Generally defined as a negative physical or emotional reaction to a demanding environment, stress in workplaces is considered a significant and costly problem for the business world. Its impact extends from the immediate human toll on those who experience it to many costs and inefficiencies that can diminish business effectiveness. Estimates place the annual price tag of workplace stress in the United States at somewhere between $200 and $300 billion, owing to health care claims, workers' compensation claims, absenteeism, employee turnover, productivity losses, and other direct and indirect costs. Some research suggests, for instance, that health benefits for highly stressed employees cost some 40 percent more than average. One study has even suggested that stress greatly contributes to unethical employee behavior such as lying to customers and cutting corners on work tasks.
Specialists actually define two forms of stress, which may be loosely termed positive stress and negative stress. The difference is based largely on individuals' perceptions of the stressor, the situation causing stress. Some workers find certain kinds of stress exhilarating, such as working toward a goal or performing tasks that have some intrinsic reward to them. In other cases, stress looms over workers as a burden of demands, pressures, unreasonable expectations, conflict, and ill-treatment.
The simplistic judgment that workers who experience high levels of negative stress merely have bad attitudes or poor coping skills has been rejected by many businesses, and moreover, the courts. This is not to suggest that employees never contribute to their own misery, but there are a number of factors and situations that seem to universally produce negative responses. Five commonly cited factors include (1) poor working conditions, (2) workplace discrimination, (3) how much control or autonomy the worker has over the situation, (4) what kinds of demands are placed on him or her, and (5) whether the worker receives support from coworkers and supervisors. When workers suffer bad conditions or discrimination, or experience little control, heavy demands, and minimal support, conditions are ripe for stress.
Employers have developed a number of tactics to help alleviate stress. There are two main categories of stress-reduction policies:
Stress treatment initiatives were the earliest response to stress complaints when the issue began to gain momentum in the 1980s. These programs range from providing more generous health and wellness benefits—including access to fitness centers—to offering specific assistance to employees who experience stress, such as through counselors and employee assistance programs. Other programs have offered yoga sessions, massage therapy, and meditation classes. By one estimate, in 1985 27 percent of U.S. workplaces had some form of stress-reduction program. This figure was expected to be closer to 40 percent as of 2000.
More recently, reformers have placed growing emphasis on job design, so that preventing stress is built into the way a company structures its work activities. Suggestions for preventative stress techniques include formally breaking up the workday into several smaller segments punctuated by breaks for relaxation, more realistic and humane scheduling of tasks to be completed, and giving workers more voice in their arrangements.
There has not always been a clear direction in the court cases, laws, and regulations addressing employee stress. Certainly litigants have been able to win large sums in court or wage costly legal battles, but there have been dual trends of lowering the burden of proof in some areas and raising the burden elsewhere. The latter approach has been more common.
Mental/emotional stress damages can be sought in one of four ways. First, if the claimant believes he or she has been specifically targeted with unreasonable job pressures because of his or her race, sex, or other protected status, an equal employment opportunity (EEO) lawsuit may be brought. As with any EEO suit, the claimant must demonstrate that the employer's actions (or inactions) had differential impact based on workers' membership in a protected class.
Second, in a special application of discrimination laws, employees may file suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that the employer has failed to make a reasonable accommodation for some disability and the result has been undue stress. In a variation on the theme, some have claimed an inability to handle stress as a disability in itself, but the courts have generally not supported such claims. One worker sued, for instance, on grounds that he was entitled to a stress-free work environment because he couldn't handle any amount of stress; he lost in court, as have litigants with similar claims.
Third, a worker can bring a general civil lawsuit alleging that the employer either (1) was negligent and allowed known stress-causing conditions to persist without taking reasonable measures to prevent them, or (2) intentionally inflicted mental or emotional suffering on the employee. In both cases there is typically a heavy burden for showing that the employer acted unreasonably, or even "outrageously," in the language of some court decisions.
Fourth, and by far most common, employees may make claims through the state workers' compensation system. In some states, including California and Massachusetts, this is virtually the only legal avenue, outside of federal discrimination lawsuits, because emotional stress cases are not heard in the tort system.
In the mid-1980s, stress claims accounted for as much as 14 percent of workers' compensation cases, but legal reforms from the early 1990s in a number of states retooled how stress-based workers' compensation claims are handled. In most cases, the laws got tougher, requiring greater specificity and evidence for various aspects of the claim. For example, in California claimants formerly could bring cases when as little as 10 percent of their stress-related condition was attributed to their work. The new law required that the majority (more than 50 percent) of their condition must be caused by work in order to qualify. Not surprisingly, stress-based claims dropped by 40 percent in two years. Other states made similar revisions. Another example of tightening the requirements has been to uphold the legitimacy of normal business practices that may simply have unpleasant consequences for individuals, such as employee dismissals, performance appraisals, and disciplinary actions, so long as these are not unusually harsh or unfounded and are not discriminatory.
However, a number of states still have vague or broad standards in these areas, so employers must stay abreast of local trends. One area of broadening has been in what stress effects are considered sufficient evidence of damages incurred. Previously, many state courts held that mental or emotional effects from stress were insufficient because the laws made no mention of them. Instead, they required that a physical illness be shown in order to qualify under the law. In some cases the laws were revised to cover mental or emotional workplace stress, but in many places the standards remain ambiguous.
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