We've all heard of the efforts by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) toward protecting the safety and health of America's workers. I think they do a bang-up job if you're dealing with environments where hexavalent chromium is an issue, or if there's a chance you could get hit in the head by an anvil. But one of the most pressing dangers facing today's workers, and one that is not as clear-cut as a falling anvil, is the threat to employee's physical and mental health due to workplace stress.
Although the incidences of workers' compensations stress claims are way up in the U.S. and the EU (with some companies experiencing massive workers' compensation payouts), it's still very difficult to define, identify, and reduce psychosocial risk in the workplace.
The most widely accepted definition of workplace stress is the one published by the US National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety:
"Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury."
It's a complicated issue to be sure. You don't want the definition to be so broad that a net admin can sue a CIO just because he gets on his nerves. (I lost all faith in the role of common sense in lawsuits when I read about the woman who sued a liquor manufacturer because she consumed a fifth of whiskey every day during her pregnancy and her child was born with birth defects.)
But what if an unreasonable work culture manifests itself in an employee's chronic stomach problems? Legally, you would have to prove the connection. Morally, a company really only has to listen and try to remedy the situation. Some companies don't do this until the problem is more widespread and there is a noticeable drop in productivity or increase in turnover that then affects the bottom line.
I believe companies should take a more proactive approach in dealing with workplace stressors, and that means paying attention to how managers manage and taking a look at organizational culture. Of course, that's not saying that all of the responsibility should fall on the company. After all, in theory, a worker has the free will to walk away from a job that is psychologically detrimental. But in practice, with today's job outlook and the state of people's personal financial situations, that's not always an option.
What do you think? Do you think work-related psychological stress is a legitimate claim or just a catalyst for unfounded lawsuits?
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.