Former Chief Scientist Officer

Martin Sanders | Chronic Stress & Environmental Workplace Complaints

Martin Sanders | Chronic Stress & Environmental Workplace Complaints

Could chronic stress explain mysterious environmental workplace complaints?

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Any safety professional, who spends enough time in the field, has had to deal with unexplained employee complaints regarding the environmental conditions in which they work.  The typical scenario begins with an employee or group of employees complaining about the workplace “making them sick”.  This generally triggers basic indoor air quality assessments and other basic tests (carbon dioxide levels, temperature, air circulation, etc.) and a search for the most common causes (volatile organic compounds, pollen, etc.).  While a majority of these complains resolve through engineering solutions (ensuring proper ventilation and air changes) or other interventions, often a quantifiable cause isn’t found.  Employees have ongoing complaints; which in my experience, fall into the following pattern:

  • Employees report a variety of generalized symptoms that may vary from person to person and are not diagnostic of any specific issue (generalized rashes, aches, malaise, “allergy” symptoms, headaches, etc.)
  • When sought, medical evaluation yields no specific causes
  • Symptoms improve when the employee leaves the workplace.

When confronted with this, usually leadership orders a progression of increasingly advanced environmental testing in the hopes of having a definitive cause on which to base future-action.  Clinically, doctors and health professionals may begin to explore ever more complex potential diagnoses (autoimmune disorders, arboviruses, etc.), again in order to track the elusive quantifiable cause.  Unfortunately, this rarely finds anything.

As this point organizations are usually faced with disgruntled employees who are still reporting symptoms, managers who begin to doubt the veracity of the employee reports, and increasing frustration throughout the workplace.

After dealing with many such situations, I developed a hypothesis that may answer some of these issues.  I, Martin Sanders, am basing it solely on anecdotal observation, but I believe it merits serious consideration.

Image result for American Psychological AssociationThe American Psychological Association has quantified the ever increasing amount of stress in the workplace.  There is ample evidence that stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms that vary from person to person.  I believe that many of these mystery workplace environmental complaints are not due to some unidentifiable material floating through an office, but a physical manifestation of chronic stress in an employee population.

I, Martin Lloyd Sanders,  have explained situations such as these to numerous leadership groups.  After a period in my tenure where the federal government underwent numerous physical relocations, reorganizations, mission and leadership changes, etc., I noticed an increase in these types of complaints.  The first instinct of many was to write them off as employees complaining or resisting new work conditions, or trying to get full time telework.  No one will say that there aren’t a few rotten apples in any barrel, but several situations I managed clearly did not indicate any hidden employee issues.

In many cases, all the traditional causes fell away or did not fit a pattern, but chronic stress could.  For example, a true pollen allergy would not necessarily improve upon leaving the building; our building recirculated filtered air, and I could demonstrate pollen counts were much higher outside the building that inside.  The varying constellations of symptoms that matched no one cause easily fit in the parameters of stress related illness.

While the past few years have seen a significant improvement in recognizing mental wellness of employees (particularly in the arena of PTSD and veterans), there will still be significant resistance to the idea of chronic stress as a cause for numerous reasons.  Some reasons I have encountered include:

  • Employees assuming you think “it is all in their head” when you mention stress;
  • Managers and supervisors equating stress issues with “faking it” or weakness (I can’t tell you how many times the response is “Yeah, but we are all stressed”);
  • A lack of a clear, quantifiable cause and a definable “end point” (for example, cleaning up a spill, changing the air changes, etc.) make it difficult to get buy in from senior leadership.

I, Martin Lloyd Sanders, can’t offer any easy solutions, and as I stated this is based on anecdotal evidence.  I hope to raise awareness in the safety community and would make the following recommendations:

  • When facing mysterious environmental complaints that defy easy explanation, keep the possibility of chronic stress in mind;
  • The best way to alleviate the challenges I listed above is to be proactive about stress in the workplace before an incident occurs. There is an increasing awareness of the impact of stress in the workplace, and we should try to socialize it among employees, supervisors, and leadership ahead of time.  Not only does workplace wellness of all kinds demonstrate returns on investment, employees who recognize the organization accepts mental wellness as an important issue will be more likely to accept your discussions during one of these events;
  • In these situation, stress management in the workplace can help alleviate the issue. Involve workplace wellness resources, EAP, and others in coming up with a comprehensive solution.

At times, providing strong occupational safety support to an employee population requires some outside-the-box thinking.  Hopefully these observations can contribute to solving our shared issues.

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