Stress recognition gaining ground

IE Focus

27 May 2004

Is work-related stress really a disease? With psychological troubles rising in the workplace, the battle has begun to recognize stress as a professional’s illness.

The stress factor is not yet officially recognized everywhere as a disease. But those days may be numbered.

Some say stress is one of the facts of one’s professional life which could lie at the origin of certain pathological states, such as depression or skin disease. Scientists have yet to prove it. All the same, the way has been opened lately for studying the ill effects of management and the organization of work generally. Many argue that these can generate harmful physical effects on workers, but maintain they can contribute to psychological illnesses as well. Doctors say certain mental troubles are triggered by technological evolutions in the workplace, new forms of organization and increasingly severe management styles.

Tools still lack to measure these phenomena. There is no such thing yet as a stressometer. But science is working on it.

The stress agent has come to the attention of Europeans because two factors have greatly evolved in their workplace over the last few years. One is called deferred risks, the other psychological risks linked to work. That they are on the upswing is becoming increasingly understood across the Continent.

Deferred risks, unlike accidents or chronic maladies, are not immediately identifiable because of their gestation period. It can take as long as 40 years between first exposure to the risk and appearance of the first symptoms. This lapse can make the cause-and-effect link seem slim, indeed.

Improved safety standards on working sites has meant considerably fewer accidents, even chronic ailments. Deferred illnesses however, have shot up tremendously. Muscular or bone complaints represent three-fourths of all recognized diseases today in France, for example.

Acknowledging stress

The first meeting between labor and management to examine the stress question was held in Brussels last September. Its committees have nine months in which to draw up a pan-European agreement on what work-related stress really is, and develop means to combat it. The European Agency for Health and Safety in the Workplace now estimates that one in every three European salaried workers is affected by stress on the job.

Polls contend that stress affects most executives. In the most recent study, a September survey of 540 managers, 79 percent declared that their work made them tense or nervous often, or from time to time. Half said they didn’t have enough time to carry out their duties, while 73 percent called their workload “heavy.”

In France, the mental health question has been plaguing medical and legal authorities for the past six years. The 35-hour workweek has brought harsher conditions to the Gallic workplace, which many feel is contributing to growth in psychological disorders. Last July, the Appeals Court ruled, for the first time, that a worker’s state of depression could be considered as an on-the-job accident. Most recently, in November, the National Confederation of Unions (CFE-CGC), which has been pushing the stress question for more than three years, unveiled a new service: psychological support.

Open to all its members and their families, this new feature seeks to help people better manage stress, especially when it is provoked by their professional activities. The confederation, which counts 140,000 members, will pay for two anonymous consultations with psychologists. A telephone help line has also been established. France’s banking sector has likewise tested a similar operation.

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