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Stress and Safety: A Costly Relationship

Note: During these times in particular, stress is being experienced everywhere and at every employment level. Managing stress at work is critical to business and employee success. To help people manage stress at work, ADI's Performance Management Publications is publishing two workbooks: the first will explain how employers can create a positive culture and daily management practices that reduce the negative effects of stress and the second, a self-help workbook, will provide employees with individual strategies for managing stress at work. Also, Jun Ishida's and Darnell Lattal's new book addressing the high cost of stress on the Japanese workforce will be available summer 2009.

Stress and Safety: A Costly Relationship

On April 25, 2005, a Japanese train jumped its tracks while going around a curve and ran into an apartment complex, killing 107 people and injuring many others. The blame for the derailment was placed on the engineer for driving too fast to hold the train on the tracks. The 23-year-old driver, Ryujiro Takami, had fallen 90 seconds behind schedule. Many issues arose out of the derailment, including questioning the wisdom of privatizing the commuter rail lines with an emphasis on profits (running faster) that compromised safety. However, the most immediate cause determined by the safety board that investigated the accident was that Takami had been seriously punished for an on-the-job mistake a year earlier and the shame of the punishment was intense. According to his coworkers, he appeared to have an ever-present fear of being punished again. The Union blamed that fear of punishment for Takami's unwise speed on the day of the accident. The Union VP said, "The accident is a result of JR West's [the owner of that commuter line] ... high-pressured management, which uses terror to force its employees to follow orders."
Japanese workers are often pressured to perform through the fear of punishment-punishment that is typically meted out in a very visible and humiliating manner. The types of punishment include social isolation, withdrawal of privileges, writing assignments about their errors and so on, all part of a focus on shaming those who fail in ways that are observable to their colleagues. In this case, the assumption is that Takami so feared punishment for being late that he engaged in dangerous behavior in an attempt to avoid that potential punishment.

Management through intimidation is by no means unique to Japanese management, but this example points out a serious problem in the use of such shaming techniques to get desired results. Generally, the effects of shaming techniques last much longer than many other forms of discipline. The various forms that shaming takes are determined to a great extent by cultural conditions, but the impact on the person being shamed is similar around the world: people feel bad, not so much for what they did, but for who they are. Shaming is a technique that has some value in teaching moral rules perhaps, but in redirecting actions at work, its negative properties are huge.

Around the world, safety incidents at work are driven up by the high cost of unaddressed stressors, including fear of punishment, that cause numerous accidents and risky behavior. Such behavior is sometimes undertaken to ensure continued employment when an employee is afraid of the consequences for failure to meet a deadline or to deliver a product or service on time. With this in mind, it's not so surprising that 60 to 80 percent of on-the-job accidents are stress related, according to the American Institute of Stress. Even repetitive injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which have become the nation's leading workplace health cost and account for almost a third of all Workers' Compensation awards, are frequently stress related. For example, studies show that keyboard entry operators, who report that they are uncertain whether their activities are being monitored for performance evaluation, experience stress and demonstrate significantly higher incidences of such injuries.

According to statistics provided by, U. S. industries lose 75 million working days per year because of on-the-job-stress hazards with $50 billion in related compensation costs, all brought on, in the United States at least, by unsafe employee acts due to job stress. Surely stress distracts us mentally and physically and since Americans report that workplace stress tops even personal problems as the highest stressor in life, it follows that stress blurs focus and blurred focus leads to accidents and injuries. Of course such high rates of stress aren't only an American problem as "more than half of the 147 million workers in the European Union complained of having to work at very high speeds under tight deadlines." Is it any wonder that 30 percent of workers from industrialized countries report suffering from back pain?

Some stress is almost a given in any job situation but if that job situation is based on positive concern and involvement, employees handle many extremely stressful situations with skill and emotional strength. However, employers often fail to realize, or discount the evidence that employees with little control over their jobs and environments often experience high levels of frustration-and that frustration in turn leads to high rates of disregard for how they respond to business needs. A Minnesota plastic manufacturer, for example, after polling its employees, found that the workforce was bored and angry with minimal communication from management and their failure to include employees in decision-making that affected day-to-day operations. This treatment led to ambivalence regarding quality, safety, and productivity, even among those who reported as originally having high regard for the company. While the frustration that workers experienced was not directly linked to punishment on the job as in the case of the Japanese train engineer, the lack of involvement and regard for the workers' input did lead to behavioral drift-a fading of high and steady rates of positive behavior. That fading shows up in interest and effort and leads to a predictably careless approach to "taking care" of the company's interests.

After the employee survey, the previously mentioned plastic plant implemented department task forces to address employee issues and created an incentive safety program. Although the company no doubt experienced gains in many unmeasured areas of financial impact, they did track ROI in terms of accidents and injuries: a 56 percent drop in Workers' Compensation claims!

A management approach that excludes workers from participating in decisions that affect their daily life, failure to communicate in a responsible way changes or conditions that might affect them, and a disregard for the desire of workers to contribute ideas and suggestions, leads to conditions of apathy and isolation for workers. Remember that the workplace can and should be a place where all are valued in visible ways for contributions. It is foolish management to disregard the goodwill of workers and what it can do for safe habits and business success. From a behavioral science perspective, such disregard by management about workers' ability to help solve problems leads to disregard for the company by employees. The cost of inclusion is low, and the resultant goodwill is actually measurable.

From Panic to PowerStress is an easily ignored circumstance because employers don't appear to realize the direct link between employee stress and almost every factor that impacts an organization's safety performance, financial viability, and business success. Management often acknowledges that stress is a terrible thing and understands that stress contributes to accidents, yet still views the stressed worker as weak or unskilled in personal self-management. Sometimes management offers employees classes in coping skills or personal counseling, and these are good steps but not the primary or best method they should consider for dealing with workplace stress. Management all too often fails to see employee stress as a direct link to what management says, does and culturally and systematically reinforces, whether subtly or overtly. Stress must not be seen as just a necessary condition of work that good employees should be able to handle. While stress may always exist, smart managers stop looking at it as a problem of individual performers or as an unalterable condition.

A study published by the American Journal of Health Promotion states that "the results suggest that while a one-time stress management program will have little, if any effect on accident and injury occurrences, a more permanent, comprehensive, organization-wide program can have more substantial effects." U. S. industry forfeits $300 billion each year for stress-related accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, medical, legal, and insurance costs, worker's compensation and legal judgments. If that figure isn't sobering enough, consider some of the figures and facts offered by relating to the category of stress-related, on-the-job safety alone.

  • A study of 3,020 aircraft employees showed that employees who "hardly ever" enjoyed their job were 2.5 times more likely to report a back injury than those who reported "almost always" enjoying their job.
  • Insurance data indicates insurance claims for stress-related industrial accidents cost nearly twice as much as nonstress-related industrial accidents.
  • Employees with low satisfaction are more likely to have multiple injuries than those with high satisfaction (54 percent to 43 percent). Employees with a higher number of stressful life events were more likely to have had more than one injury than those with low (53 percent to 41 percent).

Clearly, learning more about stress and its impact on workers is an important objective of good company management in sustaining employee well-being and safe work habits. Considering how to arrange conditions to accelerate positive performance is not a nice-to-do but a smart-to-do management approach to business success. Top to bottom commitment and accountability for creating such conditions leads to extraordinary achievement.

Published April 13, 2009