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Managing Stress in the Workplace

I’ve worked in the electrical industry for more than 40 years, and the work has pretty much stayed the same. We set poles and towers, string conductor, build stations, dig trenches and install conductor in the ground the same way we did years ago, aside from some new tools and technology that have been introduced. The weather conditions we faced back then are pretty much the same, although maybe it’s a little warmer now. And we still get called out to work at all hours of the day and night, weekends and holidays included.

Families are still intact and function the same way they always have. Your loved ones still miss you, need you and rely on you coming home every day, safe and sound. Companies have rules about employees being fit for duty that mainly focus on our physical fitness. For instance, are we clear of alcohol, drugs and anything else that would affect our ability to safely perform our duties? Are we well-rested, fed and hydrated? If we are switching from the day shift to the night shift, have our sleep patterns adjusted so we can be alert on the job?

Somewhere along the line, however, something has changed. The demands on our employees have increased significantly. More than ever, the work moves and so do our workforces, from state to state and region to region. Paperwork has increased, and some of it must be filled out daily or even hourly. On top of that, it’s likely a monthly recap – filled with information you’ve already turned in several times before – also is a requirement. Time constraints are getting greater and greater, with little to no ability to employ scheduled outages because the country revolves around their power staying on 24/7. In addition, as our most skilled employees are promoted to fill leadership roles, they face new pressures and challenges. And as those people are promoted, there is a smaller pool of qualified people willing to put sweat equity into a job that many of them view differently than we did years ago.

So, what is one major result of all these changes within our industry? Stress.    

And stress isn’t just part of our workers’ professional lives. There also are the pressures of home life. Family needs can pose challenges when you’re not able to be there when things happen. Health, school, home and car problems seem to occur at the most inopportune times. Now, some individuals thrive on stress, whether personal, professional or both – it’s what makes them rise to certain challenges and stand out. But even those individuals can reach the point where their stress levels become problematic.

That’s because stress can factor into human error, which is an issue in every industry – including ours – and can lead to incidents and accidents on the job.

What Does Stress Look Like?
Stress is a person’s way of responding to any kind of demand or pressure, be it physical or mental, and everyone deals with stress in different ways. As leaders, we need to understand the symptoms of stress and what signs to look for in our employees. These may include – but are not limited to – the following:

  • Stomach and digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression and/or anxiety, or other changes in mood or actions
  • Complaints of physical pain, but no injury is present
  • Increased use of alcohol, cigarettes and/or drugs
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thinking and memory issues

Note that thinking and memory problems usually are what trigger incident rate increases. These issues affect a person’s ability to concentrate and make good decisions.  

What’s Next?
So, now that we know some of the signs to look for, what are our next steps? We need to talk to employees who may be displaying symptoms of stress, actively listen to them and then discuss what can be done to help relieve that stress. Some questions to ask during these discussions include:

  • Are you getting enough sleep each day, and is it quality sleep?
  • Do you exercise? Even a quiet walk can take a person’s mind off things or improve their mood.
  • How is your diet? Healthy eating is good for the mind.
  • How is your family doing?
  • Do you have a professional to talk to about what you’re going through? Most companies have plans in place to help their employees, and this can be done confidentially.

In closing, know and engage with your employees. Care about them. Take time to listen. Don’t ignore employees or blame them for going through a difficult time. Stress is a fact of life and something that is never fully going to go away, so acknowledge it, and always remember that you can help.

About the Author: Hubert Hayes, CHST, CUSP, MESH, is a safety supervisor for Pike Enterprises LLC. He has worked in the electric utility industry for over 41 years in many areas, including distribution, transmission, substation, generation, and overhead and underground work.

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