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Psychological stress at work

Gudrun Heise / jlwAugust 26, 2014

If you're always available for calls, always on the go, multi-tasking, answering emails…always checking…you're heading for mental stress. Shift work, and the daily pressure to perform won't help either.

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It used to be the silent sickness. Mental health. We long preferred to avoid talking about our psychological problems, such as fatigue and lacking of motivation.

Today, things have changed. Mental stress forms part of our understanding of occupational health and safety.

But there is still very little long-term research into mental stress, says psychologist Hiltraut Paridon, an expert in mental stress in the workplace, based at the German Social Accident Insurance (IAG) in Dresden.

The causes

Now that mobile phones have become this ubiquitous extension of almost everything we do, it is possible for employees to feel like they have to be available around the clock.

Some employers even expect it.

And so for many people the line between work and free time is severely blurred. It has become difficult to unwind and to recharge your batteries.

Deadlines and the daily pressure to perform affect about half of all employees, says Paridon. She says 60 percent of workers suffer as a result of having to multitask.

Increasingly, workers are expected to perform a range of tasks and often handle them simultaneously.

Constant interruptions at work can also have a negative impact on your health.

In some professions, working hours have shifted - it is another factor having a negative impact on many employees' mental health.

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Switch off for some much needed down timeImage: Fotolia/MH

"Business is affected by long working hours, evenings and weekend work. This is due to long and extended opening times," says Paridon.

The 24-hour communication cycle, supported by our digital technology, has given rise to a perception that we also need 24-hour opening times. But shops, such as supermarkets, that say open until midnight, have been found to be an extra burden on staff.

Health consequences

It is, of course, all a matter of perspective, says Paridon. If an individual sees their work load as being too much, it can cause stress and health problems.

"That may [be associated with] a number of different diseases," Paridon says. "For example, cardiac or musculoskeletal disorders can cause mental illness, which can increase the number of accidents and loss of motivation, or lead right up to a poor immune system."

In a 2013 study by the federal chamber of psychotherapists, around 75,000 workers in Germany took early retirement due to mental disorders the previous year.

A report into accident prevention in the workplace suggests that 11 percent of all sick days are due to mental stress.

Lacking limits

There are standards and regulations that cover protective clothing, masks, safety shoes and noise.

But it is not the same for mental stress in the workplace. There are no recognized limits and values, says Paridon.

"In the last year, laws protecting workers have changed. The legislation now explicitly says that mental health issues have to be considered as part of any risk evaluation."

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More and more people are retiring at an early ageImage: imago/ARCO IMAGES

Every company is obliged to record hazards at work and undertake preventative measures to correct them.

"This refers to all hazards, including biological, chemical or mechanical. Psychological stress is just as important," says Paridon.

Since there is no recognized spectrum for mental stress at work, it can be difficult to determine when preventative measures are needed.

"However, there are recommendations," says Paridon. "For example, the so-called traffic light principle: when up to a third of the workplace is suffering from mental stress, nothing needs to be done. If it's between one and two thirds, it needs to be looked at in more detail. And, when it is over two thirds, that's when management needs to take action."

To ensure the traffic light principle can be applied, employees are asked how they are coping - and they have to give honest answers, detailing their level of stress.

All this amounts to open and effective communication, says Paridon.

Even in our globalized and networked world such communication is seen as very important.

"What's happening in other countries? What are others doing? This goes straight to the issue of mental health," says Paridon. During the World Congress on Safety and Health, organized by the IAG, Paridon says participants hope to "learn from each other."