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Taking steps to address workplace stress

If my practice is any indication, employment lawyers across this country are spending increasing amounts of time advising employers on dealing with stress in the workplace. That means human resource professionals are also dealing with these problems more frequently on a day-to-day basis.
The indicators that stress is affecting the workplace at an unprecedented rate are everywhere. More employees seem to be taking medical leaves in response to stress (whether it originates at work or at home). More media outlets seem to be carrying stories relating to employees’ reactions to a stressful workplace. And more courts, arbitrators, and tribunals seem to be adjudicating disputes involving a stress factor in the workplace.
My own experiences and observations are, obviously, an unscientific basis for measuring a trend but I am convinced that my own experience is typical. Take, as an example, the workplace stresses faced by school teachers.
The news media are bulging with stories involving schools at which teachers have reacted to a stressful situation. Watch your newspaper for a couple of weeks and you are sure to come across numerous stories of this type.
Recently, a Montreal, Quebec, teacher took an indefinite sick leave and faced disciplinary action from her school board after using tape to control unruly students.
It seems a five year old student was wandering around the classroom and wouldn’t sit down. Eventually, the teacher resorted to taping him to his seat. He later freed himself and had lunch with friends but continued his disruptive behaviour when class resumed. Finally, the teacher resorted to taping the boy’s mouth shut.
A few weeks ago in Toronto, a school principal pleaded guilty to throwing feces at a boy in a moment of extreme stress. The principal, in court, stated that she just “couldn’t take it anymore”. She was charged with two counts of assault but was granted an absolute discharge. The provincial court justice commented that “she was pushed and pushed, and she snapped in a moment … that was completely out of character”.
Just last week, a substitute teacher in Amanda, Ohio was reprimanded after her reaction to talkative children was revealed to parents. The teacher had resorted to the use of clothespins on the lips to silence chatty kindergarten children.
These are all situations in which the teacher has responded to a stressful situation in a way which was truly out of character. They surely all regretted their actions soon after, but the fact is that the situation in which they were placed caused them to act in a way we consider to be inappropriate.
Teachers are not, obviously, the only employees who work in a stressful environment. Employees in all manner of industrial, office, and retail settings suffer stress on a daily basis. A scan of the internet reveals, sadly, that workplace shootings occur monthly around North America.
The question to be asked is, what are employers doing about all this stress? While it is not a good idea for employers to try to govern every aspect of their employees’ lives, the employer should get involved when workplace stress becomes apparent. Aside from the very valid moral and ethical reasons for working to reduce employees’ stress, there are good business reasons to be proactive as well.
The average employer today has some form of workplace harassment policy in place. That is one outlet for employees to vent when workplace relationships have become unbearable. This is a valuable tool for every employer, and the keys are to make it accessible to the employees and to make sure it is used to solve relational problems rather than brush them under the carpet.
Many employers now also offer their employees some form of a confidential counseling service as well. These usually take the form of telephone access to counselors who can assist with a wide range of personal stress issues.
I can’t help wondering, however, if today’s workplace requires more than a harassment policy and a telephone counseling service. These are very passive mechanisms, usually reliant on the employee’s action to trigger them.
The answer may be for employers to take more active steps to monitor, and remedy, stressful situations at work. This requires the employer to train managers and human resources staff to recognize telltale signs of workplace stress and to have resources available to deal with those situations when they are identified.
Taking early steps to defuse a stressful situation will make the employee’s work life more pleasant. It will also improve the employer’s bottom line by reducing the frequency of medical leaves and of disputes which can lead to costly litigation.
It is possible for employers to be successful in dealing with stress in the workplace while still observing their employees’ right to privacy. Being proactive and sensitive to employees’ needs are the first steps towards that result.