Things have not been going well for me lately.

The last IH report I sent out contained a critical error. I forgot to convert milligrams to micrograms in the lab report. As a result, the report said all was good; when in reality there were overexposures — several employees needed to wear respirators. The client caught the mistake. The client originally thought I was a superstar who would help them with their problems, and I turned out to be a bum.

Embarrassed by that mistake, I sat on the next, and much more complex, report to be sent to another client. I kept second-guessing my professional judgment. Rather than releasing the report on time, I held off and headed out-of-town to conduct a day-long professional development conference (PDC) several states away and give a keynote presentation the following day to about 100 people.

Setting a poor tone

I’m generally very comfortable and relaxed when I conduct a PDC and give presentations; but I felt different this time. Rather than giving snap responses to questions during the PDC, I found myself referring to my notes, which probably caused some attendees to doubt my competence on the topic. The next day, I blundered with the keynote talk. I rushed through my presentation and left nearly a 30-minute gap before the next speaker was scheduled on stage. The organizers had planned diligently for nearly a year to make their conference flow seamlessly, and I stumble at the get-go, which may have set a poor tone for the entire day. Fortunately, the following speakers picked up my slack.

I find myself sleeping more but waking up feeling tired. I caught myself binge eating candy that was set aside for trick-or-treaters. I drive my car as if I’m in a daze. I used to play aggressively during pickup basketball games, now I am lethargic and too timid to shoot the ball. My patience is wearing thin, too. As a life-long Michigan (“Big Blue”) football fan, I am hoping some coaches get canned for the team’s utterly poor performance this year.

What’s wrong?

Unconscious fear

The above is very uncharacteristic for me. I know what’s going wrong — I’m exhibiting stress, from which I thought I was bullet-proof. I know my definition of stress is, “it’s the body’s harmful physical and emotional response to unconscious fear.” Here’s my puzzlement: I consult with clients on how to recognize and control job stress, then why can’t I control stress within myself?

Part of the reason, or so I tell myself, is my fear may be justified and beyond my control. My 401(k) has tanked — it will take a decade to recover the losses. Economists say we’re in a recession, maybe heading for a depression. As a small business owner, I now fret over getting work and bringing in enough income to support my family and keep a roof over our heads. And the timing is terrible: I planned on launching new aspects of my business including Web sites, new audit process, and a book during the first quarter of 2009. All the wrong things just piled up at the same time.

Lesson learned

Being generally a “stress-less” person most of my life, I may not have been as empathic to others going through this problem as I should have been.

On more than one occasion I have told an employee, “You just need to get over it. It’s only in your head. Once you recognize what may be causing your stress, you can control it.” I now know that “control” can be a difficult task. Even if one recognizes their stressors, it may not be easy to eliminate them. Fear, and its impact upon the body and our actions, tends to slip into our mind whenever we let down our guard.

Join the crowd

The point is: I’ve joined a large crowd of people today who have let stress impact what they do. Some reports I have read recently claim that nearly 80 percent of all adults in America are exhibiting symptoms and signs of stress, mostly due to the meltdown in the global economy. Many people no longer feel their job is secure today. Most certainly, many of your employees are feeling stressed, if not from workplace causes, then causes that they bring with them to work. Look closely and you may find that you, too, are stressed.

What to do?

Here’s the reality: we cannot simply let stress resolve by itself. Left alone, the negative impact of stress among workers (and possibly yourself) may lead to an increase in injury and illness or poor job performance; and most of us have chosen as our job and career to reduce and prevent these problems.

The first piece of advice I have to offer is you should learn more about stress by reviewing the following online resources:
  • This Web link provides a report that includes the Workplace Stress Scale.™ The scale (i.e. survey) may be used to measure how many of your employees may have excess stress.
  • This link will bring you to NIOSH’s “Organization of Work – Measurement Tools for Research and Practice.” This is the place to go to find various safety and health measurements, including methods (such as the scale above) to measure stress among workers. Remember, it is difficult to manage what is not measured.
  • Podcasts are the new way to provide learning. Listen/view CDC Podcast “Working with stress” (parts 1 and 2) at this Web link. To find podcast, browse “By Topic” and link to “Workplace Safety and Health.”
  • This is NIOSH’s Web page that includes links to various topics about stress. The page was updated in October 2008, so you should have access to the latest information. Be sure to view the link to NIOSH’s “Working with Stress” video (Publication No. 2003-114d). Although you can order the video on DVD or VHS, be aware that it may be viewed online through Streaming video or downloaded to Flash video.

No employee is immune from stress

Next, after you’ve increased your awareness of stress, get with your boss and HR to determine if the workplace’s response to employee stress is sufficient or if additional proactive measures should be taken. Include all employees in your evaluation of stress. Although office workers, for example, may be less prone to having injuries, any worker that has excessive stress can encounter greater chances for poor job performance and off-the-job injuries.

Finally, you should try to become more empathic for people who may be encountering excess stress and battling to overcome it. Stress should not be viewed as a personal weakness and something that just can be willed away by a snap of their fingers. Everyone responds to stress in different ways. And as I have learned through personal experience, even those people who have seemed to be immune to stress during their lives may at anytime succumb to it.

I’m drawn back to FDR’s advice to those in perceived troubled times, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” I am getting a handle on my stress. Please help employees in your charge get a handle on theirs, too. Their safety and health may depend upon your actions.