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The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines stress as "the reaction people may have when presented with demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope." It is not a disease. However if stress is intense and goes on for some time, it can lead to mental and physical ill health (eg depression, nervous breakdown, heart disease). Workplace stress, if not properly managed, is associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.
Historically stress used to be divided into positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress). In this older view, "to be alive was to experience some form of stress". Nowadays the term "stress" is synonomous with negative stress and the word "pressure" or "challenge" is frequently used to describe positive stress.
Maintaining a healthy psychosocial work environment is an integral part of maintaining a safe work environment. The psychosocial environment at work is driven by two major factors:
Organisational culture consists of the attitudes, values and beliefs that guide workplace behaviours and influence the work environment on a daily basis. To put it simply, it is "how things are done at Deakin". The organisational culture affects the mental and physical well-being of all staff members. Organisational culture focuses on factors that affect the interaction between people, their work and the organisation.
Some key components of organisational culture are:
The organisation of work covers aspects of the way work is designed and carried out. These include:
When these factors are absent or handled poorly in the workplace, they become sources of stress, or "stressors", for staff. There is evidence showing many of these factors create two to three times greater risk of injuries, poor productivity and workplace conflict.
Taking a simplified approach, stress can originate with work and/or personal sources. This stress can be reduced or offset by the support provided at work and/or from personal resources (family, friends etc). Equally this stress can be made worse or aggravated by lack of support from work or from staff member's personal resources. Excessive stress increases the risk of injury or illness.
It also affects personal performance and behaviour at work (and outside work). Managers can most effectively intervene by addressing work-related stressors: this is a requirement under the OHS Act. Managers can also provide support to their staff who are under stress, especially work-related stress.
This may range from simply listening to a staff member and suggesting support through the Employee Assistance Program through to helping the staff member build their personal capabilities and resilience. Even when the major source of stress is personal (outside of work), managers can provide support to staff members through temporarily adjusting workloads or making other accommodations.
The United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive has identified six major factors in the workplace that can drive work related stress. These are:
In Australia excessive work demands (demands) followed by workplace conflict (relationships) are the major cause of psychological injury in the workplace. This may be accentuated by a mismatch between the person's interpersonal and emotional competencies, their job skills, and the demands of the position they hold.
Frequently a seventh factor is included: work-life balance. This is the capacity and ability of individual workers to balance stress in the workplace with stress factors in their personal life. This may vary enormously over time due to a variety of reasons including mental health issues and disability.
For more information on workplace stressors see Risk Factors for Workplace Stress.
Deakin seeks to control the risk of excessive stress. Among the ways excessive stress can be prevented is through:
For more information on preventing workplace stress see Preventing Workplace Stress.
Managers and supervisors play a key role in the prevention and management of workplace stress: directly through the organisation of work and indirectly through the work culture. It is essential that managers assist and support their staff in managing stress and therefore enabling staff to do their job effectively.
Work stress factors, personal circumstances, personal capability and supportive management do not operate separately. Even in highly motivated and well supported team, prolonged exposure to high levels of work stress or very difficult personal circumstances will lead to a higher risk of a stress related injury. However in the short term supportive leaders will be working to reduce excessive stress, providing opportunities for recovery or working with staff members to help them balance their personal and work situations. Equally in the longer term, the supportive leader will be building team capability and resilience. Supportive leaders also encourage a ‘care and concern’ culture that includes the early reporting of problems and an awareness of the risk factors leading to stress related illness.
The following tools and guides will assist managers and supervisors to effectively prevent and manage workplace stress. In particular the supportive manager is aware of and is sensitive to the current level of stress in the workplace, and has management competencies to keep it within reasonable bounds.
Guidelines and Information
A guide to help managers and supervisors understand workplace stress and start your thinking about how it can be effectively managed.
A guide that discusses what managers and supervisors can do about stress in general.
Building Manager Competency in Dealing with Stress
This guide outlines a how excessive workplace stress can be prevented or addressed through early intervention. The guide focuses on management behaviours and actions that reduce the risks of excessive workplace stress.
This guide provides advice and practical measures for the prevention and management of workplace stress
The Australian Human Rights Commission has released a guide that will assist managers and supervisors to find the best way to maximise productivity while reducing the incidence of illness in their workplaces. The Guide provides information on how to appropriately support workers with mental illness.
It also provides information about how to develop and promote a safe and healthy work environment for all workers. The guide is intended to help managers and supervisors understand their obligations under Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and disability discrimination legislation and to understand mental illness and how to talk about mental illness.
A guide for staff on work-related stress
A general personal checklist on stress