Frayed nerves

May 24, 2000
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"On the Battlefields of Business, Millions of Casualties" reads the headline across the front page of the Sunday New York Times. "Corporate Killers" blasts a Newsweek cover showing four CEOs—trigger men for thousands of layoffs.

Out on the campaign trail, Republican rabble-rouser Pat Buchanan rails against irresponsible corporate behavior.

But really, the business world has been churning for years. Since 1980, a family member has lost a job in one-third of all households, and nearly 40 percent more know someone who’s been laid off, reports the New York Times. Psychologists and safety and health experts have been raising red flags for decades -concerned not only about the impact of layoffs, but more broadly the entire changing nature of work. In 1966, the National Advisory Environmental Health Committee reported to the U.S. Surgeon General that technological change and increasing mental demands were creating a greater risk of psychological stress at work.

That same year, the first workers’ compensation claim for mental stress was filed.

Thirty years later the fallout from fast-paced, fast-changing jobs with uncertain futures is obvious: ·

  • Two-thirds of workers believe their health-related problems are a direct result of work stress, according to a World Health Organization study. ·
  • Disgruntled employees are suing corporations in record numbers. Employment discrimination suits increased 2,166 percent from 1969 to 1989. By 1994, after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 91,000 discrimination charges were being filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ·
  • One out of every three workers has reported aggressive, hostile, or violent behavior on the job, according to the Society of Human Resources. ·
  • The number of repetitive trauma disorders reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics more than doubled in five years, from 147,000 in 1989 to 332,000 in 1994.

More than workplace pressures challenge safety and health professionals these days, though. Lifestyles mirror workstyles: fast and demanding. Employees can come to work distracted and fatigued by hectic home schedules: Juggling meals and commutes in two-income families; carting kids from games to meetings to jobs; maybe caring for elderly parents.

"Our fuses are clearly much shorter," says industrial hygienist Howard Cohen. "It’s a total onslaught on our psyches," says safety and health consultant David Pierce.

No easy solutions

Clearly, safety and health pros are on the front lines facing these so-called psychosocial issues every day. Anyone reading this article knows the fears, frustrations, near misses and accidents that can result. After all, "it takes a clear head and a sharp focus to work safely," explains Darrell Mattheis, a safety and health specialist with Organization Resources Counselors in Washington, D.C.

The question is, what can you do about it? That’s the focus of this article. It’s a frustrating challenge. For starters, many business execs see frayed nerves and upset emotions as a personal problem, not a corporate concern. In a survey of 164 vice presidents of human resources, almost three out of four believed the responsibility for stress management lies with the individual, according to the Society for the Advancement of Management.

Plus, the effect of mental health on the bottom line is hard to prove. For all the talk about workers’ compensation stress claims, most companies will never see one. About one out of every 1,000 comp claims was for mental stress in 1990, according to a study by the National Council on Compensation Insurance.

A number of safety and health pros aren’t convinced that they should step in, either. People are soft and doctors too lenient, say some. "In the past, people just did their work; their whole bodies hurt when they went home," says one professional. Now pain thresholds seem lower and, as surveys show, many employees blame their job. One result, according to this view, is the recent surge in workers’ comp claims for very subjective soft-tissue injuries.

"There’s a feeling that claimants control their own workers’ comp outcomes," says John Kamp, an industrial psychologist with St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company. "It’s not always conscious and deliberate, but their pain dictates whether they work or not."

Other professionals are frustrated by the time spent "chasing angels on a pin." That’s John Meagher of the American Industrial Hygiene Association describing a common industrial hygiene hassle: Investigating employee complaints of headaches, dizziness, or disorientation (three leading symptoms associated with sick building syndrome) that uncover no workplace causes. Many safety and health pros today, though, are very interested in chasing down psychosocial problems. It’s why seminar rooms overflow when the topic is behaviors and attitudes. But there’s often another barrier: time. Most pros have their plates piled high with responsibilities. "How much can they handle?" asks Cohen, an associate professor of occupational safety and health management at the University of New Haven.

Getting involved

Still, experts like Cohen interviewed for this article cite a number of reasons for getting involved in psychosocial issues: ·
  • It’s a way to make yourself relevant. Safety and health people will continue to be marginalized and laid off from jobs if they keep focusing on traditional issues like machine guards, says Bill Borwegen, director of occupational health and safety for the Service Employees International Union. "The compliance-driven approach hasn’t impacted the bottom line," adds Kamp. ·
  • Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence that psychosocial factors do have an economic impact. "In companies where people don’t care, where they’re not looking out for each other, where there’s no trust and no loyalty, it makes perfect sense that you see more workers’ compensation claims," says psychologist E. Scott Geller. ·
  • Business trends will continue to emphasize the psychological side of safety and health. Jobs will continue to tax brain cells more than muscles, with mental processing replacing manual lifting. According to NIOSH, nine out of ten future jobs will be in the service sector. Six of every ten jobs will go to women, who must deal with multiple role responsibilities, and according to studies, are more likely to file stress claims and go out on disability for depressive disorders. Computers and robots will affect up to seven million factory jobs and 38 million office jobs.

    "As we move to more knowledge work with VDTs and service work with more face-to-face dealings with people, the demands become very psychological in nature," says Steven Sauter, chief of NIOSH’s Applied Psychology and Ergonomics Branch. ·

  • Like it or not, employees can’t check their emotions at the door. "If we had a button to turn off emotions it’d be great, but people who want that are whacko, they’re disconnected from reality," says Joseph Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute. "There are very few stable corporations right now. Nobody feels very secure. We’ll see more disloyalty, fear, and frustration. Safety values will suffer."


What you can do

"If you care about people, there are a zillion things you can do to help them," says Dave Herbert, a longtime DuPont safety and health official now president of Herbert Safety Management Services in Kennett Square, Pa. Don’t feel slighted, but we’re only going to give you 25 here:

Let’s start with attitude. Many safety and health pros shy away from psychosocial issues because "the problem is much bigger than we are," says David Pierce. It’s a complex tangle of on- and off-the-job influences including management styles, work policies, employee job satisfaction and lifestyle routines. "It’s the domain where safety people feel least comfortable," says John Kamp. But the key, experts agree, is that professionals must (#1) be cognizant of all factors affecting workplace safety and health.

To overcome the lack of schooling that most pros have in psychosocial areas, you need to (#2) educate yourself. Some professionals make the time to go back to school for psychology and sociology courses. Others avail themselves of a growing number of books on related topics.

Here’s just a sampling: ·

  • Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman; ·
  • Workplace Wars and How to End Them, by Kenneth Kaye; ·
  • Hidden Dynamics, by Faith Ralston; ·
  • The Psychology of Safety, by E. Scott Geller (to be published this summer); ·
  • Shifting the Safety and Health Paradigms, by F. David Pierce; ·
  • The Values-Based Safety Process: Improving Your Safety Culture With a Behavioral Approach, by Terry McSween; and ·
  • Employee-Driven Systems for Safe Behavior, by Thomas Krause.

You probably have a pretty good feel for attitudes out on the floor, but you might be surprised what you find when you (#3) dig for data. You need more than an intuitive sense of problems. Workers’ comp records can be revealing, so too absentee reports, exit interviews, union grievances, suggestion box ideas, off-the-record bull sessions, complaints to the medical department, and security-related information like restraining orders in domestic disputes. Employee perception surveys have been around for years, but be prepared to act on what you find. Otherwise, you’re opening up a big can of worms, says safety and health manager David Sarkus.

Keep in mind, too, that most of these steps are gathering after-the-fact evidence of a problem. In the words of Joe Kinney, it’s important to "intercept and intervene early."

Digging for data will lead you to other departments, which shows how important it is to (#4) reach out when addressing psychosocial issues. These issues require a team approach, say experts. The team can include employees, managers, human resources execs, legal advisers, occupational physicians and health nurses, safety personnel, industrial hygienists, and security officers. Outside specialists include employee assistance program counselors, occupational psychiatrists, organizational psychologists, and behavioral consultants.

The expertise of these specialists underscores the need to (#5) know your limits. Chances are, you’re not trained in mental health. There’s also the question of how much can you take on. The Mother Teresa approach, where you try to help every person you meet, has burn-out written all over it. So does trying to change an organization’s culture by yourself, which one consultant likens to "pushing water uphill."

Still, you should also (#6) know your impact. "You broadcast your beliefs by the way you treat people, how you give responsibilities, and so on," says Dave Herbert. There’s power in how you handle simple interactions every day. You can build employees’ self-respect, self-esteem, motivation, and sense of control. Or you can tear it down.

To have an impact, you have to (#7) be visible and accessible. It’s the old management-by-walking-around. Paper-pushers need not apply. Memos, after all, do little to build trust.

What does work is to (#8) go one-on-one with employees. "Coaching" is what they call it these days. One of the best ways to show respect, interest, and concern is to look a person in the eye and give them your time. Consider it your contribution to a culture of caring, something experts say is needed to counter today’s uncertainties and anxieties that subvert safety and health.

More specifically, (#9) give feedback. Management has a long history of telling people when something is done wrong, but it’s very important to catch people doing something right. It’s simple positive reinforcement.

This is part of a broader theme: (#10) give recognition. Don’t hold back, waiting for the annual safety awards dinner. Celebrate the "small wins" that happen every day, says Scott Geller, like a near miss report that leads to a safety work order. Recognize the importance of minor activities that are part of the process leading to an overall outcome, like record low injury rates.

Another key aspect of building trust is to (#11) seek input. Let employees know their opinions and ideas are valued. Allow them to express their concerns, says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., a member of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s mental health committee. But remember, no matter how hard you try some people will never feel understood, he adds.

Still, you need to (#12) listen in order to understand and help. For more on this subject, read Dr. Geller’s article on page 16 in this issue.

Whether you’re praising, correcting, instructing, or listening to employees, (#13) treat them as adults, not children. Talking down does nothing for self-respect—or a sense of self-control. Instead, it perpetuates a child-like dependence on authority.

In his best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey discusses the stages of maturity: from dependence to independence to interdependence. At DuPont, interdependent behavior among employees (the brother’s/sister’s keeper idea) was woven into the culture of plant sites with the best safety and health performance metrics, says Herbert.

To deal maturely with employees, you have to (#14) be fair, (#15) be honest, and (#16) keep to your commitments. These all help build trust, an essential ingredient in a culture of caring. Otherwise, says Herbert, people might say, "Screw you, I ain’t my brother’s keeper. Get out of my face."

You can have the greatest interpersonal skills, but they’ll be fumbled away if you don’t (#17) manage your own mood. See the sidebar, "Check Your Own Stress".

Speaking of communication, (#18) choose your words carefully. It’s easy to put people on the defensive, whether you’re communicating up the organization to executives or down the line to workers. "I never tell companies I do stress management programs," says consultant Annette Haag. "I say it’s change management. Back in the 1980s, if you mentioned stress, companies thought you were opening Pandora’s Box and everyone would put in a stress claim." (That fear has faded with recent restrictions on stress claims.)

Watch how you use the words "behavior" and "attitude" around employees, says psychologist Geller. They carry negative connotations. Does a parent ever want to talk to a teenager about their behavior or attitude because it’s good?

Still, experts say it’s important to (#19) educate employees about the impact of behaviors, attitudes, and stress on safety and health. Show the associations and risk factors, and why we break down emotionally, says David Pierce. You can also suggest self-help books. Pierce calls them "plugs in the dam on the emotional side."

You can also (#20) encourage self-care. In his new book, Geller gives a 57-question "work stress profile" to help individuals identify their personal stressors on the job. Then each person must decide what to do to reduce bad stress (distress). Typical steps include relaxation techniques; time management; and following familiar health guidelines such as no smoking, limiting alcohol intake, sleeping well, eating smart, and exercising regularly.

To put many of the tips discussed here in a structured program, some experts suggest that you (#21) launch a behavior-based safety initiative. This is a good way to (#22) build teamwork and the sense of interdependence. "There’s no better value than safety to get people to adopt team-based processes," says Herbert.

Your role is to (#23) facilitate and motivate. First, says Herbert, you set the stage: What do we have to do to reduce the number of at-risk behaviors? Explain the situation. With training, employees measure current performance levels and define steps to bring about improvement. Geller and other behavioral consultants have employees observe each other and give immediate feedback. Performance is measured regularly, with progress charted and recognized for group feedback.

The process, which can be applied to other safety issues such as ergonomics, gives employees a sense of influence, control, optimism, and caring. "It’s very fulfilling, and carries tremendous power," says Herbert. But (#24) set your goals with care, advises Geller. Unrealistic goals—and Geller calls zero injuries unrealistic—are a trust-buster, he says.

If you can’t get the go-ahead for teams, training, or other investments in time and money, it’s back to the basics. "It sounds simplistic, but (#25) treat people well, just like you want to be treated," says New York psychiatrist Jeffrey Kahn. There’s much you can’t do anything about—corporate politics, layoffs, job uncertainties. But, says Kahn, "if your people think you’re doing the best you can under the circumstances, you’re doing pretty well."

Do companies care?

"Management is incredibly confused about their organizational values," says Joseph Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute. Statistics seem to bear him out, at least when it comes to corporate practices aimed at managing employee emotions, promoting positive behaviors and attitudes, and creating a culture of caring. For example: ·
  • 74 percent of human resources managers surveyed in one study said the responsibility for managing stress lies with individual employees. "A lot of stressors occur in the workplace, yet too often we blame the victim and tend to focus on how to get employees to reduce their stress," says Julia Faucett, RN, director of the occupational health nursing program at the University of California at San Francisco. ·
  • "Family-friendly" policies to help employees deal with their stress are rare. In a survey of Industrial Safety & Hygiene News readers last year, four percent said their employers offer on-site child care; 22 percent provide exercise facilities, and 28 percent allow for flexible work schedules. ·
  • One of the most popular support services is outplacement help for laid off workers. According to an American Management Association survey, 78 percent of companies that reduced their payrolls in 1992 and 1993 used outplacement services.

But Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., president of WorkPsyche Associates, Inc., in New York, says these programs are sometimes done on the cheap, often without much success, and give the appearance of helping out more than anything.

Kahn and Faucett both say more attention needs to be given to downsizing survivors. They often have more work, new responsibilities, and concerns about future layoffs and reorganizations. ·

  • A positive sign: Employee empowerment is on the rise. More than half of ISHN readers surveyed last year said workers at their facilities conduct safety meetings and solve environmental health and safety problems. Employees set safety goals and can stop unsafe work processes in about one-third of the firms. ·
  • But when it comes to spending money on topics like employee behaviors and attitudes, there’s more talk than action. 55 percent of readers said improving behavior is important to them in 1996, but only 25 percent said it’s a training priority. ·
  • This could be because safety and health is a tough sell in many companies. In a survey last year of 185 corporations by A.D. Little consultants, more than 7 of 10 respondents said their environmental health and safety programs lacked acceptance by the business staff or suffered from "cultural separatism."


Check your own stress

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about the importance—and benefits—of recognizing and managing emotions in yourself and others. Emotional self-awareness is key for managers such as safety and health professionals. You can’t be an effective coach, motivator, communicator, facilitator or problem-solver if your own anxieties and moods get in the way.

But self-awareness doesn’t come easy, say mental health experts. Sometimes symptoms of distress (adverse reactions to stressful events or situations) show up gradually. Physical symptoms can be vague; feelings can be hard to pin down.

Given the pressures safety and health pros face these days, it’s worth checking yourself out. After all, consider these possible stress points: ·

  • The average ISHN reader is 43 years old, according to a survey we conducted last year. That’s prime time for dealing with many family issues: teenagers, college tuition, elderly parents, to name a few. ·
  • It’s tough to boost incomes. 63 percent of readers expect pay raises this year of less than five percent; 55 percent received less than a 10 percent pay hike the last time they changed jobs. ·
  • The anti-regulatory climate in Washington casts a pall over the profession. 31 percent of readers (including 43 percent of industrial hygienists) fear their budgets will be cut in 1996, according to our annual White Paper survey. 24 percent of readers (and 42 percent of IHs) fear staff cuts. ·
  • Overall, about one of every four readers is worried about job security (including 41 percent of IHs and 35 percent of occupational health specialists). ·
  • 35 percent predict they’ll spend most of 1996 in a "fire fighting mode" (42 percent of IHs). ·
  • In a 1994 survey, 45 percent of readers said they felt stress symptoms. ·
  • About one-third say they’ll feel a "rewarding sense of job satisfaction" in ‘96—down from 46 percent the year before.


The consequences of culture

"There’s a long trail of research that suggests psychosocial factors have an impact" on safety, health, and the bottom line, says Steven Sauter, chief of NIOSH’s Applied Psychology and Ergonomics Branch.

Indeed, in his new book Safety by Objectives, Dan Petersen cites research findings of Dr. Rensis Likert published in 1967 showing that management systems based on teamwork, mutual confidence and trust, and respect for employees are most likely to have a record of good labor relations and high productivity and profits. Highly authoritarian styles are most likely to suffer from recurring financial problems.

The trail of research might be long, but it’s thin, consisting mostly of single-company studies. Here are some of the highlights: ·

  • A 1991 study of 3,000 Boeing workers found that, excluding previous back problems, the strongest predictors of reported back injuries were worker perceptions and psychological traits. Workers who said they "hardly ever" enjoyed their jobs were 2.5 times more likely to report a back injury. ·
  • A NIOSH study of U.S. West Communications workers published in 1992 looked at a variety of psychosocial factors and found that heavy information processing demands were a common link to musculoskeletal discomfort and disorders in upper extremities. ·
  • More recent NIOSH studies on work reorganization—rest breaks and job rotation, for example—show promising results, according to Sauter. Employees given improved work-rest schedules not only feel better, but they produce more. "Worker health and safety and productivity are positively intertwined," he says. ·
  • NIOSH is also studying the impact of the overall work culture. In one study of needlestick injuries among healthcare workers, safety policies and procedures and the perception of organizational commitment to safety were strong determinants of safe behavior.

    "We’re finding that the shared values and beliefs of workers are very important predictors of health outcomes," says Sauter. ·

  • This comes as no surprise to DuPont safety officials. In a best practices survey of its plants worldwide, the company’s Discovery Team learned that the strongest correlation to total recordable incidence rates is the perception of management commitment to safety, according to Dave Herbert, a team member who now operates his own safety services company.

The best sites have what he calls a "culture of caring," where the level of trust, cooperation, communication, and concern approaches healthy family dynamics. These high-performers—in terms of compliance history; process safety, environmental and ergonomics incidence; and other metrics—also integrate health and safety activities into business plans, invest continually in training, formally and informally recognize employee accomplishments, investigate all near misses, conduct regular audits, emphasize employee accountability, and build work processes and systems around teams.

Sidebar: The link between psychosocial factors & safety performance

In this era of downsizing and "doing more with less," it seems job stress levels are higher than ever. Most safety and health professionals know intuitively that increased stress in the workplace is often associated with an increase in workers’ compensation claims. They have witnessed first-hand the individual cases in which stress appears to have "driven" the worker to file for comp.

Recent research conducted by St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. provides systematic documentation of the link between workplace stress and workers’ compensation claims. This research has utilized St. Paul’s Human Factors Inventory, or HFI for short. The HFI is an employee survey measuring on-the-job factors that impact employee safety, health and performance. The HFI includes measures of seven different work climate factors that, when unfavorable, can put employees under stress. These dimensions are listed and defined in the top table. The composite score for an employee group across these seven HFI Work Stressors scales provides an overall index of the amount of work stress reported by that group.

The second table compares the workers’ compensation experience between different locations of the same company when those locations are divided into two groups on the basis of overall work stress levels. For each of the four companies shown in this table, the higher-stress locations (those with higher composite HFI Work Stressors scores) have dramatically higher average work comp claim rates than do the lower-stress locations. These companies represent a wide variety of industries and overall claim rates.

Data such as these clearly illustrate the link between worker stress and workers’ compensation claim rates. Such "hard data" can often be used to persuade top management that workplace stress does have serious and costly bottom-line consequences.

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