Now, more than ever, employees are starting the day with a lot of stress. The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. Add this pressure to the typical workday, and the chance for incident and injury increases. While it’s impossible for employees to leave all their worries at the door, employers can learn to reduce workplace stressors – and stress levels.
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we welcome a returning guest, Dr. Richard Gasaway. He has extensive experience as a first responder and fire chief, serving in six fire and EMS agencies across the country. After finishing a 30-year career, he founded Situational Awareness Matters!™. They teach employees and businesses how to make decisions in stressful environments.
First, we’ll talk about the basics of stress. Then, we’ll explain how it impacts the decision-making process. Finally, we’ll share five ways employers can reduce workplace stress for their employees.
Stress and its effects 101
“Stress, as we would define it in the psychological world,” Dr. Gasaway began, “is any type of change that causes a person to have a physical or emotional or psychological strain.” It’s a bodily response. If we want to avoid a negative outcome, or achieve success, then stress is our body’s reaction to trying to accomplish that.
It’s not possible to completely avoid it. Further, Dr. Gasaway doesn’t think we should try. “I don’t think we can, nor should we try, to avoid all stressors in life,” he explained. “We’re just not designed to be stress-free.” Not all stress is bad. In certain situations, it can even save our lives. There are three main types we experience:
- Acute stress. We feel this during sudden events. For example, if a car pulls out in front of you, and you have to swerve to avoid hitting them. Your body may take immediate action – or freeze up.
- Episodic stress. These are consistent moments of acute stress. They may happen every few hours.
- Chronic stress. This is a constant state of acute stress. It occurs through the workday, overnight and may even prevent a person from sleeping. Further, it can have life-changing physical effects, like high blood pressure and strokes.
Why does stress matter?
Some employers today may think that employee stress is not their concern. But it impacts the mind and body differently. Sometimes it improves our abilities. It can cause you to be more alert and aware of your surroundings. However, it doesn’t always have this effect.
Consistent stress causes someone to be “over aroused”. This means that they are always in a state of heightened awareness. For instance, needing to break suddenly while driving is acute stress – it only lasts a few seconds or minutes. But driving on an icy or wet road has a longer impact. We need to focus hard and drive carefully to avoid an incident. Those feelings lasts longer – sometimes for as long as it takes to reach our destination. Even our regular route can become stressful. We can become tense or irritable during these situations, and be exhausted after.
In the workplace, it can cause employees to feel rushed. As a result, they may take shortcuts or skip safety steps. It’s vital to do a job correctly the first time. Needing to re-do the work or correct a mistake costs time and money. Being rude or hostile to others, especially customers, can impact a business’s reputation. Most importantly, stressed actions can also put other team members’ safety at risk. Many of the effects of stress are things employers simply wouldn’t want in a work environment.
How stress impacts decision making
Stress changes the way our brains function. Our brain has two sides: left and right. Intuitive thinking happens on the right side. Rational thinking happens mainly in the left side. “Rational judgment, under high degrees of stress, becomes impaired,” Dr. Gasaway explained. A chemical response happens. Hormones and peptides flood the brain. Consequently, it can also cause our behavior to change. “The kind of person who could normally be very rational, very analytic under high degrees of stress might not even be able to think.”
People don’t always act irrationally under pressure. It can cause us to focus in on a situation. However, it can also cause us to miss others. “The stressed brain doesn’t function the same way as the non-stressed brain,” he added.
Falling back on old habits
Stress can cause us to fall back into old habits. In stressful situations, we want to stick to what we know. For example, some people eat under pressure. “We all have our comfort foods,” Dr. Gasaway shared. “Under stress, we tend to revert to those comfort foods that kind of calm us down. You know, put us in our happy place, if only momentarily.”
Employees may go back to “old ways” of doing things. This can cause serious mistakes, injuries or even death. Employers might look at their actions and question their thinking. But truthfully, they may not have been focused or thinking at all. Instead of thinking through the problem, they simply do what they remember. It might be from past situations or training.
It’s tempting to praise an employee who responds really well in a stressful situation. However, every person is different. “It’s when stress decisions turn bad that we put the big hot light on people, and try to criticize them or blame them for for what they did,” Dr. Gasaway said. Some responses are good. Others aren’t.
Stressors in the workplace
Every workplace has its own stressors – even ones we expect to be calmer. For instance, the pandemic has resulted in many offices going virtual. For some employees, working from home may a great experience. But others may be juggling any number of distractions: antsy pets, homeschooled kids or a spouse sharing their work space. These distractions aren’t present in the office. For some, home is the ideal workplace, and for others it isn’t.
Stress can introduce unwanted risk in the workplace. For Dr. Gasaway, it’s important that employers learn more about it. Employers experience stress, too. These stressors are often very different than what a worker would experience. And unfortunately, sometimes that stress can trickle down to employees. Dr. Gasaway finds that this often isn’t intentional. But it is something that happens.
Take action to combat stress
It isn’t realistic to “leave stress at home”. Employees don’t leave their worries behind when they walk into the workplace. “Employers, I think will do very well if they invest just a little bit of time to understand what stress means, and what stress looks like,” he shared. “In other words, how does stress manifest itself in a worker?” He recommends the following methods to learn more about the employee experience:
- Survey employees. A manager or supervisor’s actions can be a cause of stress. But that can be difficult feedback to share. A survey can make it easier for team members to be honest.
- Give positive feedback. Many workers wonder if they are doing a good job. Even if you don’t give negative feedback, a lack of positive feedback can leave employees wondering. Show your satisfaction by calling out positive things you see.
- Ask for ideas. What would reduce employee stress? Could a quick morning pep talk help set up a better workday? Would a review of coming work help set expectations? Often, you’ll never know if you don’t ask.
- Show empathy. Even if you’ve worked in a position before, the post-pandemic world has changed every role. Walk the work floor. Learn what it takes to do the job now. Consider the challenges employees face.
- Plan down time. Add rest to the workday. Give employee brains and bodies a chance to slow down. For example, a quick game, coffee break or walk around the block can help employees reset. “Even the best of players in basketball and football get a chance to be on the bench for a little,” Dr. Gasaway pointed out.
Taking the first step
Leaders can be the cause of stress. However, they can also be the first ones to reduce it. There are so many ways to do this. Create a good work environment. Provide good safety equipment. Offer an employee assistance program, or simple identify someone employees can talk to. Talk about safety topics. Be open to employee feedback. A workplace where the job isn’t the main cause of stress is something an employer has the ability to create.
Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast.
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Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.
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