In any business environment – from corporate to retail – stress is the biggest threat to satisfactory health and safety provision.
Chronic stress is not merely a pesky yet more or less benign response to a healthy workload; it is a persistent disorder that not only impairs a worker’s productivity and performance, but their perception as well.
Psychologist Daniela Kaufer found that the elevated levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress can lead to a decline in neurons and interconnectivity within the brain (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity). Stress can actually shrink your brain.
The repercussions of this are not difficult to imagine. Neurological damage can mean slower reaction times and therefore more sluggish responses to hazards. These small differences can determine whether a worker trips over the cord trailing from a colleague’s laptop and seriously injures herself, or whether she identifies the wire as a hazard and steps over it accordingly.
Stress-related insomnia is another very real danger, and can impair the efficacy of warnings and signage. Sleep deprivation can lead to a worker compensating with micro-sleep, ignoring crucial instructions, and nodding off during a task that requires attention, such as operating a forklift, driving a company car, or even pouring a coffee.
When the body demands micro-sleep it is beyond the conscious control of the worker to prevent lapses in concentration. In industrial workplaces, the consequences can be more devastating but this is not to ignore the risk that it poses in the more mundane, office-cubicle setting.
Stress in an office setting can lead to increased incidences of physical violence between colleagues; it can create greater potential for neck and wrist injuries such as repetitive strain injury (since people pay less attention to posture while stressed), and it can lead to physical sickness at work, such as headaches and fatigue (http://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/).
The safety of workers is ensured by government guidelines that demand frequent risk assessments conducted within, and by employees of, the workplace. Since stress can impair judgement, one can imagine a situation where stress is so pervasive that managers do not identify and record the potential hazards (e.g. wiring, pointy desks, or rickety shelves).
The solutions are simple. Organisations should ensure manageable workloads as a basis for adequate health and safety. Furthermore, scheduling activities such as meditation or mindfulness seminars can help to reduce the burden.