Work-related stress now affects the majority of Americans. Nearly 85% of workers regularly experience stress, and almost half have missed work because of it.
Stress at work — whether from the work itself or from worries about an evolving industry — can take a serious toll on union members, harming their physical health and the quality of their relationships outside of work. Union leaders can design an action plan to help ease workers' stress, but doing so requires an understanding of the most common stressors and how to identify them.
Stressors by Industry
Transportation, grocery and plumbing are three key industries in which union members' health can be affected by stress.
- Transportation. Transportation workers are constantly on high alert from busy, noisy roads or grumbling passengers, which can affect blood pressure and promote anxiety. What's more, members in this industry have a high risk of obesity and obesity-related disorders like cardiovascular disease and diabetes because the sedentary nature of their job. Living with a serious medical condition can also be stressful in and of itself. On top of that, their solitude may afford them fewer opportunities to talk about their stress with someone they trust.
- Grocery. For grocery workers, stress from understaffing and low pay can take a real toll as the industry evolves. Both growth and profitability have been falling for grocers in developed markets, according to a recent grocery industry report from McKinsey & Company, as many grocers struggle to keep up with consumers' changing habits and new technologies. If the industry continues as it has, half of traditional grocery may not exist in coming years, says McKinsey. As grocers look to cut costs through downsizing, employees feel the stress of understaffed stores. Across the country — in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as in California — frustrated workers have gone on strike to protest stressful work conditions. Additional sources of work-related stress for these workers include dealing with injuries from heavy lifting or repetitive stress injuries to the arms, neck and shoulders from scanning items.
- Plumbing. One of the most common stressors in the plumbing industry is having to swiftly respond to destructive or dangerous work scenarios, such as water pouring from ceilings, pipes bursting in frigid temperatures, and even gas leaks. Plumbers may also have to handle hazardous materials like dangerous chemicals or raw sewage, which can add to stress. Interacting with anxious or angry homeowners or business owners can be stressful as well.
The Effects of Stress on Members
Stress left unchecked can escalate to serious mental and physical health problems. It can also harm workers' productivity.
Chronic stress can actually develop into an anxiety disorder, with symptoms such as light-headedness, nausea and diarrhea. People who have anxiety disorders are also at a higher risk of developing a variety of chronic health conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
When stress levels rise, workers' performance on the job is also at risk. Though the Harvard Health research suggests that some stress can actually help workers' performance, too much stress is indeed detrimental, and it can negatively impact one's productivity at work. Lower productivity may have repercussions when it comes to potential promotions or raises.
How to Reduce Work-Related Stress
As a union leader, you can help members minimize these work-related stressors by suggesting ways to cope with them — or even avoid them altogether. Consider addressing work-related stress in an upcoming union newsletter or during a member meeting. Communicate to your members the consequences, both personal and professional, of not managing their stress. Then, offer strategies to help.
- Transportation workers may want to explore exercises they can do on the road. They might also consider meditation apps or ways they can maintain contact with friends and family while traveling, such as with video chats, so they can get regular emotional support.
- Grocery workers might try pursuing additional training, such as classes or workshops in new technologies, so they can keep up with the changing industry. Proper breaks and exercise may also help prevent injuries and reduce stress.
- The right safety training — even a good refresher course if necessary — can help alleviate plumbers' anxiety during high-stress scenarios. A class on interpersonal skills might also help these members calmly react to difficult customers and problems.
As you share these strategies with your members, let them know your door is always open if they want mental health resources or just need to talk. If high work-related stress is a continual problem among your membership, offer members the resources they need to pursue professional counseling.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday — Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.