Stress on the Job

April 11, 1993

Other maladies get the headlines -- AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer's -- but a more pervasive phenomenon has captured the title of "the 20th century disease." According to the head of the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, job stress has a dramatic affect on workers in modern industrial societies, and on the bottom line, too.

Not that the ILO regards any stress with a jaundiced eye -- obviously some amount is healthy and even necessary in life. But the kind of stress examined in the survey is described as "incessant, unproductive and dangerous stress, which causes a high rate of wear and tear on the body."

Sound like the familiar rat-race of daily workaday life? The ILO estimates the U.S. economy loses $200 billion each year through reduced productivity, compensation claims, absenteeism and medical expenses. In Britain, best estimates suggest that stress-related sickness, staff-turnover and premature death combine to drain the economy by an amount equal to 10 percent of its gross national product. In Japan, there's a word for death from overwork: karoshi. A Japanese psychiatrist reported last year that the number of patients consulting him for stress problems had quadrupled over the past decade. The phenomenon isn't limited to the fast-paced jobs of the industrialized world, although the research on stress in developing countries is too sketchy to produce such estimates.

The point of the ILO report is simple: If stress hurts the bottom line, then relieving stress in the workplace should be an important management objective. In many cases, stress is caused as much by hierarchical management structures that give workers too little control over their jobs as by arduous physical conditions.

In one Swedish company, a department with 20 female employees performing monotonous and routine tasks with little or no decision-making responsibility was experiencing excessively high sick-leave (one of every three working days) and a 39 percent annual turnover in personnel. The company decided to re-train workers so that they could rotate among the various tasks the department performed and let them take charge of product control and packaging. Workers who performed well were offered opportunities for further training and advancement. The physical tasks were the same, but sick leave dropped from 14 percent to 2 percent and turnover dropped to zero.

If job stress is indeed the 20th century disease, then it seems likely that stress-reduction strategies will be among the management tools that characterize successful businesses of the future.

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