Feature

In the 1980s, asbestos, solvents and pesticides were the most commonly cited topics in occupational health journals. Today, psychosocial health and musculoskeletal issues top the citations.

Addressing those concerns and many others was the focus of the ninth annual Work, Stress and Health conference, held March 6-8 in Washington, D.C., and co-sponsored by APA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

More than 750 people from around the world participated in the conference, which featured 368 speakers, 92 sessions and 135 posters, and offered new insights on bullying in the workplace, the effects of the 9/11 attacks on recovery workers, the stress of commuting and the effect of work on family life, among many other topics.

At the meeting's opening session, speakers called on occupational health psychologists to do more than just research.

"As we move out of the laboratory into the reality of organizations and working life ... we need to start thinking outside of the traditional box in terms of the way we conduct our science," said University of Nottingham psychologist Tom Cox, PhD. "We have to share our knowledge and converge across different silos of health and safety management, as well as train future generations."

Bullying is worse than sexual harassment

Perhaps the most surprising research presented at the conference was the finding that workplace bullying, such as belittling employees and persistently criticizing their work, harms employees more than sexual harassment.

In a review of 110 studies conducted over 21 years, Sandy Hershcovis, PhD, of the University of Manitoba, and co-author Julian Barling, PhD, of Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, found that employees who experienced bullying, incivility or interpersonal conflict were more likely to quit their jobs, have a lower sense of well-being and be less satisfied with their jobs. These employees also reported more job stress, less job commitment and higher levels of anger and anxiety.

Previous research has already shown that both bullying and sexual harassment can create negative work environments and unhealthy consequences for employees, but this study's findings indicate that workplace aggression has more severe consequences.

Also, bullying is often more subtle and may include behaviors that do not appear obvious to others, said Hershcovis. "For instance, how does an employee report to their boss that they have been excluded from lunch? Or that they are being ignored by a co-worker? The insidious nature of these behaviors makes them difficult to deal with and sanction."

Sick-at-work employees mean well

People are nursing their colds, flu symptoms and other ailments in the office rather than at home watching reruns, according to a recent survey on "presenteeism"--the habit of going to work sick. Seventy-four percent of 3,800 employees surveyed said they'd gone to work sick at least once within the last year. On average, respondents reported going to work more than half of the time on days they were sick, said Caroline Biron, a doctoral student at the University of Lancaster in England who presented the findings.

Why? Ironically, many likely drag themselves and their germs into the office out of respect for their colleagues, Biron said. She found that those who reported having good relationships with co-workers had a high tendency to come to work under the weather.

"Basically, you don't want your colleagues to have to take up your workload," said Biron. Other factors that predicted a high tendency to shun sick leave included having a high workload, a high level of psychological stress or a job that involves multiple tasks and demands from several departments.

Top reasons employees listed for coming in sick included "workloads and deadlines" (31 percent) and "professionalism and guilt" (28 percent).

Biron said her findings counter the belief among many employers that staff take sick leave when they aren't that bad off.

"Quite the contrary, we find they come to work ill more often than they actually take a day off," for other personal reasons, she said.

Erratic commutes undermine employees

Americans spend more time traveling to and from work, but that may not be what's causing the most anguish about their commutes. Rather, it's the erratic nature of the trips that may take the biggest toll on employee well-being, said George Mason University psychology graduate student Michael Ford.

His online survey of 325 workers showed that those whose commutes were least predictable--due to weather, traffic or transit malfunctions--showed the highest rates of worker strain. Workers who reported smooth driving experiences--regardless of commute length--were less likely to be adversely affected by commuting stress, Ford said.

Similarly, research with 525 employees who drove to work showed that those who perceive the commute as enjoyable--a time to transition from work to home--experienced less commuting stress, said University of Connecticut psychology graduate student Stephanie Morrow.

"If you find ways to enjoy your commute, it may actually contribute to resource replenishment rather than resource drain," Morrow said.

Another study, led by Polytechnic University's Richard E. Wener, PhD, and Gary W. Evans, PhD, of Cornell University, measured salivary cortisol, job strain and proofreading accuracy to determine the effect of increased predictability and improved travel time of train commutes in New York City. Wener found that even modest transit improvements--such as reducing the commute by 10 minutes and eliminating the need to transfer from one train to another--significantly reduced commuter stress, particularly for women with children.

Untrained disaster responders at highest risk

More than one in ten 9/11 civilian recovery workers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the months and years following the World Trade Center attack--a rate in line with that being reported by troops returning home from Afghanistan, according to initial findings from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening program.

The program assessed the psychological, social and medical effects of 9/11 on 10,133 workers between 10 and 61 months after the disaster.

This rate is significantly higher than that of trained law enforcement workers at the site, said study author Jeanne M. Stellman, PhD, director of environmental health sciences at the State University of New York Downstate. In addition, two-thirds of the civilian responders--mainly blue-collar construction workers and cleaning and maintenance crews from New York City's labor force--reported substantial stress reactions, such as disturbing thoughts and dreams about the attack, difficulty concentrating and trouble falling or staying asleep. Those who lost loved ones were at highest risk for distress.

These findings indicate that disaster-recovery operations have substantial, long-lasting implications for mental health and that future rescue and clean-up workers must be provided with comprehensive disaster safety and traumatic stress training, as well as more time to rest and recover, Stellman said.

"These [civilian workers] are the unseen and forgotten in this, and the people who will undoubtedly continue to pay the price unless we can figure out how to implement worker training programs on a much wider and more systematic basis," Stellman said.

Personal communication creates healthy workplaces

Although many people believe employees leave their jobs in search of higher salaries, the most likely culprit appears to be problems with their immediate supervisors, said speaker Robert G. Acton, PhD, of Gilbert Acton Ltd., a company that helps organizations foster healthy workplaces and employees.

Not only do bad employee-supervisor relationships spoil the work environment, they also spill over to affect marriages, children and families, he added.

One good solution is simply talking. Psychologist Michael P. Leiter, PhD, of Arcadia University, notes that supervisors can help alleviate burnout--which he sees as a relationship problem--by asking employees, "If you can picture yourself in a successful career 10, 20 years down the line, what is that story?" Then work with the employee to realize their goals.

"It's a matter of ... promoting individuals in a way that has more substance to it, in a way that realizes that each of those people out there has a story and a value system and you are tapping into it," he says.

Front-line managers have the responsibility to communicate with their employees about stress, added Merv Gilbert, PhD, also of Gilbert Acton Ltd. He cited a University of Michigan survey in which 83 percent of employees surveyed said that sharing their feelings with their managers was helpful.

"It's a hard thing to do, but well worth it," he says.

Parents' work often suffers once school day ends

Research supports what many parents have already found on their own: parents' worry over whether after-school babysitter plans will fall through or unsupervised teens will stir up trouble at home affects their job performance. Rosalind Barnett, PhD, of Brandeis University, surveyed parents from three Fortune 100 companies who were in dual-earner partnerships and found that parents who have high levels of worry about their children's well-being after school also have excessive job disruptions--including missed work, distractions on the job and poor work quality.

Most worried were parents who worked long hours, had partners who worked long hours, had little control over their schedules or whose children spent the most hours without adult supervision after school.

When it came to their partners' work demands, on average women reported they were worried the same amount no matter how long their spouses usually worked, but men's worries increased if their wives had jobs that required long hours, said Barnett.

The findings have bottom-line implications for businesses that want working parents to thrive, said Barnett's co-author, Karen Gareis, PhD, also of Brandeis. "It makes good business sense to provide employees with flexible work options--a win-win proposition that enhances productivity and retention and alleviates parental stress," she said.

Putting flexible schedules to work

Overtime workers are at higher risk for increased stress, physical injuries and workplace accidents than those who only work regular hours, researchers say, but certain factors might play a bigger part in that risk than others. Most at issue is whether overall length of hours worked is the driving factor or if it's the presence or lack of choice in the matter.

Lonnie Golden, an economist at Pennsylvania State University, Abington, found that 17 percent of people surveyed in his study worked mandatory overtime and weren't able to alter their starting and ending times. Consequently, they had higher levels of stress and more frequent work injuries than those who are able to adapt their work schedules.

Later, University of South Florida graduate student Kristen Shockley looked into why people take advantage of flexible work arrangements in the first place. In a survey of 148 faculty members at the university, she found that 61 percent of people with flexible workplace arrangements used them to enhance their productivity, as did 83 percent of people with flexible schedules.

Breaking down the results even more, she found that women were significantly more likely to choose productivity over life management, which was defined as spending time with children or for personal reasons--a somewhat surprising find, she says, because a primary goal of early flexible-work supporters was to give women more options when balancing work and family. Married people--both men and women, she found--were most likely to prize life management.

- J. Chamberlin, A. Novotney, E. Packard and M. Price

Further Reading

For more information on this year's Work, Stress and Health conference, visit www.apa.org/pi/work/wsh.html. The 2009 conference will be held Nov. 4-7 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.