Why should workers come up with solutions for workplace stress-related problems? It’s up to the employers to act, and a time management course won’t do the trick, say psychology professors Michiel Kompier and Sabine Geurts.
Last week, home affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher proclaimed a workplace stress week, and not for nothing: stress at work is a wide-spread and growing phenomenon bringing a range of psychological and physical problems in its wake. More people need to take time off work because of illness.
Some of the causes of workplace stress have to do with the changing nature and context of what we do. Because of ICT and automation, modern jobs are highly intensive and primarily done behind a computer. Relatively simple production work has been moved to low wage countries and the economy has become focused on knowledge and services. What we are left with are jobs that can be complex and emotionally draining. It could mean dealing with aggressive customers, patients or prisoners, for instance.
Modern jobs are often time and place independent. 30% of Dutch workers structurally work overtime and many have difficulty distinguishing between work time and private time. Production norms have been increased significantly too: ten years ago the window cleaners of the Radboud university had 240 hours to clean the windows. Now they have to do the same job in half the time.
But why is Asscher putting the responsibility for tackling workplace stress on the shoulders of the workers? In interviews he explained that work stress should no longer be a taboo and that workers should not wait to tell their superiors about any problems they are experiencing. Why not put the onus on employers? Aren’t they the ones responsible for decent working conditions? They have an obligation to deal with stress factors at work.
‘Psychosocial factors’ and workplace stress are even mentioned explicitly in the legislation governing health and safety in the workplace. Asscher is effectively protecting employers who have for years chosen the easy way out when it comes to combating work-related stress. People are offered relaxation training or a time management course which may deal with some of the symptoms but won’t tackle the cause. Take, for instance, the case of a junior doctor working at a teaching hospital. He or she works extremely long hours for weeks on end causing tiredness and stress-related problems. A mindfulness course is not going to do the trick. An employer worth his salt will take a good look at the work/rest ratio and adjust them where necessary.
A government stimulated project in a large regional hospital showed that adjusting schedules, paying attention to workplace ergonomics and improving communication all helped to reduce workplace stress and illness-related absence. Why is this knowledge not used elsewhere? Danish dialogue The Dutch government has earmarked €1m for this campaign. The money will be used to raise awareness among employers and employees about the problems of workplace stress and find ways of dealing with it.
In 2005, scientific research institute TNO put the cost of workplace stress at around €4bn a year; it will now be significantly higher. Compared to that a million euros is a drop in the ocean. It would be better to take a leaf out of the Danish government’s book. The Danes have just launched a plan to stimulate employers to improve work organisation and make the work itself less stressful. The plan includes a better dialogue with companies but also more frequent inspections and higher fines for bad employment practices. Good employment practice in Danish terms means that it is completely normal for business to make sure the work can be done without causing mental of physical problems. That is what we need to achieve here too: jobs that won’t endanger health and are productive and pleasurable at the same time!
Michiel Kompier is professor of work and organisational psychology at Radboud University Nijmegen. Sabine Geurts is professor of work and organisational psychology at Radboud University Nijmegen. This article appeared earlier in Trouw