Workplace stress: Does anyone hear the workers screaming in their cubicles? Is anyone listening?

I don't actually know the answer to this question. As far as I know, no one can really say to what extent employers are, as a rule, effective and proactive in responding to the complaints of their employees.

Unless someone files a lawsuit, complaining that their complaint wasn't heard and asserting that their complaint involves an issue of law, there is really no way to know how often the screams of employees go unheard. There are no hard data I can find and no research articles that provide the answer.

What I do know is that workplace stress is ubiquitous. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, which is part of the CDC, Centers for Disease Control) describes workplace stress as one of the 10 leading causes of work-related disease and injury. NIOSH describes it as a safety issue, not just as an unfortunate consequence of work.

In describing the prevalence of work-related stress, NIOSH cites a study by Northwest National Life that found that 40% of workers report that their job is "very or extremely stressful."

NIOSH also quotes a finding from the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co.: "Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor - more so than even financial problems or family problems."

Workplace stress is an organizational issue, and as NIOSH has said, the first response should be prevention. In most cases, it is not the necessary and unavoidable stressful events in the work place that cause people harm. Instead, it is the stressors that need not be: those things that could just as easily be changed.

There are indeed workplace stress factors that result simply from the nature and the demands of work. But the stress literature is clear in noting that people will adapt, adjust, thrive and survive in response to even the most extreme stressors, if they have a sense of purpose or a sense of coherence. It is hard to imagine anything that might violate a worker's sense of meaning and purpose more than the experience that management is not listening and that management does not care.

Again, there is no way to know whether it is either typical or uncommon for organizations to be indifferent to the needs of their employees, but if you consider the above in combination, it tends to suggest an answer.

We can say that 40% of workers find their jobs to be "very or extremely stressful." Or on the other hand, you could conclude that 40% of workers operate in the face of toxic conditions that the organization has failed to recognize and remedy. You can argue that workers become distressed because organizations have either failed to remedy unpalatable working conditions or because they have failed to provide the motivation and incentive that would enable workers to maintain health in the face of challenge.

If, as NIOSH says, workplace stress is a safety issue (one of the top ten causes of industrial injury), then consider what that 40% figure means in terms of the safety of the American workplace. And consider what that tells us about the effectiveness of management in providing a safe workplace.

Another way to approach the question of whether or not anyone hears the screams of workers is to consider the fact that some employees feel a need to file lawsuits against their employers. Yes, there are some people who sue because they are just naturally litigious. Yes, there are some who are carrying out personal grudges or other psychological agendas. Yes, there are some who are at fault themselves and seeking to project blame onto others. And yes, there are some who are trying to profit or gain.

The reality, however, is that there are substantial hurdles that exist for those who "want" to sue. There are hard dollar costs involved and there are psychic tolls that can be overwhelming. The idea that it is easy to sue, or that anyone can do it is an idea that has no basis in reality. Sure, it's something that can easily be done if you are the victim of medical malpractice or a medical injury. But it is not at all easy or rewarding if your claim has to do with a violation of your sense of well-being. It is not easy at all if your claim is about mistreatment in the workplace. Years of effort and a complex set of legal rulings stand between a worker and a judgment. And in just about every case, it is the defendant (i.e., the organization) that has the resources necessary to prolong the process.

It is an entirely imprecise measure, but the fact that some workers feel that they have no other choice but to sue tells us something about whether or not anyone heard their complaints and was willing to do something about them.

Some years ago, on the 100th anniversary of the American Psychological Association, I was privileged to attend a lecture by J. Donald Millar, M.D. He was then the Assistant Surgeon General and the Director of NIOSH. He spoke about the science behind the decision at NIOSH to include psychological disorders on the list of leading workplace injuries, noting that the agency had previously been preoccupied with "hard hats and hard science." Occupational stress became part of the worker safety agenda on the basis of three criteria: 1) frequency of occurrence; 2) the severity of injuries; and 3) preventability by available measures.

To illustrate his understanding of occupational stress and safety, Dr. Millar told a gruesome (warning!) story. His daughter was a scientist involved in toxic waste site cleanups and was working at a site where logs (e.g., telephone poles) were chemically treated in large pressure cookers. On opening one of the vats, they found that a worker had been trapped inside and "cooked with the logs."  
This is how Dr. Millar told it:
"As a physician in the Public Health Service for 30 years, I've heard lots of things. I have felt the helpless outrage provoked by unnecessary tragedy. Few things really 'get to me.' But I tell you the truth, I simply cannot get out of my mind the image of that worker in there, realizing he was trapped - screaming at the top of his lungs - pounding his fists bloody on the walls of the vat, trying at the extremity of desperation to get somebody's - anybody's - attention, as time and options ran out. Can you imagine how that was? Can you imagine the stress?"
Dr. Millar offered this vignette as a paradigm for workplace stress and how workers might experience their situation. In his words, "clearly this was an extreme case, but I believe it is a valid example of an individual helplessly trapped between an unbreachable barrier and an overwhelming on-rushing threat."

What has always stuck with me about this story is the image of someone trapped in a place where no one can hear their screams. In the workplace, it is too often the case that no one is listening and that no one is paying attention.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.