“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.”  — Dale Carnegie

Perfect lives don’t exist.  We’ve all experienced loss, misfortune or pain.  No one is a stranger to emotional stress.  And emotional stress affects work performance, particularly safety.  A study conducted by the U.K. Royal Navy discovered that personal problems increase risk by up to 50%.

Not everyone in the workforce is suffering from emotional stress at any given time.  The employees burdened with emotional stress do not compose the majority of the workforce, but research by Shell concluded that 3.4% of employees are responsible for 21.5% of accidents.  This means that many more employees in the study had repeated accidents than would be expected by chance, suggesting that while under emotional stress, employees are “accident prone.”

Emotional stress is a problem in the workplace, so how do we combat it?

Mental Health

In our society, there is a great deal of stigma associated with ill mental health.  It’s because of this stigma that we often feel embarrassed or ashamed and neglect to discuss our problems, even a problem as commonplace as emotional stress.  Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year, so why are we so afraid to talk about it?

I’ve been a supervisor.  I’ve overseen employees and I’ve witnessed emotional distress affect their work, yet I didn’t speak up.  I didn’t ask them about their lives or their problems because it felt uncomfortable and awkward. Instead, I reprimanded them when they made a mistake.  Had I made the effort then to understand emotional stress and its effects, perhaps I would have asked.

Worry

Worrying is feeling uneasy or being overly concerned about a situation or problem.  It’s a natural part of life.  We worry about health, money, children, etc.  A reasonable amount of worry is healthy; it motivates us and drives us to complete tasks and activities.  When we worry excessively, however, our mind and body go into overdrive and we constantly focus on the “what ifs”.  Sometimes, it becomes so intense that we can’t focus or think clearly.  When this happens, a person can even experience physical symptoms.

What could induce enough worry to yield physical symptoms? The answer isn’t always simple. Sometimes it’s because a person is more inclined to worry than others. Sometimes it’s because a more worrisome problem is occurring in their lives: a cancer diagnosis, suffocating debt, divorce or the death or illness of a very close relative.

The Physical Consequences of Stress

Emotional stress and chronic worry can trigger a number of health problems.  When our fight or flight response is triggered daily by excessive worrying and anxiety, it causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, such as cortisol.  These hormones boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides, which the body uses for fuel. However, they can also cause physical reactions such as dizziness, inability to concentrate, irritability, muscle aches, shortness of breath, short term memory loss, trembling, or even something as serious as a heart attack.

Although these effects are a response to stress, stress is simply the trigger. Whether or not someone become ill depends on how they manage stress. No two people handle stress in the same way and even the strongest individuals have a tolerance threshold.

Higher Risk of Incident

In the study conducted by the U.K. Royal Navy, people with numerous accidents also reported problems with concentration, remembering instructions, and physical coordination.  Sound familiar? When an employee succumbs to overwhelming emotional stress, they often experience a decline in both mental and physical abilities.

When stress-related chemicals in the brain reduce memory and concentration, workers cannot remember procedures and do not have the ability to give full attention to the task at hand.  This is a problem for an employee in any profession, but it is particularly troubling for those working in an industrial setting.  The inability to follow procedures or a lack of attention in the role of an operator risks not only the safety of the operator, but the safety others.

When physical coordination is affected, employees are more liked to drop items, stumble, trip, or even press wrong buttons, both in day-to-day responsibilities and in response to emergencies.

What to Do When Experiencing Emotional Stress

When we are experiencing significant emotional stress, we need to speak up.  When our problems are affecting our everyday life and our ability to do our job, it’s okay to ask for help, especially when we believe our safety or the safety of others is compromised.  We need to talk to our supervisors or human resources representatives.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, we need to be part of the fight to defeat the stigma.  One in five adults are living with a mental illness.  When we are one of them, we should set an example for others to follow.  It makes a difference.

Employers, Get to Know Your Employees

A Harvard Business Review survey revealed that 58 percent of people say they trust strangers more than their own boss.  As employers, we have a responsibility to do what we can to correct this statistic.  It’s important to understand the risk involved in not knowing the mental state of our employees.  Even when it’s awkward or uncomfortable, we need to ask our employees about their lives, to get to know them. When an employee is in an emotional state that makes them high-risk, it would be better for them to be assigned to a lower-risk task. Offering a helping hand not only fosters a good relationship with employees, it keeps everyone safer.