety. Because stress is largely caused by how work in organized, collective agreements can be used to reorganize work to eliminate stress hazards.
While Canada has no explicit stress legislation or regulations, the responsibility for providing a healthy and safe workplace still rests with employers. This responsibility is known as the general duty clause. But it does not go far enough to prevent stress hazards. Legislation is needed that explicitly covers stress as a health and safety hazard. CUPE members can get compensation for stress-related injuries and illnesses in some parts of the country.
Compensation boards are reluctant to open what they perceive to be the floodgates on stress claims by compensating for stress-related illnesses and “accidents.” But it’s vital that CUPE members file for compensation in cases of toxic stress. Only by pressuring compensation boards by filing stress claims, as well as arguing the stress component of other claims (e.g., ergonomic injuries), is there any hope to reverse the current practice. CUPE is committed to eliminating workplace stress by recognizing it is a health and safety issue. Ending stress in CUPE workplaces requires the same diligence and dedication as other health and safety issues demand.
This fact sheet provides some information to address the hazard. More detailed information is presented in the CUPE health and safety guideline Enough Workplace Stress: Organizing for Change.
For more information contact:
CUPE National Health and Safety Branch
1375 St. Laurent Boul.
Tel.: (613) 237-1590
Fax: (613) 237-5508
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