New study is first of its kind
By Teresa McLoughlin Rice, Esq.
Open a newspaper, turn on the news, and there is seemingly yet another report that workers are feeling increasingly stressed. The reasons for this apparent increase are multi-faceted and the subject of much discussion and analysis. Two researchers associated with The Research Group Psychosomatic Rehabilitation at the Charité University Medicine in Berlin, decided to take a look at various workplace related anxieties and see if certain anxieties predominated in certain professions. The study, Different Workplace-Related Strains and Different Workplace-Related Anxieties in Different Professions, appears to be the first of its kind, and was recently published in the August 2013 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It concluded that certain types of anxieties are indeed over-represented in certain types of jobs, and that these anxieties are “parallel to workplace characteristics.”
So what exactly does this mean? The study defines a workplace anxiety as one in which an individual “sees an immediate relation between the workplace and feelings of anxiety and reacts correspondingly when confronted with the workplace.” It is axiomatic that each workplace has inherent characteristics that may produce anxiety in certain individuals. There may be social hierarchies to navigate, demands for achievements to satisfy and feelings of being overworked to contend with. Some jobs may present with demanding clients and others with environmental health hazards. The study maintains that these characteristics “can lead to not only acute but also persistent anxiety reactions and even anxiety disorders.” These anxiety disorders can take different forms including social anxiety, generalized worrying, hypochondria and PTSD.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that the same job may cause different stress levels in different people. As the authors note, a job that involves a lot of client contact may require the employee to be assertive—an individual with social anxiety may find the need to be assertive with others stressful. By contrast, an industrial worker who has little to no client contact may not experience any social anxiety stimuli but, if prone to generalized worrying, could develop a workplace anxiety focused on what could go wrong.
The study set out to test whether there existed “differences in the spectrum and prevalence of workplace-related anxieties between professional settings, given the differences in anxiety-provoking stimuli and in the meaning of different anxieties in different contexts.” The methodology involved taking a discrete group of workers, classifying their jobs into distinct categories, and evaluating the “characteristics” of the job situation and type of anxiety reported. The group selected was 224 inpatients being treated for psychological health problems at work. The jobs were grouped into 5 classifications: (1) office; (2) service (including trade, banking and insurance); (3) education; (4) healthcare; (5) industrial and technical. The “characteristics” of the job were broken down into 26 categories including self-determination at work, versatility of work, social support, interruptions at work, workload and environmental stress.
The results of various testing showed significant differences in job “characteristics” across the five profession groups. For example, self-determination at work was rated worst in office jobs and best in education jobs. Similarly, office workers reported uninteresting jobs while those in education scored their jobs highly in this category. Time pressure and work interruptions were low in service jobs and high in healthcare.
As to mental health issues, while half of the study group presented with some conventional anxiety disorder with no statistical difference between job classifications, there was a difference with respect to which workplace related anxieties were reported by job classification. Overall, the study found the rate of workplace anxieties highest in healthcare professionals (69.9%), office employees (66.7%) and production workers (61.1%) and lower in education (54.5%) and service (46.6%).
Additionally, there were differences in the distribution of workplace anxiety disorders across the various job classifications. For example, in office jobs, where group interactions play a big role, the workers suffered predominately from feelings of insufficiency (36.7%) and specific social anxiety (30.0%), but less situational anxiety (11.7%). By contrast, production workers, with less group interaction, exhibited less specific social anxiety (5.6%) but greater situational anxiety (27.8%). As a result of the foregoing data, the authors concluded that different workplace anxieties did indeed predominate in different professions.
While interesting, the study is not without its limitations, a fact the authors readily recognize. The control group was small – just 224 people – and those people were inpatients admitted for psychological problems at work. In other words, the study does not have information on the prevalence of anxiety in the general working population. Additionally, the study does not focus on causation. While there is no question that the workplace can cause anxiety, the study acknowledges that persons with certain predilections for “anxiety preparedness” could choose certain professions, thus potentially skewing the results.
Nevertheless, the study is a thought-provoking one. It draws attention to the premise that that certain stress stimuli are part and parcel of certain jobs, and that this seems to be paralleled by the presence of certain workplace related anxieties in the workforce. Should further studies confirm this analysis, it may provide a framework for a company’s wellness program to identify high risk populations and to proactively introduce preventive measures in a manner designed to reduce stress-related work impairment issues. Given the apparent increase in reported worker stress levels, the focus on this area is both timely and likely to increase.
© Copyright 2013 LexisNexis. All rights reserved.
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