Working Australians are showing increasingly higher levels of stress and distress, according to the third annual Stress and Wellbeing survey by the Australian Psychological Society (APS). Workers are also showing more depressive symptoms and anxiety than in the previous two years.
These latest results show that Australian managers need to provide more supportive leadership and address factors influencing psychological health so workers can be happy and productive.
Strong leaders cultivate an environment where employees feel empowered, have autonomy in their decision making and come together as a team to be creative and solve problems.
Stress in the workplace has negative effects on organisational performance through absenteeism, high turnover and reduced productivity. Low levels of employee well-being have also been linked to increased turnover.
In this year's survey, 47 per cent of the respondents cited workplace issues as a source of stress. Workplace stress is the second most common cause of workers compensation claims after manual handling and poses a risk to both employees and employers.
The survey found stress was having an impact on both mental and physical health.
Three in four working Australians (75 per cent ) reported it was having at least some impact on their physical health; 16 per cent said it was having a strong to very strong effect.
More than two-thirds (68 per cent ) reported that current stress was having at least some impact on mental health; 19 per cent rated it as having a strong to very strong impact.
Improvements to organisational environments through supportive leadership and engaging and positive team management processes, has been found to increase morale and reduce stress.
Not feeling good
Positive feelings about the workplace are likely to influence what an employee will or won't do for a boss or organisation. Research shows that there's a strong link between employee well-being and organisational performance.
Sadly, this doesn't appear to be recognised in Australia. Alongside reporting lower levels of workplace well-being and job satisfaction than in the previous two years, those participating in the survey said they had significantly lower levels of interest in their job than respondents in 2012.
Almost one in seven working Australians reported depressive symptoms in the severe to extremely severe range.
Companies with psychologically healthy workplaces tend to employ organisational structures and practices that create a positive environment for employees. This involves providing reward and recognition for a job well done, communicating expectations and demonstrating the link between an employee's role and the bigger picture.
The elements in the survey linked with enhanced wellbeing and reduced stress and distress included supportive leadership, recognition and feedback, feeling valued and cared for by employers, clear role definition, the prioritisation of health and safety, and support for family issues.
But only 52 per cent of people in the survey reported their employer valued their contribution and cared about their well-being, while less than half (46 per cent) said they received regular feedback. And less than half felt they worked in environments with employers who supported staff with mental health issues.
Why managing workplace stress matters
Many activities performed in the workplace are not formally recorded in job descriptions but impact organisational performance. Assisting in a crisis, for instance, or looking out for a colleague are often driven by the employee's sense of pride towards their employer and positive feelings they have about their workplace.
Organisations cannot mandate these behaviours but they can create an environment where they are more likely to occur. These extra-role behaviours are more likely to occur when people are engaged at work and could be described as the grease that keeps the wheels turning.
A psychologically healthy workplace won't eliminate all workplace stress because we are all wired to respond differently to stressors. But it will help reduce the prevalence of work practices that have the capacity to increase stress.
Tim Hannan is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Charles Sturt University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.