HEALTH Stressed to the Limit

Workplace stress – haven’t we all experienced it at times? Get-ting up on cold, dark winter’s morning to fight your way through the daily gridlock, sidling past other bleary-eyed commuters putting on lipstick, having shave and maybe their first caffeine hit for the day, while still alert for the next miniscule traffic break to dive into. That’s all before eight in the morning. Once inside the office, having executed the first miracle of the day, by actually finding carpark, there’s the frightening ritual of ‘slash and burn’ with the email inbox. But wait, it gets worse. The boss is like bear with sore head from the overtime hours the night before, and half the office are away with the flu. Sound familiar? Workplace stress is no longer simply sad fact of life to be stoically endured. On May 5 this year, it was enshrined in New Zealand law as an official “workplace hazard” when the Health & Safety in Employment Amendment Act 2002 came into force.

Excessive and ongoing stress at work, coupled with an employer who doesn’t seem to give damn, is now adequate grounds for trip to the courtroom.

For the disgruntled employee, OSH is the first port of call, but failing its interest, the stressed individual is now at liberty to compound his or her stress by personally suing their employer.

While people-focused management has increasingly become the norm in corporate New Zealand, I don’t doubt that there still remain some Dickensian employers, out to squeeze every last ounce of productivity from their exhausted workforce. Under their new legal obligations, they’re in for rough and expensive ride, unless management style is revised, in double quick time.

‘Workplace stress’ is an interesting notion. In reality, there is no such thing as an inherently stressful situation. Stress is not some demon that lurks on the outside, waiting to pounce on us when we let down our guard.

It is an internal phenomenon that plays out in our mind and body, as cascade of biochemical responses that are triggered by how we perceive and interpret changes in the environment around us. While one overworked executive may thrive on the knife edge adrenaline rush of typical high powered corporate day, the same day may leave another equally adept individual exhausted, stressed out, and heading down one-way street to the cardiac ward.

Even with stress education programmes, aesthetically pleasant working environments, and more than lip service given to establishing healthy work/life balance, there will still be employees who feel stressed in the workplace. Of course, modifying the work-place environment to meet their legal responsibilities will protect employers from the wrath of the law, and hopefully make the workplace more pleasant place to be.

It’s an illusion, however, to believe that workplace stress can ever be legislated away. The aforementioned executive on the one-way trip to the cardiac ward, has life outside the office too. The efficiency lapses, and short temper are being exposed at work, and could easily be signed off as workplace stress but what no one at work knows is that his life at home is hell. Relationship difficulties, financial worries, and child with behavioural disorder, are waiting each night when he finally parks the car in the garage.

It’s workplace stress that is the focus of the May amendments. But how can one possibly separate out and quantify stress attributable to the workplace alone, when every employee is impinged upon by world whole lot bigger than their workplace? Our executive at breaking point spends his nights willing himself to sleep, to no avail. When he climbs into the car in the cold morning air, he takes to work with him mental baggage of fear and distress. When he turns on his computer, and flips out at the sight of 100 waiting emails, is he experiencing excessive workplace stress, or has the workplace become the last in series of straws to break this camel’s back?

Lynda Wharton is Management’s health columnist.
Email: [email protected]

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