Do Employers Ignore the Health Risks of Workplace Stress?

It is well-known that many people suffer from stress in the workplace, but a concerning increase in stress-related health problems is preventing a greater number of employees from attending work. Since 2008 there has been a rise in stress-related complaints in the U.S., increasing from an 11-year average of 20,000 complaints, to a concerning 26,000 complaints. One noted cause of this has been the recent economic downturn, which has resulted in widespread fear of redundancy and increased work duties, with no guarantee of increased pay. The lack of job opportunities available also makes it difficult to find alternative employment. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 8 out of 10 workers claim that work causes them the most stress in their lives. But the most pressing question for employers is: when does workplace stress become significant enough to qualify a person for leave?


Some employers have become concerned that their employees are abusing the system, and seeking leave and compensation by exaggerating claims of stress affecting their health. Since it is difficult to examine mental health accurately, employers often dismiss these claims, which may result in the opposite issue-ignorance of serious health conditions. Unacknowledged stress in workers leads to a new set of concerns: absenteeism, poor customer and staff relations, and ‘presenteeism’ – when workers present the appearance of working, whilst actually being distracted and unproductive.


Courts have dismissed cases for leave and compensation where employees report generalised symptoms of stress, but have ruled in favour when stress-related symptoms such as panic attacks, or physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, were evident. Some argue that the diagnostic criteria often used by psychologists and courts, known as the DSM and produced annually by the American Psychiatric Association, is becoming too broad in its definitions of mental illnesses, which could lead to employees claiming stress-related leave without actually having significant problems to their health.


Professional health care advisers and attorneys, however, have recommended that employees take advantage of their right to leave if they can prove that stress has severely affected their health. In these cases the time away from work can be extremely therapeutic, and when employees return to their job, results increased focus and productivity. For both employers and employees, it is vital to ensure that workplace relations are healthy by being aware of the problems stress can cause, and being able to communicate about the reality of the issue.

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