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Can A Toxic Workplace Actually Kill You?

A look at the real effects of stress and workplace toxicity on the body


On a scale of one to 10, rate how stressed you feel right now. Chances are, that number isn’t going to rank on the low side. According to the Standards Council of Canada, one in four Canadian workers report being highly stressed. The Coalition of Ontario Psychiatrists further suggests that 40 per cent of Canadians suffer from workplace stress, and a study featured on Global News reports that 58 per cent of Canadians feel overworked, with stress being the reason one in four Canadians quit their jobs.

Stress, however, doesn’t just play a role in whether or not an employee decides to stay at a workplace; statistics show that the impact stress has on the workplace is actually much more significant. The latest Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey reports that 85 per cent of Canadian employers (compared to 75 per cent of American employers and 64 per cent of global employers) rank stress as a top risk factor in their workforces. A report by Guarding Minds confirms that absenteeism, productivity, employee retention, and even the frequency of workplace incidents are all impacted by stress, with stress causing 19 per cent of repeated workplace absences, 30 per cent of short-term and long-term disability costs, 60 per cent of workplace accidents, 40 per cent of employee turnover, 55 per cent of Employee Assistance Plan costs, and 10 per cent of drug plan costs. In other words, workplace stress is costly to employers as well as to employees, and as Statistics Canada reveals, those costs can add up—to an approximate $20 billion out of employer’s pockets.

Financial costs aside, though, workplace stress poses a far more significant risk. According to registered psychologist Dr. Karen MacNeill, psychologist at Copeman Healthcare Centre, the high stress that results from a toxic workplace could technically kill you.

“The challenge with a toxic workplace is the chronic level of stress,” Dr. MacNeill explains. “From what we have seen in the literature, the big health implications of that stress include heart disease and heart attack, increased blood pressure and stroke, the suppression of the immune system, mental health impacts such as depression, and even skin conditions. Chronic stress over the long term definitely could create severe health issues that could eventually lead to fatality.”

“It’s helpful to understand how stress impacts the whole system,” she adds. “The physical long-term effects of stress typically present symptoms or early warning signs that include headaches, aches and pains, dizziness, nausea, and getting sick. However, stress also impacts the mental, behavioural, and emotional systems, too. Symptoms of mental impacts include memory problems, an inability to concentrate, feeling anxious, experiencing racing thoughts, and chronic worry. Behaviourally, you could experience over- or under-eating, sleeping too much or too little, resorting to alcohol or isolation and avoidance tactics (like avoiding calls or emails) as a result of the idea that you just need to get away from the stimulus that is causing you stress. Emotional symptoms of stress include irritability, feeling overwhelmed, an inability to react, loneliness, and depression.”

However, the fact that stress can have such negative consequences doesn’t necessarily mean we need to avoid stress altogether. “Not all stress is bad,” Dr. MacNeill points out. “In small doses, stress can motivate us; it can help us perform and can enhance our ability to unlock our optimum performance potential. We call this eustress: minimal bouts of positive stress that pass quickly, helping us to perform, engage, and do well. Another form of stress is acute stress: stress that is produced by an imbalance between perceived demand and perceived resources. Acute stress makes us feel threatened and appears when we face demands or pressures from past or upcoming work (such as the need to meet a target or deadline). Acute stress is a normal part of life; it passes when we get a reprieve or a chance to recover.

“The issue is with chronic stress: the stress that stays all the time with no reprieve and no way out.”

Susan Sawatzky, B. Ed, CRSP, certified mental health advisor, director of In-Scope Solutions and instructor for the University of Alberta course Psychological Health and Safety, refers to that negative, chronic stress as distress.

“It is this long-term, negative stress that causes health concerns because it is the stress our bodies were not designed to overcome,” Sawatzky explains. “The issue comes about when we experience long-term stress, stress in which we are constantly thinking about situations we do not feel we have the resources to overcome. This negative stress leaves us feeling overwhelmed and immobilized.

“A good way to think of it is through evolutionary psychology. Stress was designed to help our ancestors fight off a threat or run from it. The stress responses were meant to be short term, with our bodies returning back to normal in a relatively short amount of time. Modern day stress, however, causes us to think about negative past situations or worry about upcoming situations. It is the stress in our minds that has us constantly feeling the stress response. This ‘modern day stress’ is counter to what our bodies were designed to do and is why we suffer in terms of health and wellness.”

There are a number of factors that could be causing high levels of chronic stress in our workplaces. Sawatzky cites the five key factors listed by Guarding Minds: high work demands, low levels of control and influence, few or no employee rewards, a sense of unfairness, and a lack of managerial or organizational supports.

“High work demands relate to workload and time requirements: how much mental and physical energy must be put in? Are the workload demands achievable or do they feel overwhelming? Overwhelming work demands leave employees feeling stressed and exhausted.

“Are the workers able to control how work is done, timelines, processes for work, etc.? Can they negotiate these or introduce alternate ways to accomplish work objectives? Do they have control over their time through flex time options or time in lieu?”

“Rewards refer to more than just compensation and benefits,” she adds. “They also include recognition for work and seeing how their work relates to the overall goals of the company. In other words, can they see purpose in their work and how it relates to the overall company achievements?

“Fairness can incorporate a number of factors. Do they feel that decisions made within the company are done in a fair manner? Do they feel fairly treated in terms of compensation for work? Do they feel that their workload is equivalent to that of other similar employees? Unfairness strikes a chord with people and leaves them feeling anxious and stressed.

“Support in a work environment includes a number of factors, including support from the organization in terms of resources, leadership, defined work responsibilities, and support from supervisors and coworkers.” Sawatzky points to one of the key findings in the Willis Towers Watson report to observe that, while both employers and employees agreed that “inadequate staffing and the resulting uneven workload and lack of support [are] major contributors of stress,” there is often “a disconnect between employers and employees in terms of what causes stress.” She further cites from the report that, “To address workplace stress, employers first need to understand its root causes. Those who base their efforts on misguided assumptions risk addressing the wrong problems and alienating employees.”

One important thing to note is that the impacts of stress aren’t going unnoticed—especially now that statistics have indicating the high costs of a toxic workplace, both physically on the employee as well as financially on the employer.

“We are beginning to understand that people are one of the biggest assets within the workplace,” Dr. MacNeill concludes. “We need to take care of them, not just because it’s the right thing, but because doing so can help the business thrive. Stress isn’t an HR issue anymore, it’s a business issue. Improving the culture of the business helps to make each individual their best. It’s a pebble in a pond with a lasting ripple effect. When you take care of the people, you are taking care of the business.”