Uncovering the Hidden Triggers of Workplace Stress Beyond Deadlines

Uncovering the Hidden Triggers of Workplace Stress Beyond Deadlines

The UK’s Stress Management Society is spearheading Stress Awareness Month in April, with countries like the US following suit.  Much of the focus is on work pressures, relationships and processes. But workplace stress extends beyond deadlines, targets, colleagues and growing to-do lists. 

Physical stressors, such as heat, fatigue and noise, can significantly impact mental and physical well-being. This article explores the impact of these workplace stressors and how innovative solutions fuelled by technology are helping reduce the burden on employees.


The impact of stress: From positive motivation to chronic woes

HSE describes stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”. It is the body’s physiological response to protect us from threatening and challenging situations that have the potential to cause harm.

The stress response is triggered when there is a perceived risk, for example, giving a speech, doing a job interview, dealing with family issues, or being confronted. The body releases complex chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol—the “stress hormone”—to prepare us for “fight or flight” and shuts down functions not needed to respond to the stressor, like brain function and digestion. Balance is restored when the danger is gone. 

Without the stress response, humans would not have survived this long! So some levels of stress can be a good thing. Indeed, 56% of people surveyed in The Workplace Health Report: 2023 agreed that “the perfect amount of stress” enables them to thrive. Finding the fine balance between being productive and feeling challenged is important, but not at the expense of health or happiness. 

Today, however, while most of us are no longer susceptible to lion attacks, our stress response is often triggered by the daily demands of work, exposure to extreme temperatures, and being in confined spaces, for example. When we experience constant stress, we become chronically stressed, leading to damaging cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural outcomes – all impacting how we engage in life. 


The widespread problem of stress

In 2018, a survey by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of respondents felt so stressed in the preceding year that they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. In the US, The American Stress Institute found that 80% of workers feel stress on the job, and nearly half say they need help learning how to manage stress.  

As well as health-related issues, stress is impacting every aspect of a business, from drops in productivity to absenteeism, and damaging working relationships. It’s having serious financial repercussions, too.  In 2023, AXA UK and the Centre of Economic Business Research reported that work-related stress and burnout cost the UK economy £28bn a year, resulting in 23.3 million sick days.

More than workload: What are the different causes of stress?

Workplace stress is not confined to the office. It’s not just deadlines, targets and growing to-do lists that pile on the pressure. Workers operating in high-stress environments or doing repetitive, monotonous tasks can all trigger the stress response. Since they are routinely exposed to the same “threats”, chronic stress can become the norm. Stress manifests differently in different people but usually has physical and psychological outcomes.


Fatigue

According to The National Safety Council, fatigue is estimated to cost employers $136 billion in health-related productivity loss annually. However, it is one of the most overlooked risks in the workplace.

Stress can cause fatigue, and fatigue can cause stress. For instance, prolonged stress – such as recurring exposure to stress in the workplace or burnout – can impact sleep, cause insomnia and significantly impact energy levels. 

Fatigue—or extreme tiredness—can also be triggered by a range of working environments. Employees working irregular shift patterns or long hours, doing highly repetitive tasks or tasks that require high concentration, those exposed to prolonged physical or mental exertion without sufficient recovery or rest, and those operating in darkened environments are all at risk of fatigue. 

Mental and physical fatigue can negatively impact cognitive performance, reaction times, concentration, short-term memory, and decision-making. It also causes huge stress on the body and mental health challenges.


Heat stress

Heat stress is a growing risk for workers around the globe as temperatures rise year-on-year. While some people may have respite in the cooler months, workers in high-heat environments are at risk all year round. This includes steelworkers, miners, smelters, oil and gas workers, and those requiring heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) or hazmat suits to protect against contact with toxic materials, such as in petrochemical plants. According to Eurofound, nearly a quarter of workers are exposed to extremely high temperatures for at least a quarter of their working time in Europe. 

Studies have shown how high temperatures can also impact mental health. Chronic heat stress can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and cognitive impairment. Researchers found that the cognitive impairment caused by heat strain, dehydration, and heat-related fatigue impacts working memory, attentiveness, information retention, information processing, response speed and processing speed. 

According to 2021 research by C. Narocki, “heatwaves are an occupational hazard.” The mental side of heat stress directly increases the risk of workplace accidents by 5% to 7% when temperatures rise above 30°C / 86°F and by 10% to 15% when temperatures exceed 38°C / 100.4°F. 

Heat exposure can also put stress on the body and cause heat-related illness. This can impair balance, coordination, cognition, and fatigue, increase the chances of occupational accidents, and negatively affect productivity. The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) says work-related heat stress could lead to productivity loss, equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs in 2030, costing the global economy $2.4 trillion. In the US alone, it’s estimated that $100 billion will be lost annually due to reduced worker capacity from heat stress. 


Noise exposure

Research shows that persistent exposure to loud noises can trigger the body’s stress response. This, in turn, causes several stress-related physiological reactions, including raised blood pressure and heart rate, and inflammation. Over time, this can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, fatigue, sleeping problems, and impaired cognitive performance. 

In the US, The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports around 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise annually. This includes workers in industrial settings such as engineering, machinery plants, and construction. Perhaps more surprisingly, workers in logistics and warehousing can frequently experience noise levels considered “too loud”. The World Health Organization suggests that noise exposure contributes to 22% of workplace-related health issues.

How technology monitors and reduces workplace stress

It’s clear that stress can take its toll. Organisations have a duty of care to support and protect their employees from physical and mental risks, including stresses of all kinds. While many already have measures to ensure staff safety and well-being, more can be done. 

Currently, measures vary from hydration to adjusting work schedules, introducing rest timetables, and providing psychological support. But it’s very difficult for organisations to know if someone is coping well or experiencing problems day-to-day. This means symptoms can often go undetected or are detected too late, making it harder and longer to address the issues. 

The wearable in-ear physiological monitoring solution from Bodytrak helps organisations accurately measure, monitor, and manage physiological factors that indicate stress. It monitors workers in real time so that if the user exceeds a physiological threshold where they can be at risk both the user and supervisor receive immediate alerts so early intervention can be enabled.

Take, for instance, a worker in a high-heat environment. Exposure to intense heat may raise their core body temperature (CBT), which can lead to cardiovascular strain and heat stroke. With Bodytrak, the worker would receive an audio prompt before their CBT can reach a dangerous level, reducing the risk of heat stress and heat stroke, which can in turn, impair cognitive function. This approach reduces the risk of incidents, helps maintain worker health and well-being, and improves overall performance. 

Since stress impacts people differently, Bodytrak takes an individual approach to managing worker well-being. The ability to monitor each worker’s physiological responses makes Bodytrak extremely effective and accurate. Over time, data captured provides insights that can paint a clearer picture of each individual’s responses to their environments and work stressors. This ensures everyone is equipped with the right knowledge and resources to deal with their working environment. 

In the long term, data can help identify and address ongoing issues and inform health and safety practices. For example, a long-haul trucking and logistics company realised their drivers were prone to fatigue as they covered great distances over many working hours. They implemented physiological monitoring technology to monitor and detect fatigue, alerting drivers to take a break well before they became too tired and dangerous to themselves and other road users.


Conclusion

Stress Awareness Month reminds us of the complex nature of workplace stress and the devastating mental and physical toll it can take on employees. It is crucial to understand that stress doesn’t just impact busy office workers. Environmental stressors like heat, noise, and demanding working conditions that result in fatigue can significantly impact well-being, too.

For organisations, stress management is not just about the bottom line and productivity gains. Good technology and health and safety practices can certainly boost productivity and performance. But most importantly, it can protect workers physically and emotionally for an altogether healthier workforce.

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