With between one-quarter and one-third of American workers reporting high levels of job related stress, the need for strategic intervention and prevention has never been greater. Housed under the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studies the American workplace — in all its variety — in an effort to improve employee health and safety and spearhead best practices both throughout the country and around the globe. Today, a top priority of NIOSH is sending the message that stress doesn’t have to be part of the daily routine.

Understanding the stressors

Though each job industry provides unique challenges, Naomi Swanson, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors branch of NIOSH, notes several factors common across all office environments that are shown to amplify stress.

“...Individuals who report higher levels of workplace stressors often times also report higher levels of certain types of body pain.”

The first is high work demand, which can include quantity of work as well as tight time pressures. Another related stress-factor is low job control, which is an employee’s sense of agency over the direction and scope of their workload. “People will disengage and express higher levels of dissatisfaction in workplaces where their skills are underutilized or they don't have the opportunity to grow, advance and learn new skills," Swanson remarks. Swanson also highlights a third “gigantic stressor”: harassment and bullying.

Tapping into the mind/body connection

NIOSH studies has uncovered a link between these psychosocial job stressors and physical stress and injury. “We found that individuals who report higher levels of workplace stressors often times also report higher levels of certain types of body pain or body discomfort,” Swanson notes, “particularly in the back, the neck and the shoulders."

Swanson suggests a simple, daily solution to counteract this toll and improve physical health while on the job. “One of the very best and easiest interventions that people can do,” she shares, “is just make sure that they get up periodically throughout the workday and move around.”

CDC studies demonstrate that even when done in a minimally disruptive way, for a few as five minutes every hour, shorts bursts of movement “significantly reduce discomfort and reduce stress levels across the day.”

Tacking a complex problem

To lessen stress in the workplace, Swanson also highlights the importance of a strong supervisor, who can offer “a cheerleading sort of support,” provide the necessary tools and resources to get the job done, help figure out work/life balance and serve as an advocate when communicating with upper management.

Ultimately, however, Swanson admits that when it comes to combating damaging psychosocial elements in the office, there’s no simple fix. Employees need to communicate their concerns, and management must in turn be receptive to hearing those concerns and following through on the structural changes necessary to address them. Only then can we harness the good stress that drives us and banish the relentless, damaging stress that takes a toll on our minds and bodies.


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