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Disability and Stress in the Workplace

Signs of Stress in the Workplace, and What Managers Can Do About It

By Garry J. McCLean

Updated September 08, 2013

A Group of Men at Work

Workers with Disabilities May Face Workplace Stress


Working with a disability can be stressful. Even without a disability, stress is a byproduct of today's demanding lifestyle. While a certain amount of stress helps us perform better, too much of it can be highly counter-productive and unhealthy. For the individual, stress triggers the instinctive "fight or flight" response, filling the bloodstream with adrenaline and sending the body into a state of hyperactivity. While a person may appear calm on the surface, the higher activity level in the cells and the muscles wear him or her out, physically, mentally and emotionally.

When stress at the workplace goes beyond a certain level, it can have potentially disastrous consequences. For example, we sometimes hear about soldiers going on a killing spree after dealing with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield. This is what stress can do; but apart from this extreme example, it can seriously affect the productivity and cohesion of individuals with disabilities working in any setting.

It is incumbent upon the manager to be able to identify workplace stress before it goes out of control and the damage becomes visible. Fortunately, there are many stress indicators that any supervisor or individual can easily pick up just by being observant. Here are some cues that can help you find out when there's too much steam trapped in your workplace.

Increased Irritability

If you see people scuffling with each other too often over petty, routine matters, you should be concerned. Stress causes anxiety and irritability. There's definitely something wrong here. Look for what's causing stress. Is it compensation, long work-hours, competition, deadlines, or something else?

Isolation and Withdrawal

On the opposite end, if employees appear lifeless, remote, and withdrawn, they might have reached a stage when workplace stress is causing them to withdraw emotionally, and mentally escape from the workplace. This is the typical "flight" response. They cannot run away physically, as they need the job, but they wander away in their thoughts. This produces a lack of interest in the job and the co-workers.

Change in Habits

People may become uncooperative, difficult, or more accident-prone at work. They may start or increase smoking, alcohol intake, or even drugs. These intoxicants may make individuals relax and get rid of stress, but only temporarily. Further, they can lead to other problems. If you observe people coming to the workplace with red eyes or shabby appearance, a red light should come on in your mind indicating that positive stress strategies are needed.

Increased Sickness

Stress can cause physiological illness by reducing the body's ability to fight disease. On the other hand, it can also cause psychosomatic problems. People may feel depressed, generally unwell, and unwilling when they are stressed. They would like to stay away from work. Stressed workers can have headaches, migraines, muscle spasms, insomnia, hypertension, and stomach disorders. If you observe a drop in attendance level and rising cases of unfitness, the stress alarm should sound in your mind.

Mild Psychosis

Paranoia is the most common psychological problem at workplace. After being subjected to excessive and prolonged stress, individuals with disabilities might feel threatened, unsafe and persecuted by their bosses and co-workers. They can start to perceive the workplace as a hostile place, which, obviously, can be detrimental for organizational productivity. A good manager should be able to stop things from deteriorating to the level where the employees need to see a psychiatrist.

It is easy to find out if the people at your workplace are stressed. It is not so easy to isolate and treat the causes of stress. The least that you can do is to arrange an activity that takes workers' minds off the day-to-day routine. Free flow of information, a candid atmosphere, regular outings, and a genuine concern for people are some of the things that can help managers fight stress at workplace.

Author Byline: Dr. Garry J. McCLean is a health and safety consultant and writes for The Workplace Depot and various magazines about workplace issues.

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