It presents itself in a host of manifestations: sleepless nights, gut-wrenching fear, grinding teeth, an angry kick to a trash can.

Workplace stress has changed the environment for those who have been fortunate enough to maintain employment through the recession, but shoulder guilt and face a heavier workload because they survived the cutbacks.

“We have seen an increasing number of hospital and clinic visits with the primary complaint being that stress in the workplace has led to increased levels of depression and anxiety,” says Brian Espinoza, a psychiatrist at St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Center in Phoenix.

A still-struggling economy has cranked up the pressure on those workers left to carry the load. A poll by Right Management shows that 79 percent of employees say their workload has increased because of layoffs. And a recent study commissioned by the American Psychological Association shows that 20 percent of workers say their daily level of stress exceeds 8 on a 10-point scale.

“The economy has caused many companies to ‘downsize,’ effectively increasing the workload of the remaining staff,” says Dr. Kevin Klassen, a cardiologist with Scottsdale Healthcare. “With the increased demands of
the workplace being coupled with fear of loss of job and health benefits, negative stress increases markedly.”

Here are some signs of workplace stress, according to Chip Coffey, director of outpatient services for St. Luke’s Behavioral Health:

  • Increase in workers’ compensation claims
  • Increase in employee complaints and grievances
  • Customer complaints describing your employees as “irritable” or “stressed”
  • Verbal or physical conflict among any of your employees
  • Increase in sick days or call-offs
  • Frequent staff turnover or requests to transfer out

Experts warn that workplace stress doesn’t just impact the employee in a negative manner, it can adversely impact the business’ bottom line.

“When employees experience stress and anxiety for whatever reason, they tend to follow poor eating habits and forego their daily exercise regimen,” says Cheyenne Autumn, director of health and wellness strategies for UnitedHealthcare of Arizona. “High stress levels can prompt absenteeism and decrease (productivity) among employees. Also, stress can cause high blood pressure and impair the immune system response, making people more vulnerable to colds, flu and other infectious conditions.”

To prevent stress from further depleting the workplace, Klassen says employers need to assume that their employees have personal and job-related stressors and remember that everyone has their breaking point.

“Employers need to say please and thank you,” he says. “They need to praise good performances openly and address mistakes privately in a way where the intent is to instruct, rather than to belittle. The same workload can be perceived as crushing or as manageable, depending upon the environment in which the work is done.”

Experts suggest that employees take a proactive approach to managing his or her stress level. Autumn says stressed-out employees should recognize that exercise is the best antidote. Simple steps, such as walking around the building a couple of times each day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can reduce stress, she says. These activities stimulate adrenalin and the movement of the body will energize the employee for the remainder of the day.

“Employees should also be open and honest with their supervisor or manager,” recommends Dr. Anne-Marie Reed, a board certified family physician at Camelback Health Care. “Communication is the best course of action. Discuss what is causing the workplace stress. That may start with understanding the symptoms of stress itself.”

Espinoza says that it is important for employees to self-monitor for signs of depression and anxiety, such as insomnia, lack of interest in activities which were previously enjoyed, poor self-confidence, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, lack of appetite, lethargy, or sluggishness, and most importantly, thoughts of suicide or homicide. If any of these symptoms are troublesome and interfere with work and home responsibilities, seek medical attention immediately.

Coffey also says it’s important to remind yourself that while you may feel stressed, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.

“Practice being content,” he says. “Most of us know how to be discontent, but we do not practice letting ourselves be content. Take time each day to recognize that things may not be great, they may not be horrible. They just are. This is being content.”

Arizona Business Magazine March/April 2012