Encouraging employee engagement is a hot topic for lab managers and human resources specialists. Employees psychologically committed to their jobs are more productive and easier to manage. Yet there is a downside to high employee engagement as well. A 2011 Canadian study indicates that key employees, particularly those most committed to their jobs, are often at the greatest risk of experiencing high levels of work stress. The study was published in the January 2011 issue of the journal International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.


The Canadian survey of 2,737 workers indicated that 18% reported that their jobs were "highly stressful." Of particular interest to lab managers, study results indicated that the chances of experiencing higher stress were greater if the employees were managers or professionals. "The people who report high stress are the ones most invested in their jobs," says Dr. Carolyn Dewa, Senior Scientist and Head of Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's Work and Well-being Research and Evaluation Program. "Employers should be very concerned with keeping this population healthy. From a business perspective, it is in a company's best interest to support these workers."


Study findings


The survey included Alberta adults aged 18 to 65 who had worked the previous year in full range of settings, including offices, manufacturing, construction, farming and services, among others. Dewa notes, "These sources of stress that we identified will be the same for Canadian workers wherever they are based, as they held true across different locations and workplaces in our survey."


The 82% of employees reporting low or no stress were more likely to be male, single, under the age of 25 or work in a small business. Job satisfaction is another important factor. Workers reporting they were satisfied with their jobs were less likely to say that they found their jobs highly stressful.


Job characteristics associated with stress


The job characteristics associated with stress were feelings of engagement and responsibility. If employees thought their own poor job performance could negatively affect others they tended to experience more stress. If workers felt their poor job performance could result in any physical injury, damage to company's equipment or reputation, or financial loss, they were twice as likely to report high stress.


Not surprisingly employees working long or variable hours tended to experience more workplace stress. So did variable work hours such as being on call, doing shift work or having a compressed work week such as a 9/80 plan in which employees work 80 hours over nine workdays and have alternate Fridays off. I found this last surprising since these plans reduce commuting to work by 10% and are intended to help employees better balance their work and personal lives.


Other factors promoting workplace stress were a long commute from their home to their workplace. Having to entertain customers or travel for their job also increases work-related stress.


Taking action


The study's goal was to learn how workers view their responsibilities and job characteristics, and their experience with stress. The study authors hope this information could be used to help develop interventions targeting both workers and their work environment, which is considered a more effective approach than focusing on either alone.


"It is important that employees have access to resources that address their mental health concerns.” "Employers should be asking, 'What am I doing to reduce stress in my most valuable people?'"