Reducing stress at work

by 01 May 2007

Stress on the job creates high costs for business and reduces morale, productivity and earnings. Teresa Russell talks to two organisations that have taken a holistic approach to lowering and preventing job stress

Stress in the workplace is not a new phenomenon. It has probably been around since at least the industrial revolution, although some may argue that for as long as there has been work, there has been negative stress associated with it.

Workplace stress (among everyone from policemen to accountants) is usually the result of high demands on the job, real or perceived lack of control concerning those demands, poor day-to-day organisation and communication and an unsupportive work environment.

Workers compensation claims for stress are among the most costly category of claims on employers. Losses also occur through increased absenteeism, low presenteeism (‘body at work, brain in neutral’), recruitment and training costs due to staff turnover and low productivity. In fact, many of the stress reduction programs employers started giving their staff over a decade ago were driven by a desire to reduce compensation claims and improve productivity.

John Toohey, currently head of the graduate school of business at RMITUniversity, did major research on workplace stress in the late 1980s. “I found that most of the problems presenting as occupational stress, either as claims or medical conditions, were primarily associated with HR management, rather than illness or injury. Therefore, the management of stress-related problems should have been based on HR management interventions and not simply on medical referrals,” he says.

Many organisations have moved on from the reactive phase of addressing high stress levels at work and now view it as an integral part of their risk management strategy.

Holistic viewpoint

Cheryl Ormond is the health and safety adviser for Santos’ corporate environment, health, safety and sustainability department. She oversees the company’s health and well-being programs in Australia. Santosis an Australian based oil and gas exploration and production company operating internationally from its headquarters in Adelaide. It directly employs 1,000 office-based and around 600 field-based employees, as well as a further 3,000 to 3,500 contractors that are treated like its own staff, in health and safety terms.

“We look at stress reduction from a holistic point of view. Our health and wellbeing standard addresses both the physical and mental health of our people. They are closely linked to each other,” says Ormond.

“Many companies have a strong focus on safety, but health is often left off. One of our corporate values is caring. Health and wellbeing fits well into that value,” she adds. The company’s safety vision is we all go home from work without injury or illness.

Judy Utley is the HR manager at Treasury Corporation of Victoria (TCV), the central financing authority for the state of Victoria. The financial markets based statutory authority employs 55 staff in Melbourne’s CBD. Utley too sees stress reduction as part of a total health and wellbeing strategy.

“We introduced a health at work program over eight years ago. It was more about attraction and retention of staff at the time, but it has morphed into a stress management program over time,” says Utley.

Employee issues

Santos and TCV employ people with contrasting profiles. “We have a predominantly male workforce, with an average age of 47-51. The field workers operate on a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off, fly-in, fly-out basis,”says Ormond. “This workforce profile can provide challenges, as men in this age group do not traditionally look after their health and wellbeing,” she concedes.

Ormond conducted a health and wellbeing survey last year, in which people predominantly reported their own eating habits as good. However, according to compiled health check data, there are some issues with high blood pressure and obesity.

TCV is a mix of baby boomer, Generation X and Generation Y employees with an average age in their mid-30s. Average tenure of seven years is higher than one would expect from this group. Around 70 per cent of its staff either runs or goes to the gym regularly.

Utley believes that stress in TCV could occur as a result of one of five issues. They are, incorrect job design; having the right skills (training and development) to do the job; bullying, harassment or discrimination; peak workflow conditions and personalities that are more open to negative stressors.

Successful programs

Both Ormond and Utley agree that one of the keys to success of any stress reduction program is to not actually call it a stress reduction program. They say it should be pitched as a holistic health and wellbeing program.

As TCV’s staff is mostly young and fit, Utley says that their programs aim to prevent stress, rather than cure it. In line with that, and understanding that a healthy mind is unlikely to operate in an unhealthy body, they provide weekly on-site yoga, pilates and personal training classes; provide health awareness and education classes; do annual general health testing (including blood tests); flu vaccinations; skin checks; and employ a ‘roving ergonomics specialist’ to walk through the office and review workplace design every two months.

When Ormond launched Santos’ health and wellbeing standard 15 months ago after lengthy and extensive consultation with staff, it coincided with the appointment of a national provider for health and wellbeing programs, a DVD explaining the strategy to all employees and a health expo at all sites in Australia. The expos included a range of practitioners, including massage, iridologist, blood pressure and health checks, skin checks, their EAP provider and healthy eating displays, information and giveaways. They subsequently ran men’s and women’s health seminars that covered a range of topics, including work-life balance and stress reduction; seminars on healthy eating and sleeping; a meditation course to 80 office staff in Adelaide and a health check program across the workforce which highlighted areas of concern.

Programs scheduled as a result of the data collected from the health check program include healthy eating and exercise for the field and office workers and a stress resilience seminar for the office staff.

“The key to a good program is having lots of variety. There has been something for everyone in the range of programs we have run,” says Ormond. Feedback from staff has been overwhelmingly positive too. One manager at the CooperBasin site emailed Ormond. “Just wanted to let you know that the men’s health sessions were a huge hit! I’ve had excellent feedback (and one guy’s even eating natural yoghurt and muesli for brekkie!”) it read.

Measuring results

Ormond now has baseline data at Santos and will monitor changes each year. The one she is most concerned about is blood pressure and obesity levels. As absenteeism rates and stress claims are “very low”at Santos, benefits from the health and wellbeing program are unlikely to be reflected in these statistics.

Utley says she has been asked to try to measure stress levels in the workforce, but believes it impossible, as it is such a personal issue. Again, tenure and absenteeism are better than average, so measurement in these areas is of little value. However, she says that some of the defined behaviours in TCV’s agreed values convey that people are not to put stress on others as a result of poor behaviour. Utley has seen changes in the last two years as a result. “People now think before they speak and are less likely to shoot from the hip,” she reports.

Causes of stress

Specific work factors: excessive workload; tedious or meaningless tasks; long hours and low pay;

infrequent rest breaks; and unreasonable performance demands.

Physical environment: noise and overcrowding; poor air quality; ergonomic problems; and health and

safety risks (heavy equipment, toxic chemicals).

Organisational practices: unclear responsibilities or expectations; conflicting job demands; multiple

supervisors; lack of autonomy or participation in decision-making; inefficient communication patterns; and

lack of family-friendly policies.

Workplace change: fear of layoff; frequent personnel turnover; lack of preparation for technological

changes; poor chances for advancement or promotion; and tensions brought about by greater workplace


Interpersonal relationships: Distant, uncommunicative supervisors; poor performance from subordinates;

office politics, competition, and other conflicts among staff; bullying or harassment; and problems caused by

excessive time away from family.