All people respond to stress in their environment. At the most basic level, when it is hot, people seek ways to cool down. When it is cold, they seek ways to warm up. Take an airplane full of well-behaved passengers, maroon it on the tarmac, and behaviors will inevitably begin to deteriorate. It may take several hours for the stress to build to a sufficient level that some people will “lose it.” How the flight crew acts can slow or expedite the passengers’ journey to deteriorated behavior. But leave people in that situation long enough and eventually, everyone will get there. The point is that behavior is inextricably linked to what people experience.
The world had a very visible example
The world had a very visible example of that connection with the recent shutdown of the government by a US President having a temper spat with Congress. Nearly 800,000 federal workers were jolted into a new reality by the sudden loss of income. The stress of this new environment was compounded for federal workers by the uncertainty propagated by the President’s comment, “I can’t tell you when the government is going to open.”[i]
Consider federal workers staffing air traffic control positions. This was the biggest shutdown of air operations since all planes over US airspace were grounded following the 911 attacks. Being an air traffic controller is already a high-stress job where one mistake can endanger the lives of several hundred air passengers. The government shutdown gave air traffic controllers a new set of stressors to occupy their thoughts and distract from what they should be focusing on—keeping planes and people safe. President of the Air Traffic Controllers Association Paul Rinaldi stated, “we can’t even calculate the level of risk currently in play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break.”[ii]
When stress increases past a certain point, workers fall into a downward spiral
Academic studies reveal that when stress increases past a certain point, workers fall into a downward spiral of decreasing productivity matched by an increasing number of mistakes which clearly impacts safety. “Stress is negative when it exceeds our ability to cope, fatigues body systems and causes behavioral or physical problems,” states Mohd. Razali Salleh in The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences. “This harmful stress is called distress. Distress produces overreaction, confusion, poor concentration and performance anxiety and usually results in subpar performance.”[iii] Let it continue and the inevitable destination is complete burnout.
News outlets highlighted the toll the government shutdown was having on federal workers who were suddenly put in a position of not knowing if they could pay the rent or mortgage, buy gas to drive to work for which they weren’t being paid, pay for needed medical supplies or even put food on the table.
Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said aviation unions had warned of the shutdown’s consequences. “They are fatigued, worried and distracted, but they won’t risk our safety,” she said of flight attendants. “So the planes will stay on the ground.”[iv]
Limiting the number of flights in busy air corridors was a natural step to maintain some level of safe operations. But even this had the impact of expanding the population of people experiencing abnormal levels of distress as people were forced to cancel travel plans while others found themselves waiting in long lines or stranded at stopover points in their travels.
Top business executives create or tolerate situations in the workplace that levy unnecessary stress on their employees
Unfortunately, this futile exercise executed by the US government’s top executive is being replicated in businesses throughout the world on a daily basis. Top business executives create or tolerate situations in the workplace that levy unnecessary stress on their employees. This can result in degrading productivity and compromising safety. In many cases, business executives are simply not aware of the stress experienced by employees as a result of being distracted by their own stressors.
Safety professionals know that “it’s important for every employer to understand the links between stress and worker safety, and to take the appropriate precautions to keep employees’ stress under control.”[v] And, performance professionals know that “modern workers feel stressed out on the job, and the stress is taking a toll on their sleep, health, relationships, productivity and sense of well-being.”[vi]
But how many management dashboards report even an approximate level of stress that employees bring to the job or quantify the amount of stress experienced in various industries as a result of market competition. A safe guess would be none if any. And that’s just the baseline with which employees have to contend. Add to that baseline workplace conditions—workplace politics, poor communications and feedback channels, lack of effective authority and accountability frameworks, inadequate leadership, and more—under the control of management that pile unnecessary stress on already stressed out employees and the situation is ripe for something to break. Not only that but increased safety incidents and decreased productivity have an obvious negative impact on productivity.
At the point when arousal [stress] becomes excessive, performance diminishes
“The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that there is a relationship between performance and arousal,” writes Kendra Cherry in Verywell Mind. “Increased arousal can help improve performance, but only up to a certain point. At the point when arousal [stress] becomes excessive, performance diminishes”[vii] as demonstrated in the chart.. Arousal can be equated to the level of activity, and those factors that impact performance also impact safety.
“There have been varying estimates of what the [government] shutdown will do to economic growth and the GDP in the US,” writes Emily Stewart in Vox. “But the consensus is that it isn’t good.”[ix]
Hopefully, business executives will learn an important lesson about the impacts of stress on their workers as well as their bottom line from the public fiasco of the recent American government shutdown.
[i] JT Crowe, “Trump: Government Shutdown Will End When ‘We Have a Wall’” (Money and Markets News, Dec 26, 2018).
[ii] Cuomo Prime Time, (MSNBC, January 24, 2019).
[iii] Mohd. Razali Salleh, “Life Event, Stress and Illness” (The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, October 2008).
[iv] Lori Aratani, Ashley Halsey III, Ben Guarino, “FAA delays flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, citing staffing shortages amid government shutdown” (The Washington Post, January 25, 2019).
[v] Don Brown, “The Link Between Stress and Worker Safety” (BasicSafe.com, August 23, 2016) https://info.basicsafe.us/safety-management/blog/link-between-stress-and-worker-safety
[vi] Dana Wilkie, “What Managers Can Do to Ease Workplace Stress” (SHRM, April 26, 2018) https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/how-managers-can-help-stressed-workers-.aspx
[vii] Kendra Cherry, “The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance (VerywellMind, November 16, 2018), https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-yerkes-dodson-law-2796027
[ix] Emily Stewart, “The shutdown’s effect on the US economy, explained” (Vox, January 23, 2019) https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/18/18188262/government-shutdown-economy-recession-workers-gdp