When Dean woke up at 6.00 a.m. today, he did not feel rested. He had been suffering from insomnia for several months. Dean could not fall asleep because of thoughts about work, and he usually slept only about 3-4 hours. Dean had a dream job: he started to work in one of the most successful companies in the maritime industry a year ago, and still, he was not happy. Seven months ago, he began to have chest pains; six months ago, migraines started; five months ago, he noticed that he could not concentrate on work tasks. Every notification and e-mail message made him shudder. Anytime his days off were invaded by any work-related tasks, he felt robbed of his free time, but even during that free time, his thoughts kept wandering towards what was left to do, what he was failing to do, and what he did not want to do but had to. When talking to Dean, I knew I could relate; I also know what it is like when your dream job turns into a nightmare. I think this story can seem familiar to many people, and some of them might suffer from occupational stress that became chronic.
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Now think about it: have you ever felt like your work drains you? Have you lost sleep or appetite because of the problems at work? Have you felt that working in the maritime industry may be damaging your family life? Chances are, you might be experiencing occupational stress, and you need some solutions. This book will provide you with the information that you can use to make work less stressful for yourself, your relatives, your employees, or, possibly, even employers.
Who Is This Book for?
This book is dedicated to occupational or workplace stress, that is, the stress that people experience at work. The book covers most of the topics that are associated with occupational stress: first, the term itself is discussed, the causes of stress are considered, and its consequences are pictured in explicit detail. Then, solutions to stress are reviewed; I focus on the solutions which work, according to recent research. I used scientific sources as well as the results of the interviews that I conducted to gather the necessary information, and now, I present it to you. Are you an employer? Or an employee? I think that you might be equally interested in what this book has to offer regardless of whether you are a manager or a worker: if you have a job, occupational stress must be playing an important part in your life, and you can benefit from learning more about it.
Keep it in mind that this book is dedicated to the maritime industry, and I will often make references to it. Some sections are entirely devoted to stress in the maritime industry; in fact, all of them would be if there was enough information on the topic. If you are my colleague and work in the maritime industry, you might be particularly interested in this book: I have gathered all the research that I could find on the topic here, which is honestly not that much. On the other hand, most of the information from the book is generally applicable to other industries and circumstances. Knowing about the maritime industry is not required to understand the causes of stress or solutions to it that can be used in the workplace.
Finally, since the book incorporates solutions to occupational stress, it may also be especially recommended to managers and owners of businesses. While individual workers can make a difference, people with power are more likely to and, possibly, are even responsible for making workplaces less stress-inducing. I hope that my book will help everyone who reads it to manage their occupational stress better. I am especially hopeful that it can provide a manager with the tools which are necessary to make significant changes to the way their company operates, resulting in a better working environment for all their employees.
Why Was This Book Written?
For me, the issue of workplace stress is deeply personal. Some people are especially likely to experience stress, and I am one of them: some might call me a perfectionist, but I feel like the words “anxious” and “obsessive” might be more accurate. Consequently, I have been experiencing stress since before I knew what it meant with some very unfortunate physical and psychological reactions to it. I used to think that it was my problem and that something wrong was with me, but as I learned more about stress, I understood that, in my country and, possibly, on my planet, stress is an epidemic that is rarely appropriately countered (American Psychological Association, 2015). That is right: we are becoming increasingly stressed (or, possibly, we increasingly acknowledge being stressed), but we do not do enough to reduce our stress levels.
I guess I should point out that doing something to combat stress is difficult. Stress is incredibly diverse, and it is caused by a wide variety of factors, which makes it difficult to manage. It would be accurate to claim that we cannot fully protect ourselves from stress. However, some things are particularly likely to cause stress, and in certain environments, we can control the stressors to a significant extent. A working environment is one of those, which led me to consider the topic of occupational stress.
According to the American Psychological Association (2015), in the United States, work is the second greatest source of stress. It is surpassed only by the stress related to money concerns, which, if you think about it, is connected to work as well. What are the reasons for this tendency to get stressed overwork? Well, work is a necessity for more or less every American: except the particularly privileged of us, we all have to work. Therefore, the majority of adult Americans are likely to experience stress at work. Apart from that, work takes up a lot of time: we spend more time being at work than when doing any other activity (except for, arguably, family duties). Thus, an average American has ample opportunities to get stress at work. Additionally, certain evidence suggests that, in recent decades, the changes in the workplace have resulted in increased reasons for stress (Britt & Jex, 2015). As a result, occupational stress affects large populations for long periods, which can explain its high levels. It is a common concern, which is why it is of interest to modern researchers, including myself.
Furthermore, occupational stress can be generally defined as a problem. It is not good for the health or career of employees, and it tends to affect their productivity. Stressed employees are more likely to make mistakes, have conflicts, and be dissatisfied with their jobs than the employees who are not stressed. Unmanaged stress is bad for everyone involved from workers to employers, for the company’s bottom line, and, occasionally, even for the brand. Therefore, stress is a problem that needs to be resolved, which also explains the interest of modern scientists in it. Overall, the idea that occupational stress needs investigation is a fact. But what about the maritime industry?
For me, the maritime industry is the working environment that I am interested in, and even though it is not fully homogenous (there are, for instance, seafarers and finance managers, and conditions for the two are vastly different), it seems to be particularly stressful on average. Admittedly, I have little personal experience outside of the maritime industry, which is why I cannot make accurate comparisons. Still, the very presence of unique stressors should warrant research in the field, right? Well, let me just say that when I was looking for the information on the topic, I could not find that much of it. Naturally, there are a few studies, even books, which can offer some advice on how to handle stress in the maritime industry, but they are so rare and often outdated that I could not justify not rectifying this situation. I decided to gather as much information as I can and make my book about occupational stress in the maritime industry – the book you are reading right now.
The Content of the Book
As I have mentioned, this book is based on my research, which includes literature review and interviews. As a part of my work, I became familiar with the maritime industry in two countries: the US and Singapore. I exploited this opportunity to a full extent and conducted some interviews with the people I could meet from both countries. This approach helped me cover some of the rather significant blank spots that research on the maritime industry has. I would not consider individual stories and accounts to be as scientifically significant and credible as full-fledged studies with carefully crafted methodology, so I will do my best to distinguish between the two and alert you to the possible bias in some of the responses of my interviewees. However, personal perspectives and, especially, personal stories can hold a lot of value in helping us to understand our own experiences. I hope that you will find the responses to my interviewees interesting or enlightening. Additionally, the research on stress in the maritime industry is rather difficult to come by. In a way, my interviewees helped me keep the focus on the maritime industry; they made sure that I could cover the topics that are relevant for my workplace.
This book has a structure that is aimed at helping a person understand occupational stress and connect its causes to the methods of resolving it. In the first part, I present the concept of stress: you can read about its definition, theoretical models that can help you understand it better, and learn about the things that tend to cause it. Also, I apply the definition of stress to the maritime industry here. The second section discusses the solutions to stress that the maritime industry and its workers can use. I hope that you will find it helpful, but if you would like to consider other sources, take a look at the bibliography; most of the literature there can be extremely useful as well.
In this section, I will provide you with some information about stress in general and stress in the maritime industry. I think that it is a good way to get to understand why stress affects us the way it does and what we can do to change that. Primarily, be ready to learn what stress is, how it develops, how it affects human life, and what factors can make it better or worse. This section does not look for solutions, though; check those out in the next one.
Some Basics Definitions
Defining a concept is one of the first steps towards understanding it. First, let’s try to define stress itself. Seaward (2018) points out that there are different attitudes to stress in different cultures; for example, in Eastern cultures, it may be perceived as the lack of inner peace, and in Western ones, it may indicate the lack of control. From the perspective of psychology, stress can be described as the situation in which one’s ability to cope with a variety of stressors (events that can cause stress) is exceeded. Also, Seaward (2018) highlights the fact that there is a physiological element to stress: the body also tends to respond to stress. As a result, stress can be defined as the “inability to cope with a perceived (real or imagined) threat,” which leads to a variety of psychological and physiological responses (p. 5). Stress is a complex phenomenon that involves a wide variety of different processes in our body, but in general, it is a form of reaction to events that overtax our ability to cope with them.
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Now, let’s consider occupational stress. Put simply, it is the type of stress that occurs at work. Take, for example, the definition by Landsbergis et al. (2017). According to them, occupational stress is “harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker” (p. 325). From my perspective, this definition is very simple because it focuses on one particular type of stressors (job requirements) when in actuality, there is usually more than one at play. However, you can see the same pattern: occupational stress is the type of stress that occurs when we cannot cope with some stress-inducing factors that are present at our workplace. As you will see, most of those factors can indeed be defined as threats; they may not necessarily be threats to one’s body or life, and they might not even be real, but they are predominantly negative events with a few arguably positive ones thrown in the mix.
Technically, stress does not have to be negative; an inspiring event may result in eustress or positive stress, which has been known to improve one’s ability to perform (for example, in competitions) due to its ability to mobilize the resources of a human body and direct them at the task at hand (Seaward, 2018). There is also eustress, which is neither good nor bad, and simply describes a human’s reaction to inconsequential, unimportant stimuli. Furthermore, a small amount of negative stress is not a problem; in fact, it is extremely unlikely that we would be able to completely remove stress from or lives. However, significant stress tends to cause significant difficulties in the workplace.
In addition to that, a distinction can be made between acute and chronic stress. Both of those are not good, but acute stress is short-lived; it is a very intense reaction, and this reaction disappears fairly quickly. Imagine witnessing an accident at your workplace, for example, seeing a piece of equipment falling onto somebody. This event is likely to cause intense stress – you may freeze or try to help the person or scream for help, and you might start sweating, breathing heavily, and have a fast, irregular heartbeat. All of those are the body’s responses to stress; however, once the initial danger is over, your breathing and heartbeat will probably calm down. That is intense and short-lived stress that disappears after the stressor disappears. Chronic stress is unlikely to be equally intense, but it is present over time, which probably means that associated stressors are present over time. For example, if you work in an environment that carries a risk of things falling on people (yourself included), this stressor is going to be with you for a while, and it may continually cause stress. As you might imagine, workplaces often carry the potential for chronic stress; after all, there is a reason why we call certain jobs stressful.
To summarize, the primary distinctive feature of occupational stress is the fact that it is a reaction to the events that occur at our workplace, and many workplaces are fairly prone to having stress-inducing factors. As a result, occupational stress has already received quite a bit of attention from researchers. On that note, let us consider the way occupational stress can be researched.
The Research on Occupational Stress
This section of my book might appear a little overly scientific for some, but I think that it might be interesting for others. Here, I want to provide you with a short history lesson so that you know some key names and findings in the study of stress. This lesson is bound to be short because we are talking about a relatively young direction in research. It became fully formed closer to the 1970s, which makes it a recent development. However, several founding fathers of this branch of research we’re working earlier, and I should probably start with them.
Take, for example, some of the earliest studies of stress which were connected to the research of the reactions of animals to various negative stimuli. In other words, scientists took laboratory animals like mice and, well, subjected them to negative stimuli. Those included, for instance, extreme temperatures or toxic substances, as well as a physical injury; it was not very pretty, but the research took place before animal rights were actively considered. Hans Selye, who was working on the topic in the early 1930s called those stimuli stressors (Seaward, 2018). The scientist noted that the stressors were associated with similar physiological changes unconnected to the nature of the stimuli themselves. For instance, there were adverse developments in lymphatic structures, and the stomach along with intestines developed ulcers even when the stressors consisted of physical injury to other parts of the animal’s bodies. This way, scientists gathered evidence that showed us that stress is not good for one’s health.
Walter Cannon, on the other hand, worked with humans, although he was not subjecting humans to ulcer-inducing stimuli (Seaward, 2018). Instead, he investigated the way emotions affected the physiology of humans during a “fight-or-flight” response, theorizing that critical situations could result in physiological strain. He also specifically focused on the role of the brain in the processing of threats and non-threats and investigated the particular physiological responses of a body to threatening stimuli. He found that at least some of these responses included, increased heart rate and blood pressure, lung ventilation, the mobilization of various substances like fatty acid and serum glucose, and so on. All of these changes are technically aimed at making sure that a human’s body is ready to fight or flee; they provide muscles with oxygenated blood, ensure that humans have energy sources, and prepare people for the instances of running or bleeding. Both Cannon and Hans used the term “stress” and connected it to negative physical and emotional stimuli; Hans defined it as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand” (Landsbergis et al., 2017, p. 326). The research demonstrated that stress could be associated with negative physiological outcomes.
The two scientists provided a foundation for the study of stress, but it became much more prominent in the 1960s and especially 1970s. Richard Lazarus was among the most prominent figures in this field at the time. However, it is especially important to note two other players who marked a milestone in stress research, especially for the US: the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
As pointed out by Landsbergis et al. (2017), the establishment of the two bodies signified the interest of the government in the problems associated with worker safety. From the perspective of NIOSH and OSHA, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Act, occupational stress is one of the workplace hazards, a psychological one that needs to be taken into account by employers to avoid harming their workers. By funding, prioritizing, and conducting research, disseminating relevant information, and establishing evidence-based requirements and standards, the two promoted occupational safety. To this day, NIOSH and OSHA contribute to the investigation of occupational stress, and this book incorporates the information gathered and popularized by them. And we did learn a lot about stress in no small part thanks to them.
Nowadays, for example, we know that stress is a highly subjective experience; what one person perceives as a traumatic event may be perfectly fine for another one. We are also expanding our understanding of the causes of stress, the stressors; the fact that their numbers are dauntingly large may appear problematic, but their understanding is a step towards solutions. The solutions are also being studied, and with time, we will probably have some conclusive evidence on how to best avoid stress and help stressed people. All this information is also arranged into models, which scientists use to attempt to make sense of their data and systematize them. Researchers are making progress, and we can make use of that, which is why I think we should show them some appreciation. After all, the study of stress is probably the first step towards resolving it.
Starting with mice and fight-or-flight response, researchers all over the world provided a sufficient amount of scientific evidence for governments to recognize stress as an issue that requires intervention. Due to governmental efforts and funding in the US, we are becoming increasingly more stress-savvy. This book will offer you a general overview of the knowledge that our society has amassed on stress, but please keep it in mind that stress research is an ongoing project: as time passes, you might be interested in reviewing newer works on the topic.
Occupational Stress in the Modern World
Naturally, current research on occupational stress focuses on recent developments in the area, and a specific tendency can be observed: stress is becoming more prominent worldwide. In other words, nowadays, occupational stress becomes more of an issue for both employers and employees, at least in developed countries (they are better researched than developing ones as you might imagine).
Having observed this interesting trend, researchers tried to offer some explanations for it. On the one hand, globalization results in increased competition and, therefore, increased pressures on businesses worldwide. Such pressures can incorporate, for example, increased work hours or greater responsibility, which are significant stressors. On the other hand, modern business is also associated with growing insecurity and uncertainty, which are also problematic from the perspective of occupational stress. Those people who are fairly certain that they are not going to be fired today are admittedly less likely to be stressed than those who see their colleagues laid off and worry that they are next.
Particular socioeconomic and political events like the economic recession which began in 2007 or the more recent events connected to plunging oil prices can be used as examples of this aspect of the problem. Indeed, as pointed out by Landsbergis et al. (2017), the events of this scope are likely to affect many if not all sectors of economics, resulting in issues like layoffs, increased unemployment rates, reduced wages, and so on. However, less global and more local concerns can also cause similar effects. Given the fact that we currently live in a post-recession world, it is not surprising that recent studies have indicated an increase in job-related stress.
You might also find it interesting that, nowadays, workers seem to perceive time differently (at least when compared to the workers of the previous few decades). In particular, we report that today, work takes up more time, which leaves no opportunity for balancing work and life. It is not a universal experience, but it seems to become rather common, which makes it another stressing tendency. Examples of such perceptions can include the lack of strength and energy for hobbies or favorite activities after work and the feeling of having no time for one’s family (especially spouses and children). Landsbergis et al. (2017) claim that this development may be connected to increased demands for productivity and competence, as well as the same problems of downsizing and layoffs, which result in fewer people being available for performing the necessary tasks. Greater workloads may mean longer hours, extra hours, fewer days off, and finishing work at home. Thus, as businesses become more competitive, workers become more loaded with work and have less time and strength for the non-work-related aspects of their life.
The bottom line of these tendencies is as follows: modern research explicitly indicates that today, you are more likely to experience occupational stress than 20 years ago (Landsbergis et al., 2017). On top of that, recent studies show that occupational stress can be a real problem. It causes negative health outcomes, hinders people in performing their tasks at work, disturbs their relationships, and is bad for everyone involved, from customers to the families of employees and employers.
‘I think about stress whenever I am asked to work extra hours. It is like observing a large snowball approaching you, and it becomes bigger and closer every second. You just cannot avoid it, and when it is gone, you are crushed,’ says one of the interviewees who works in the maritime industry. I found this metaphor most apt. It is obvious that this topic requires particularly close attention from both scientists and businesspeople, and in this book, I offer my contribution to the task of investigating stress.
One of the methods of understanding stress is the concept of theoretical models. They can help analyze a phenomenon and determine the approaches to managing it. They are commonly pretty simplistic, which is why they might not fit any situation, but they are really useful for structuring your data, and I plan to use a model for that exact purpose. The model which I chose for this book is called the Michigan occupational stress model; specifically, this book uses it’s Occupational Stress Indicator (OSI) (Annamalai & Nandagopal, 2014). OSI is an analytical tool with four sections: it considers the four major elements of stress, and it is usually employed to describe a specific instance of stress.
In OSI, the first element is the source of stress: after all, occupational stress can be caused by multiple issues, which should be regarded as stress sources. The second element is the person who experiences stress. The model focuses on the way an individual’s personality reacts to stress and the level of control that they believe that they have in a stressful situation. The third element is the coping strategies, which are employed by the individual to overcome stress; this element is crucial in determining the eventual outcomes of stress. Said outcomes (or effects) for the stressed person and their company is the final element of the model.
Commonly, you would use the model to analyze a particular stress-related example. For instance, I could be an example. I am typically stressed whenever a deadline approaches, and the stressor in such a situation would be the deadline. I am a very stress-prone individual, which affects my stress response negatively, but I am also capable of controlling the situation, which improves my subjective perception of the stressor. My coping strategies vary, but the one I usually use before deadlines is binge eating my comfort foods (it is not healthy, please do not follow my example). The outcomes of the situation are mostly lost sleep and, at times, some weight gain. This is the way I can analyze a stressful situation with the help of OSI and see what the problem is, what I do wrong about it, and what I can do to make it better (say, do yoga instead of overeating for stress management).
In summary, the model allows considering the various aspects of stress, which eventually contribute to the relevant outcomes, as well as analyzing the latter. Additionally, this model is very individual-centered; it recognizes the fact that people have vastly different perceptions of stress and reaction to it depending on their personality, culture, and other factors (Chang & Taylor, 2013). It is because of these advantages that I chose the model for this book. I will use it to examine the crucial elements of workplace stress and determine the approaches to its management. However, I should probably mention the fact that the Michigan model is by no means the only one. It provides a good structure for the book, but in other sections, I will reference a few other approaches to understanding stress, its causes, and its consequences. Perhaps, you will find another model more to your liking, but from my perspective, they are all useful to their ends, especially when describing different aspects of occupational stress.
Sources of Occupational Stress
Having just reviewed the OSI from the Michigan model, I would like to point out one little fact: in it, stressors are important enough to make them the first element. This logic makes sense: the stressors are what causes stress, and without them, there is nothing to analyze. So, I will be logical as well; I will also start my investigation of stress with stressors.
Simply put, stressors are the factors that tend to result in stress. As I have established, people have different reactions to and understanding of stress. To account for all these different views, any factor that can potentially cause distress in a person is usually viewed as a stressor. As pointed out by Britt and Jex (2015) and Landsbergis et al. (2017), the number of potential stressors in the workplace might be infinite. Certain groups of stressors have been established, although it can be argued that they are distinguished because of the increased attention of researchers to them rather than their actual importance. However, they did attract the attention of researchers, and investigations did show them to have an impact on stress in workers. Using recent research, I will present and analyze them in this chapter.
While reading this section, keep it in mind that the presented stressors are rarely at work individually. It is entirely possible to be affected by several stressors at once, and individual situations and factors may modify the eventual outcome (Landsbergis et al., 2017). However, this classification can assist in understanding the causes of stress, which, in turn, will help prevent or manage it. Let’s get started: there is a lot to cover.
The first topic to consider is the stressors that are associated with work demands. Work can be demanding from multiple perspectives: this category includes aspects like workload, working hours, the specifics of the tasks that may be stressful (for instance, frequent deadlines), the level of control over the job (the ability to choose what to do), and so on (Landsbergis et al., 2017; RAND, 2015). It is noteworthy that both rotating shifts and night shifts (especially permanent ones) can result in stress, which can be attributed to the disturbance of sleep patterns or social interaction. Also, rotating shifts hurt one’s internal organs, including the heart, stomach, and bowels; they can cause diseases of these organs (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Thus, it is not just stress that makes them dangerous.
Similarly, there exists sufficient evidence to suggest that overworking can cause stress. It is not very good for a person’s health in general since overtaxing your bodily reserves is generally bad for you (Munakata, Muratsubaki, Hattori, Li, & Fukudo, 2016; Tayama, Li, & Munakata, 2014), but on top of that, you get stressed. This problem has been reflected in the concept of “death from overwork” – karoshi, an initially Japanese term that has been applied to other settings as well (Britt & Jex, 2015; Tayama et al., 2014). For instance, it has been shown that overworking is associated with heart problems, and a cardiac arrest may be one of the ways of falling victim to karoshi (Munakata et al., 2016; Tayama et al., 2014). Yes, you can work yourself to death. Please do not do that.
Moreover, particular types of tasks can also be especially stressful. Short-cycle and narrow tasks that do not involve creativity, tasks that are particularly demanding, or tasks that do not allow for much job control are among the ones that are stress-related (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Overall, workplace demands are a significant health concern that is a source of multiple stressors.
When assessing work-related demands, Britt and Jex (2015) recommend focusing on the perceived features of the job: for instance, its perceived difficulty, intensity, and pace. The responsibilities that are associated with a post should also be taken into account. Additionally, the safety of the work should be noted; if a job is associated with activities that are perceived as or are dangerous, it can cause additional levels of stress. The perceived characteristics can reflect the work-related stressors better than more objective ones (for instance, working hours) because different people can perceive the same amount of work as taxing or not taxing depending on their abilities, personality, and so on.
The System of Rewards
Connected to the topic of work demands, the system of rewards, including promotion, can also be a source of stress. Research shows that a career is a major concern for many people (Landsbergis et al., 2017). We may be anxious to advance, experience under-promotion, or fear the possibility of being fired. Furthermore, as pointed out by Landsbergis et al. (2017), overpromotion may also be stress-inducing because of a real or perceived experience of not being qualified for the job. In other words, it is very common for us to be stressed because of potential career-related outcomes.
The issue of insufficient rewards is also noteworthy. Landsbergis et al. (2017) report that one of the models of job stress is concerned with this topic; it can be called “the effort-reward imbalance model.” The authors highlight the fact that the model has not been fully tested yet, but there exists some evidence to support the following premise. According to this model, the reward system can include monetary, career, or “esteem” rewards, and if persons feel that their efforts to perform their duties are not sufficiently rewarded, they can experience stress and a general decrease in morale. Pay some attention to different types of rewards: the model indicates that a person may feel that he or she receives sufficient monetary rewards but is not appreciated or distinguished enough (“esteem” rewards), and, as a result, might still experience stress.
‘My wage is satisfying, it is really what I want, but I am not sure about my reputation among my colleagues and supervisors,’ shares his experience one of the respondents. ‘They say they like my work, they see improvements, but I don’t feel my opinion has some value in our company. It’s not about considerable stress that I feel because of that, it is about some pressure that I experience while speaking with my co-workers … Maybe, it’s stress, you are right …’
The idea of adequate rewards is rather subjective. According to the model, workers try to find the balance between efforts and rewards themselves, but if they fail to do so, strain and negative health consequences that are associated with stress may become a problem. Following the model, it is apparent that some people who are extremely committed to their job (for example, as a result of personal factors like perfectionism) may be under a greater risk of developing rewards-related stress.
A separate source of pressure that is specific for occupational stress is associated with the roles that we play in the workplace. In particular, role ambiguity and conflicts have a significant potential for producing stress (Landsbergis et al., 2017). The former term refers to employees not being certain about their role in an organization. For instance, if their job responsibility is not clearly explained to them (as stated in their contract or established informally), they can experience role ambiguity. According to Britt and Jex (2015), a very common example is the employees who do not know for sure how to define satisfactory and dissatisfactory performance. If you cannot tell what your employer expects from you, role ambiguity explains your situation.
‘When I was hired, HR managers informed me about the list of my duties. But now I also perform responsibilities typical of the position for which they cannot find the right person. I receive bonuses for additional work, but I am still against this situation because I do not feel confident when performing tasks not related to my qualifications and experience,’ explains Jake. The described situation is one of the variants of stressful role ambiguity observed in the workplace.
In turn, the term “role conflict” refers to the problems which arise when a part of an employee’s responsibilities makes it difficult or impossible for them to perform their other tasks. Here, the simplest illustration is excessive work demands: if you do not have enough time to perform all your duties, the related responsibilities are going to conflict. Another example is concerned with the roles that people play at work and outside of it; if the job prevents a person from, for instance, taking care of their family, inter-role conflict may arise (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Both role-related issues can become the sources of significant stress depending on individual situations and the traits of the person who experiences them. For instance, Britt and Jex (2015) report that, in some cases, role ambiguity might be viewed as something positive if it offers an opportunity for a more flexible approach to one’s responsibilities. However, the fact that these issues can cause stress remains critical and needs to be taken into account when developing the strategies to prevent tension.
Do you remember the stimuli that Hans Selye’s mice were subjected to? Unsurprisingly, humans also do not react well when subjected to negative physiological stressors. A very common example that is often cited to illustrate humans’ susceptibility to various physical influences is the seasonal affective disorder. It is found in people who live in an environment that lacks sunlight (particularly, the Arctic Circle) and is, as a result, deprived of it. Due to this disorder, we know that human bodies do not take well to the lack of sunlight: without it, we become depressed. Similarly, influences like radiation, biological threats, and toxins take a direct toll on human bodies. Some other examples include extreme temperatures and noise, as well as insufficient ventilation, bad, poor lighting, and uncomfortable furniture (Landsbergis et al., 2017).
To sum it up, if a person is physically uncomfortable, it is difficult for them to perform their job, and they might also experience negative health outcomes. In addition to that, the risk of exposure to various hazards, including toxic substances, and the risk of injury is known to increase stress in workers. Thus, the work conditions of an employee are also a significant concern that can result in stress.
‘Everyone knows that working in our sphere (the maritime industry) is both about sitting in offices and being onboard. These environments influence the quality of our work. I’d like to change my job if I do not feel comfortable and safe at work,’ states an interviewee.
The category of work conditions can be expanded to include the organizational aspects of one’s job, including management, leadership, policies, and so on. For instance, there is evidence that suggests that particular approaches to management can be more stress-inducing, and a few good examples are excessive restrictions and the exclusion of employees from decision-making (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Both can result in negative outcomes, including reduced self-esteem, strain, and lower employee satisfaction, which are likely to be associated with stress.
Another element of work conditions can be described as “job resources.” This term is used in the Job Demands-Resources model of stress, according to which the balance between job demands and the resources that a job provides is what defines the risks of developing stress (Landsbergis et al., 2017). The resources that are cited by the model are often intangible like managerial feedback, supervision opportunities, the possibility of promotion, and even social support. These factors need to be taken into account when working to reduce stress risks in the workplace.
A working environment is rarely limited just to work; most often, it presupposes interacting with people, including co-workers, managers, and clients, as well as the representatives of other organizations. These interactions can be formal or informal and friendly, neutral, or antagonistic, and they form another element of working conditions and a psychological climate in the workplace. Depending on the specifics of the encounter, the perception of employees involved in it, and their interpersonal skills, communication can be a source of stress. Certain interactions, however, are especially likely to become stressors.
For example, one of the major issues at work, as reported by Britt and Jex (2015), is workplace incivility that can include various minor violations of accepted norms of decency, in which it is not clear if a person committing this violation intends to harm someone else. The illustration that the authors use accentuates that gossiping is rarely meant to hurt someone, but it implies the disrespect of a person’s privacy and might result in negative outcomes (for instance, rumors) that can cause actual harm. Apart from that, there are direct instances of bullying and harassment, in which co-workers or superiors may act as perpetrators. All these factors are extremely stressful, and they are necessary to be defined in this book.
‘Unfortunately, gossiping at work is a common practice. In my previous workplace, two teams gossiped against each other; it was like a war, and productivity of the whole unit decreased because of impossible cooperation and a stressful atmosphere,’ notes Mike, discussing this problem in the context of interpersonal stressors.
Indeed, even though most of us have either witnessed or even personally experienced one or several interpersonal stressors, many people feel that they do not fully understand what they mean. Thus, bullying is usually defined by the presence of particular features: it is supposed to consist of repeated acts that are performed by a person (or people) who have relatively more power than their victim with the intent of harming him or her. The acts do not have to be physical; psychological bullying is also extremely harmful. Harassment, in turn, is a legal term: it involves “unwanted physical or verbal behavior that offends or humiliates” (Faucher, Cassidy, & Jackson, 2015, p. 112). In the cases when several people “gang up” against one person, both bullying and harassment can be referred to as mobbing. All the mentioned types of behavior have negative impacts on a victim’s health and productivity, and they are associated with stress.
Now, regardless of the obvious fact that the above-mentioned behaviors are highly immoral and can be illegal, they are not rare. According to a recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (2014), which was carried out in the US, 27% of the respondents reported experiencing bullying, and an additional 21% reported witnessing it. The same survey also indicates that people are typically very reluctant to intervene and stop abusing behaviors, but in general, Americans want to have the anti-bullying legislation to be implemented. Thus, interpersonal stressors can be very prevalent, which makes them an important source of stress.
Britt and Jex (2015) recommend paying much attention to the boundary between work and life as another potential source of stress. This situation is likely to be very common for readers: work demands a lot of time, which is why we sometimes feel that we do not get enough time to live. Furthermore, outside of the workplace, we also play several roles that tend to come with certain responsibilities (American Psychological Association, 2015). For instance, parents have the responsibility to take care of their child: the more they have to work, the less time (and strength) they have to help their child with home tasks. On the other hand, the responsibilities of children to take care of their aging parents are also similar and can be thwarted by the vital responsibility to earn money. Other illustrations may include the roles of spouses, friends, community members, and so on. That is how workplace roles can conflict with people’s life or social roles.
Some examples of this conflict were discussed during the interviews with employees in the maritime industry. ‘When coming home, I have only an hour or two to just talk with my children before they go to sleep. There were days when I came late at night and could not see my Rosie and Johnsy for a whole week,’ Daniel shares his experience.
Moreover, Britt and Jex (2015) note how this category is similar to the role-related stressors and points out that it is also connected to workplace demands. After all, excessive workplace demands are an important source of the conflict between professional and life roles. On the other hand, the authors also note that especially important life duties (for instance, caring for a sick relative) may, in turn, interfere with job responsibilities. Both situations are reported to be stressful, but sufficient evidence indicates that people are particularly distressed when they cannot perform their non-work-related duties. Britt and Jex (2015) explain that this tendency is likely to be related to the fact that non-work-related duties are most often connected to one’s family, which is a universal value for people all over the world. It is much more stressful to fail as a parent than as an engineer. To sum up, work-life boundaries can indeed become an important and prevalent source of stress for professionals.
While the workplace has a lot of stressors that can affect an employee, they can come to work already stressed. A simple example is associated with issues that happen at home, for instance, an illness of a close person or legal problems of someone in the family. Paradoxically, as noted by Britt and Jex (2015), even happy events can be sources of stress; for instance, marriage is often associated with difficulties related to the procedures, ceremony, and the initial problems of adjustment to the new status and life. Attempting to describe or categorize external (extra-organizational) stressors may be futile. The point is that not all the stressors are present within or related to an organization, which can make it difficult to monitor, contain, or control them.
‘It’s funny, but I like Mondays because I have time to concentrate and focus on work in my comparably silent office after active weekends with my family,’ this provocative idea was expressed by one of the interviewees discussing work and family stressors, and it serves as an example to illustrate the variety of external stressors.
Factors Affecting Stress
The main conclusion that can be made from the discussion of stressors is that occupational stress is complex. It emerges from a wide variety of sources, some of which are not even concerned with the workplace. To make the issue even more complicated, some factors affect stress and can worsen or lessen its impact on employees. This section will consider these factors and attempt to characterize their diverse effects concerning occupational stress. Pay attention to the words of one of the respondents participating in my project, ‘I know when I am stressed, I can recognize this feeling, mood, or condition, but I cannot tell what has caused it. I can’t prevent it in the future.’ From the perspective of the Michigan model, this section is dedicated to the second element of stress: persons experiencing it. As you will see, when discussing the person, a great number of relevant factors should be considered, including personality, behaviors, lifestyle, and so on.
Personality and Other Personal Factors
Different personality traits and behaviors of employees may affect the way each individual reacts to stress, and sometimes, they are interconnected. One of the most commonly discussed concerns related to job stress is the “Type A behavior pattern,” which can be characterized as an over-achieving, highly competitive, excessively committed, and driven behavior. Using the information that we have already learned about possible stressors, we can see that this approach to work can be stress-inducing: the anxiety to advance and excel is stress-inducing, the possibility of the effort-reward balance getting skewed is stress-inducing, and the continuous strive for perfection is stress-inducing and potentially exhausting. Landsbergis et al. (2017) report that research shows the association of Type A behavior with coronary heart disease, not to mention some emotional outcomes like irritability and anger. More research is required for conclusive statements, but the potential riskiness of Type A behavior is apparent.
What factor causes this type of behavior? A common approach to explaining it focuses on personal characteristics: some people have personality traits that make them more prone to perfectionism or more likely to be competitive. However, some organizational factors might also contribute, including, for instance, the encouragement of competition or over-achievement that may be found in a company’s policy or unspoken rules. A common example is an encouragement of what can be defined as workaholism: if your company promotes the idea that overworking yourself is good for the bottom line (which is questionable), it might be pushing you and your coworkers toward Type A behavior. Similarly, a workaholic manager might encourage similar behavior in their employees either directly or indirectly, leading through example (Clark, Stevens, Michel, & Zimmerman, 2014). Either way, as a form of behavior that employees may adopt, Type A behavior is a personal factor that may put one at an increased risk of stress.
On the other hand, personal factors can also result in a reduced risk of stress. As a counterpoint to Type A behavior, Landsbergis et al. (2017) discuss the “hardy personality type,” which is characterized by having the traits and beliefs that make it easier to cope with stress. Examples include optimism and healthy coping strategies (as opposed to unhealthy ones like drinking alcohol; we will discuss coping strategies in detail later in the book). Another potentially positive personal factor is the so-called “internal locus of control.” This term is used for people who are certain that they can control events in their life. If you think that you have the power to control the things that happen to you, then you may be described as a person with an internal locus of control, which, according to Landsbergis et al. (2017), makes you less prone to stress. Fatalism, on the other hand, or the belief that one’s life cannot be controlled, has a greater association with stress.
Here are some ideas on the issue from my interviews with workers in the maritime industry: ‘Overworking until ignoring my basic needs and desires – that is about me. I really cannot stop working without completing the task, and it’s my path to burnout,’ says John.
‘When I understand that I can directly influence the situation, I feel better because I have prepared solutions to different force majeure situations. Yes, I try to prepare to force majeure cases,’ smiles Jenny. Additionally, Maria notes, ‘I feel under pressure when I cannot control everything; that is why I am not good at delegating.’
Finally, Landsbergis et al. (2017) point out that one’s capabilities may have different effects on the level of stress experienced at work. We have mentioned coping strategies, but on top of that, one’s job qualifications may also matter. The lack of work experience is stress-inducing while its presence may result in improved coping. Consequently, it is not uncommon for people to become more relaxed as they gain the experience of working in one environment. Even if the stressors are not removed, an employee adapts and becomes better at managing them.
It is logical to suggest that lifestyle factors can matter for stress management. In general, the state of your body is a major moderating factor for your stress experiences. You may have felt this connection yourself if you ever had to work while feeling a little under the weather as compared to the days when you were healthy and energetic. Landsbergis et al. (2017) point out that good health and physical fitness have the potential of improving one’s reaction to stress, although more research on the topic is required to determine the magnitude of this effect. Still, a person who does not smoke eats enough healthy foods, and exercises regularly are more likely to be able to cope with occupational stress effectively than a person with less sound lifestyle choices. I will keep that in mind; perhaps, it will help me to resist the temptation when I want my stress-reducing but unhealthy snacks. Here is what the participants of my project said about this aspect: ‘I am not sure that there is a real connection between stress and smoking,’ ‘I usually cope with stress eating sweets,’ ‘When I had started jogging, I began to feel more energetic and more productive at work.’ These statements indicate that this aspect needs detailed analysis later in the book.
The Concept of Personal Energy and Other Resources
In their book devoted to stress and its management, Britt and Jex (2015), consider the topic of personal energy, which they identify as the “energy we possess at a given time that can be used to get things done” (p. 139). It is difficult to measure, which is why the authors believe that an appropriate approach to the task would consist of the personal feelings of an individual. Simply put, your level of personal energy depends on how energized you feel at a particular moment. For instance, does the task that you need to undertake to excite you? Do you have the strength and enthusiasm to face it? Do you have the personal resources for it? By responding to these questions, you can determine your energy levels.
Energy levels can fluctuate during the day; some people feel very energized in the mornings, and others prefer to work at night. Also, different tasks can be associated with different levels of energy. For instance, a very tedious or strenuous activity may be more energy-intensive, and, therefore, you may feel less prepared to undertake it when you are not at your best. Britt and Jex (2015) offer using a scale from 0 to 6 to assess one’s energy levels, in which 0 signifies no energy whatsoever, and 6 stands for the maximum amount of energy you can potentially have. The authors also highlight the fact that personal energy is finite: it is possible to exhaust oneself completely, and this outcome can have no positive effects on one’s well-being or performance.
Personal energy is important for the discussion of occupational stress because it is the primary resource that allows people to accomplish things and respond to work demands. If a person is low on this energy and cannot find the means of replenishing it, they are going to start experiencing stress. Therefore, while personal energy is not a stressor, its lack can be viewed as such. Furthermore, Britt and Jex (2015) also point out that apart from personal energy, the loss (or the threat of loss) of other resources (like money, support, and so on) can also be stressful. For instance, if a person feels that their salary or bonuses may get cut, the situation can cause stress for them. Continuous losses of resources, especially personal energy, are predictive of burnout.
An important factor for losing energy is interpersonal stressors; they are capable of depleting one’s energy reserves, leaving less strength for work-related tasks. Additionally, certain interpersonal activities (most often associated with helping someone) can also require some energy. However, Britt and Jex (2015) highlight the fact that the presence of other people can also help to restore personal energy; in fact, even rival energy can invigorate us. Therefore, social interactions can have varied effects on personal energy.
Demographics and Stress
Nowadays, employers become increasingly aware of the fact that their workforce is diverse, and among other things, this fact is interconnected with the issue of occupational stress. The research of the demographics of stress is not very extensive (Ferris, Daniels, & Sexton, 2014), but a crucial aspect of these interrelationships is noteworthy: diversity is associated with stress in the instances when it is not managed well. For instance, a workplace that is not inclusive and supports any kind of discrimination will invariably cause stress in the discriminated group. The mechanisms of this tendency can differ; for instance, bullying that is related to discrimination is a direct stressor from the interpersonal category, and the glass ceiling is related to the rewards system.
Sociocultural and socioeconomic barriers are interconnected in this regard, and they can include the preferential treatment of certain groups during hiring, compensation, performance evaluation, and promotion. For instance, Ferris et al. (2014) demonstrate that for people belonging to racial or ethnic minorities, career advancement is more complex than for white people. Similarly, women, especially women with children and older women, have been reported to receive lower wages when compared to men, and a common explanation of this tendency is the prejudice which implies that women are too focused on their families to be efficient workers (Sheth, Gal, & Skye, 2018). In addition to that, bullying and harassment affect minorities disproportionately; a common example is the sexual harassment of female employees. Overall, Ferris et al. (2014) report that discrimination is commonly connected to stress along with all its negative outcomes, including reduced psychological and physiological well-being.
Another significant issue that is related to discrimination is cultural diversity. It is not uncommon for the employees who belong to minority groups to suppress their culture to conform with the dominant one in their company, which is typically more or less identical to the culture of the dominant group (Ferris et al., 2014). This kind of conformity can also become a source of stress, especially in case there are significant conflicts between the two cultures. The same can apply for general, personal beliefs and values, which are also typically dependent on belonging to a particular minority culture. Overall, the primary lesson of the demographics of stress is that minorities find themselves at an increased risk of stress as compared to dominant groups.
An important observation to make is connected to socio-economic disparities. Specifically, people from low-income households can be more prone to stress than those from wealthier families as a result of a complex interplay of multiple factors. Some of them include the increased possibility of external stress-inducing situations, for instance, life in a high-crime neighborhood (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Similarly, lower-income populations are less likely to be able to afford housekeeping or childrearing services; as a result, they are overloaded with work at home and can experience interrole conflicts related to their family duties. Lower pay might increase one’s risk of failing to find a balance between efforts and rewards; additionally, lower-paying jobs can receive less recognition than higher-paying ones, which is another stress-inducing factor. Furthermore, as pointed out by Landsbergis et al. (2017), access to different coping strategies may be particularly limited for the people who have lower wages. For instance, a single mother with a low-wage job may find it particularly difficult to plan and afford travel for her vacation. To summarize, the demographic factors result in rather unique circumstances that can be directly or indirectly responsible for increased occupational stress risks.
Demographics of the Maritime Industry
The maritime industry in the US and Singapore: is diversity a challenge? Having inquired both employees and managers from the US and Singapore about workplace diversity, I can conclude that it is a significant topic for most of them. The US has a rather diverse population. For instance, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, 2018), the most recent estimate indicates that around 16% of the population of the US are Hispanic, 12% are Black, and 4.8% are Asian. Also, there are native ethnic groups, including Amerindian and Alaska Natives (0.9%) and Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (0.2%). Several languages, including English and Spanish, are spoken in the US, and the population reports being affiliated to a wide variety of religions from Protestantism to Hindu. The workforce of the maritime industry in the US is no exception: it is quite diverse, and the industry acknowledges this fact.
‘We have a lot of diversity programs,’ claims an HR from an American shipbuilding company. ‘We also have a relatively high percentage of women and people of color; there is some age diversity, and we employ a few veterans. We take diversity very seriously and do our best to achieve equality.’
In Singapore, diversity is also a significant topic. CIA (2018) states that as of 2017, the country divides its population into four general categories: Chinese (74.3%), Malay (13.4%), Indian (9%), and other (3.2%). The three latter groups include the following ethnicities: Malays, Indonesians, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Eurasians, Caucasians, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese. Four official languages are present (English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil), and multiple Chinese dialects were used by about 12% of the population in 2015. Diverse religions are present with Buddhism being the most popular one (33.2%) and Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism also quite widespread. In addition to that, the maritime industry has a particular feature that is worth noting:
‘The lower-level positions here are mostly occupied by foreigners,’ explains one of the managers to me, ‘and the locals are commonly in the management.’
As it turns out, this aspect of the maritime industry in Singapore causes not a small number of misunderstandings and misjudgment between the lower levels and the higher-ups.
‘There are diversity efforts and programs, including those aimed at immigrants,’ the Singaporean manager notes. ‘We recognize the need to manage diversity. But it would be hypocritical to not acknowledge the fact that there is some inequality.’
I also wanted to know if the managers of the US and Singapore view diversity as a problem to be solved, a challenge, or a potential asset. Most, however, stated that diversity is a fact or a working condition for them. Here are a few examples that I think offer pretty good points.
‘I would not call it a problem, I would call it a statement of the problem,’ an American manager Steve suggested. ‘I have a diverse workforce and I need to help them be as productive as possible. Among other things, I have to keep it in mind that my followers are diverse – they have different backgrounds, different needs, and some of them may face unique challenges. If I do not keep that in mind, I will just fail to help them succeed.’
‘I would not call diversity a problem,’ Singaporean manager Gemi told me, ‘mostly because I do not like the way it sounds. It sounds like I want my employees to be the same race, age, and gender, and I do not. The same goes for a challenge because it is just wrong to call diversity a challenge. However, I think that diversity is associated with challenges and problems because we have not achieved equality yet. I think that they are not the results of diversity – they are the result of us failing to achieve equality.’
‘If you manage diversity right, your employees will feel more appreciated and accepted. It is an investment in your reputation and employee loyalty,’ Rebecca, who is an HR manager in a US maritime company, points out. ‘It will take effort, sure. So does running a business and solving any problem and challenge on the way. If you do not want to make an effort, you probably do not want a business.’
‘Does your business make an effort?’ I am curious.
‘It does,’ she states assuredly. ‘And if it suddenly stops, we are going to remind it that it has to.’
According to my interviewees, in the maritime industry of the two countries I have had the opportunity to investigate, diversity is an important aspect of human resource management. Given its potential impact on stress, they believe that it is necessary to take it into account and make the effort to manage it appropriately by turning the challenges related to it into an opportunity for improved reputation and employee loyalty. I agree; do you?
Women in the maritime industry. The topic of gender diversity in the maritime industry is a complex one, and since it is connected to diversity and stress, I want to discuss it separately. I have seen the maritime industry in both the US and Singapore and I can testify that women in this field are not as commonly encountered as men. My interviewees can do the same: both the American and Singaporean managers and employees told me that women in the industry are less common than men, especially in technical positions.
‘More, you know, office-based positions I think can have more women,’ an American seafarer tells me, ‘but here, we have mostly men. It has always been this way I think.’
Indeed, the maritime industry has been a male-dominated industry since the dawn of time; this fact is reflected in the words of my interviewees and the literature on the topic (Grant & Grant, 2015). A few of the people I interviewed suggested that the specifics of the common jobs in the industry are not very appealing to women, but most of them also cited tradition and discrimination as the cause for the disparity. The situation has been steadily changing, of course, and nowadays, women hold about 34% of the workplaces in the industry worldwide. However, the number of women in the executive teams of the maritime industry amounts to less than 1% (Whiteman, 2018).
In technical positions, women hold about 14% of the workplaces. In the US, the number of women in the management sector of the industry appears to be at least relatively high (up to 20%). However, ample evidence indicates that the employees of the maritime industry in the US are still way more likely to be male than female (Whiteman, 2018). It is pretty difficult to find more specific statistics (for example, on the women in the maritime industry of Singapore), but the presented numbers still paint a rather clear picture. Many of the reasons for differing gender representation in the industry are associated with the factor that is also shown to be connected to stress: discrimination, especially its cultural aspects.
Some of you might remember that there are cultures that view women as the bringers of ill fate for seafarers. While this idea seems ludicrous nowadays, a few other prejudices, which are often similarly ridiculous, may still prevent women from entering the industry. The traditional perspective on female roles is a major issue that can affect the attitudes towards women in the maritime industry and has historically done so. Employers and HR managers may find women unsuitable for the industry because of their perceived weaknesses or the duties that they are expected to perform concerning their families. For instance, since seafarers leave the shore along with their families for extended periods, this position can be perceived as inappropriate for a woman: she would be unable to take care of her children, and it would be inappropriate to have her husband do the thing, right? As for the strength of female seafarers, let us just say that if a woman attempts to get the position, she must have completed the relevant training. If her trainers think that she is qualified for the job, she is qualified for the job regardless of the harmful ideas about the abilities of women. In other words, the mentioned beliefs are barely better than the superstitions that are used to prevent women from entering the maritime industry, but still, they remain a problem.
In extreme cases, the discrepancies between the socially accepted female roles and those that women play in the maritime industry can result in bullying or the lack of support from families. When a woman’s choice to enter an industry is not supported by her family, or when she is ostracized by her coworkers and looked down upon by her superiors, she is likely to experience additional stress. For example, one of the first female cadets of the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union’s Tripartite Nautical Training Award reported being teased by her coworkers when she was first introduced to them (Ho, 2015).
They were also trying to help her when she would not need it. It could be a touching gesture given that the men were, most likely, genuinely worried about their female colleague, but, of course, their actions ended up being demeaning and condescending. A female cadet of the Union is perfectly well-prepared for her duties, and this kind of well-meaning sexism could not (and was not) welcome. The woman explained that she found a way of combating the issue by showing that she was able to perform the same work as her coworkers, after which the attempts to help her were withdrawn and the men stopped their teasing. However, the fact that she had to prove her ability beyond having the necessary qualifications as determined by the Union and ensured by her training demonstrates that the issue of differential treatment of female workers in the maritime industry is indeed a problem. Naturally, it also shows the way women in the maritime industry may encounter additional stressors in the form of sexism and discrimination.
According to the chief executive of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), women increasingly enter the maritime industry, and nowadays, they are not limited to the on-land professions. At the Singapore Maritime Academy, one-fifth of the Marine Engineering Diploma students are now female, and the numbers of women who obtain Certificates of Competency, which are necessary to work on ships, is growing. This fact shows that more women are being prepared for jobs in the maritime industry, which means that with time, the problem of discrimination is likely to abate. However, it also implies that for the next few years, decades, or, possibly, even longer, there will be more maritime workers fighting against the stress of discrimination as a result of being an actual minority in the field. Therefore, for the managers of the maritime industry, it is particularly important to check out the different aspects of gender-based discrimination, including the wage gap, which is a particularly stubborn testament to the fact that inequality is difficult to combat.
Wage gaps. While discussing women and other minorities in the maritime industry, it is necessary to review the problem of the wage gap as well. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) reports that on average, women earn about 82% of men’s income in the US. In Singapore, the figure is smaller: the Ministry of Social and Family Development (2017) states that in 2017, the monthly wages of women were about 10% lower than those of men. Wage gaps are a problem all over the world.
Also, the wage gap is a parameter that exists at the intersection of the discrimination of a variety of groups. For instance, while the wage gap between men and women is generally consistent, it is much more prominent between white men and women of color with the former earning almost twice as much as the latter (Sheth et al., 2018). Moreover, there is evidence which indicates that women with no children earn less than women without children (at least, in the US), but men with children are shown to be very likely to earn more than men without children. This tendency can be attributed to different factors, but some of the potential causes, according to the research by Sheth et al. (2018), include prejudice against motherhood (which can be viewed as a factor that reduces one’s commitment to work), as well as the idea that fathers are more likely to be committed to doing their job well since they need to provide for their child. Overall, the impact of gender stereotypes is not an unlikely cause of this particular aspect of the wage gap.
Finally, it should be noted that the wage gap is preserved throughout the lifespan of employees: as women grow older, their pay is likely to decrease, but for men, it mostly increases (until the age of 65) in the US. The wage gap is a particularly good example of the way discrimination against different groups can intersect in individual cases.
It should be noted that it is difficult to locate recent statistics on wage gaps in the maritime industry. A study that took place in Jamaica and Barbados revealed that an average of 12-25% difference in the wages of men and women could be found in the maritime industry in the two countries with men earning more (Grant & Grant, 2015). Also, the mean hourly wage gap in the maritime industry is reported to amount to 36% (Whiteman, 2018). My interviewees could not provide me with direct figures that are true for their workplaces, but they generally supported the idea that women probably do not earn as much as men in their companies. The wage gap offers tangible proof of discrimination, and it is symptomatic of multiple underlying issues. As discrimination is a major stress factor, this issue needs to be taken into account when considering the means of reducing occupational stress in the maritime industry.
Despite my long digression on the fate of women and other minorities in the maritime industry, we are still talking about the factors that affect our stress reaction. As pointed out by Britt and Jex (2015) and Landsbergis et al. (2017), one of the primary non-job factors that are connected to occupational stress is social interactions. As I have mentioned, interpersonal relationships are a significant source of stress. However, they can be a buffer factor, one that reduces the effects of stress on a person, if the interactions are positive. Examples are multiple: supportive family or friends can provide an opportunity to rest and relax, as well as vent about job-related problems; coworkers or managers can also support an employee by providing emotional support, advice, or even direct assistance in job tasks.
From the perspective of recent research (Landsbergis et al., 2017), the specific effects of this buffer might vary, but then, it is difficult to quantify support, which is subjectively evaluated by employees, and that makes it difficult to study. In any case, during my interviews, I routinely encountered comments about the importance of social support for coping with stress, although my interviewees typically used different terms. They commonly referred to their family, including parents and spouses, pointing out that just talking about their concerns with a close person helped to reduce anxiety. A few of the interviewees also commented on the way their colleagues helped them through difficult times. Furthermore, several of them commented on an unexpected aspect of our social interaction:
‘I have a cat, and I swear to you, she knows it when I need some unwinding. She just comes to me and snuggles and purrs until I feel better. That’s my best anti-stress solution.’
Pets, of course. And I completely agree that it is one more way to get some support from another living creature. Thus, both subjective accounts and research evidence suggest that there is a possibility of social support modifying the effects of occupational stress.
The general term which is used to describe the ability of a person to cope with stressful situations is “stress resilience” (Britt & Jex, 2015, p. 71-72). According to Britt and Jex (2015), this particular ability is usually predicted by three components. The first one is social support. It is well-evidenced that somebody who has supportive people in their life is more likely to be able to cope with stress as compared to those who report the lack of such support (American Psychological Association, 2015). The sources of support can come from within the workplace (coworkers and supervisors) or outside of it (family and friends). The support itself can consist of assistance in resolving stress-inducing situations (for instance, taking care of someone’s child when they need to be at work) or offering emotional support (talking about a stressful event, for example). Furthermore, Britt and Jex (2015) report that people can become more resilient simply because they know that they can get help from somewhere: if you know that you can potentially discuss a troubling issue, this knowledge already helps you to deal with stress.
Listening to the interviewees’ responses, I have found an example of such behavior. ‘I have perfect relationships with my supervisor, he is always ready to help me. Knowing about this opportunity, I feel less stressed and more confident when working,’ says Mike.
The second element of stress resilience is concerned with a person’s traits: the relatively stable aspects of one’s personality. An example of a helpful trait is hardiness. Hardy people believe that they have a high level of control over their lives, are committed to their activities, tend to perceive stressors as challenges, and view them in a positive light. Thus, they are more likely not to experience severe negative reactions to stress. Other similarly useful traits include, for instance, optimism (because it is also associated with a positive perspective on events) and proactivity (because it enables people to respond to stressors before they become a significant problem and eliminate or even prevent them). Confidence, perseverance, and other traits may also be helpful.
Finally, the third element of resilience can be defined as coping methods. Stress can result in very negative behaviors; for instance, smoking or substance problems can become one’s coping methods when stress is concerned. However, there are less harmful approaches and even beneficial ones, for example, listening to music or jogging to clear your head. According to Britt and Jex (2015), there is no actual limit to potentially useful coping methods, but their investigation in research provides more and more information about their relative effectiveness. This aspect of resilience will be considered in the following chapter. As you can see, this term generally encompasses most of the personal stress-affecting factors. Check if this concept can help you to analyze the factors that contribute to your resilience. Maybe you can control some of them?
The Impact of Stress
As can be seen from the Michigan model, the impact of stress is one of the most significant of its aspects. However, it should be noted that stress outcomes are very diverse. If you take a look at the Michigan model and the above-described moderating factors, you can see that the specific results of stress are very likely to vary depending on the person experiencing stress, their circumstances, their response to stress, and coping methods, and so on. Further, it should be noted that certain stressors may hurt health as they are, regardless of stress itself. For instance, overworking and related fatigue is indeed considered to be bad for you regardless of the levels of stress that you experience. Still, stress outcomes have been researched from different angles (Landsbergis et al., 2017), which allows, at the very least, to propose the following conclusions.
‘Constant stress can’t be good for you. I am speaking from experience. I remember that in my previous workplace, a general strategy was to work as much as possible. My boss was a workaholic, and he set the tone for everyone else. I felt this continuous fatigue; eventually, I just did not want to do anything. And I was exhausted – mostly emotionally. The worst thing about it was that this state persisted even when I was away from work – days off, vacations… I simply could not rest enough.’
When discussing the topic of the outcomes of stress with the employees in the maritime industry, I gathered a lot of accounts similar to this one. People report overwhelming fatigue, loss of motivation, and depression. On the other hand, a few had different stories to tell.
‘I become extremely irritable when I am stressed. When nearing an important deadline, I try to limit my contacts with other people because I have a feeling that I might snap. I am glad that my family is understanding and supportive, but it would be difficult to gain similar support from my supervisor, and I do not want to take it out on other people.’
Such differences in reactions to stress are natural, but if you think about it, they are similar in one thing: they are associated with negative feelings and experiences. A few of the interviewed managers have also noted that they read or heard of stress having more profound impacts on one’s psychological and even physiological state. Their ideas are supported by recent literature, which proves that stress is harmful to a person’s health (Cooper & Quick, 2017). Here are some general conclusions about its effects.
Stress tends to hurt human bodies. If the organism functions under stress during a long period, this situation associated with the active secretion of stress hormones leads to dysfunction in body systems. For instance, our heart and blood vessels can be damaged by stress: it increases blood pressure, as well as the risks of cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks or angina (Seaward, 2018). The reason for developing these stress-related diseases is the release of cortisol provoked by stress and affecting the work of the heart muscle and the increased heart rate, making the cardiovascular system work more intensively till its exhaustion.
Stress can also lead to problems with the stomach and bowels, for instance, constipation and diarrhea. Irritable bowel syndrome associated with nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain is also a common health outcome of stress (Mosadeghrad, 2014; Seaward, 2018). The causes of this syndrome are changes in the neural stimulation of the organs of the gastrointestinal tract as well as the changes in eating behaviors because of the loss of appetite or, instead, increased hunger. The problem is that many people do not pay attention to these signals of their organism, and they cannot see the connection between their condition and stress. Unfortunately, if stressful factors are not removed, medications cannot have a prolonged relieving effect.
Overall, stress can cause discomfort, pain, and even serious diseases that affect various parts of the human body. Thus, stress can cause pain in muscles and bones, as well as headaches. In many people who suffer from chronic stress, specialists diagnose temporomandibular joint dysfunction associated with pain in jaw joints and bruxism (grinding your teeth at night). What is the connection between these conditions and stress? When a person suffers from untreated stress, muscles and joints cannot relax, and their regular functions become affected because of constant tension. Furthermore, the tension in the muscles of the jaw and forehead often leads to tension headaches because of the contraction of muscles (Seaward, 2018). This type of headaches is rather often related to stress. If stress is chronic, associated changes in the vascular tension can lead to migraines that are rather difficult to be addressed with the help of medications.
‘I began to suffer from migraines five years ago after changing my job and moving to another city. During those three months, I also finished my divorce process. I had no time to think about stress, but it caused migraines,’ notes Andrew, one of my interviewees. A lot of other people I talked to noted similar issues. Even I have had some nasty bowel-related experiences when preparing for my exams back in school. Such effects are a very common experience, as you can see, which only serves to prove that stress is bad for your body.
On the other hand, many of the stress-related issues are psychological: mood problems, depression, and anxiety can also be a direct product of stress. Mood problems can be viewed as short-term reactions to stress when depression is a complex disease that requires medical treatment and monitoring by a professional. If an individual has some of the listed symptoms, it is possible to speak about negative outcomes of stress on his or her psychological state: persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness decreased productivity, and the loss of interest in favorite or usual activities among others (Seaward, 2018). Depression and anxiety are frequent psychological responses of the organism to stressful situations when an individual cannot cope with them effectively.
A very common outcome is sleep disturbances (Landsbergis et al., 2017). The quality of sleep in persons depends on the balanced work of such hormones as epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and melatonin. The release of these hormones is based on a variety of factors: situations experienced during a day, stress, emotions, the caffeine intake, meals, light, and the use of mobile phones (Seaward, 2018). Thus, inappropriate everyday routines and unhealthy habits that are combined with stress at work can lead to sleep disturbances. Still, people often do not pay attention to such details as the light caused by the screens of their smartphones, TV sets, laptops, and tablets at night. Many individuals also do not follow the rule of avoiding watching TV or using smartphones and computers for two hours before going to sleep. However, even good sleep hygiene might not save you from insomnia if you are stressed.
If we look into more extreme outcomes, we will find that significant and prolonged stress can cause ideas of suicide (Mosadeghrad, 2014), as well as provoke violence (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Thoughts of suicide are usually related to situations when individuals experience stress and depression during a long period. Stress is associated with the range of working tasks that seem to be unbearable, overworking, and the lack of rest can be worsened because of problems in the family (Seaward, 2018). As a result, individuals begin to suffer from depression and think about their death as the only way to cope with all the problems they face. If a person speaks about death, it is an extremely important sign to pay attention to and demonstrate support and offer help concerning professionals’ assistance. The American Psychological Association (2013) also notes that the health issues which existed before a stressing event may be aggravated by stress responses. If a person has experienced problems with depression or, say, anger management, stress can be particularly bad for them.
Less harmful outcomes may include a lack of concentration or emotional exhaustion. When individual experiences regular stressful situations at work, his or her ability to concentrate becomes affected because stress influences the brain activities and the speed of reactions. It is possible to observe a kind of a vicious circle when stress at work causes exhaustion and mistakes that can be associated with the lack of concentration which leads to more stress and anxiety. This is an unpleasant outcome since it can be bad for one’s performance, which may cause more stress since the person gets worried about keeping their job, which makes him or her perform worse, which… you get the picture.
The fact that stress can affect attention is also hazardous. Indeed, it is well-established that workers with high levels of stress are more likely to make mistakes and be insufficiently attentive (Landsbergis et al., 2017). In dangerous environments, mistakes can result in incidents and accidents, which can lead to traumas. An example is the increased rate of crashes among workers with prolonged shifts (Landsbergis et al., 2017). The bottom line is that, in most cases, individuals cannot effectively work under pressure of stress, tiredness, and nervousness. As a result, the brain uses a coping mechanism, and a person becomes less attentive or more relaxed without his or her intention. This specific and often uncontrolled state can lead to fatal errors in the workplace, but, unfortunately, managers often do not consider this aspect and make employees accept over hours despite their physical, emotional, and psychological state. To sum up, the psychological effects of stress cause suffering, reduced quality of life, and may even be life-threatening in more ways than one.
As if affecting our body and brain is not enough, stress causes people to engage in a variety of unhealthy behaviors. For instance, unhealthy eating habits like overeating (that’s me), skipping a meal, or eating unhealthy foods are often connected to stress (RAND, 2015). If you are looking for a more dangerous outcome, think about substance abuse (from smoking to alcohol or drugs). These behaviors may be a coping mechanism or, for instance, in the case of fast food, the result of workplace demands: after all, many people do not have the time or resources to obtain healthy foods for every meal while also working themselves to death (Britt & Jex, 2015).
Further, as I have mentioned, stress can result in bad sleeping hygiene, which, technically, is a harmful behavioral pattern (Cooper & Quick, 2017; Mullan, 2014). All these side-effects of stress are not good for one’s health and can cause additional issues or aggravate the rest of the mentioned problems. On the one hand, these behaviors can provide a person with an immediate feeling of relief and satisfaction. On the other hand, referring to a long-term perspective, a person will be dissatisfied with the negative effects of eating fast food or breaking a regular sleep regimen. It is particularly bad for you if you have this nagging perfectionism which tells you that every Big Mac is a failure. As a result, stress will intensify, and it will be fed up by an individual’s wrong choice of coping strategies. Look, another vicious circle!
You knew this was coming. Yes, stress can affect interpersonal relationships, especially in people who tend to get irritable when stressed. Both family and working relationships can be damaged by stress-caused arguments and inappropriate behaviors (for instance, yelling or snapping). Particularly stressful work can intensify these issues; for example, employees with shift work and long hours are more likely to be divorced than their counterparts with more manageable working conditions (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Persons suffering from stress at work can be extremely emotional, feel dissatisfaction, fatigue, anger, and frustration. They can choose to be silent at home or shout at family members, cry or complain. All these reactions are problematic to cope with for both stressed individuals and their close people. Therefore, relationships with spouses, children, parents, and friends can be affected because of stress. Sometimes people also do not realize that their actions or words are the results of their stress and tiredness rather than their bad intention; that is true for both the stressed person and their family. As a result, solving the problem can be difficult; you cannot even identify it after all.
While this outcome is not directly connected to human health, the American Psychological Association (2015) highlights the significance of healthy relationships for one’s psychological health. Among other things, emotional support from a close person can help to reduce stress. The lack of such support and the deterioration of supportive relationships can either cause or aggravate stress. Thus, the damage to one’s relationships is indirectly harmful to one’s health. From this perspective, if family members can recognize stress in their close people, they are also able to help a person overcome it. Also, it is possible to achieve the highest results while creating a positive and relaxing atmosphere at home and encouraging this individual to share his or her concerns, feelings, and fears. When being asked about her support system, Alice has stated, ‘I understand that I am more productive when my family supports me. I honestly cannot work far from home, and I hate business trips that are too stressful for me.’ Norman has added that he likes finding cards prepared by his children in his case when coming to the workplace. Researchers state these details can contribute to decreasing the levels of stress in individuals (Landsbergis et al., 2017; Seaward, 2018). The support of a loving family can do wonders for a stressed individual.
To clarify, I just want to point out that stress does not excuse abuse, especially the abuse that is not verbal. However, aggression may be a sign of stress, particularly when a person is not usually violent but somehow grew to act like that over time. And aggression is a plausible outcome of stress, which just goes to prove that stress can be a huge problem with very serious consequences.
The general adaptation syndrome and the evils of chronic stress
As we have discovered, chronic stress is a special kind of evil, and among other things, its impact on health is worth noting. Do you remember the experiments of Hans Selye? Poor things would be exposed to all sorts of negative physiological factors, including things like hot and freezing environments or being cut. Well, one of the findings of Selye’s research included the general responses of rat’s bodies to all types of stress, which are quite disconcerting. Using science language, their adrenal cortex expanded (apparently, in response to the need to produce a lot of stress hormones, which is the function of the adrenal cortex), but their lymphatic glans shrunk or atrophied completely; white blood cells in their blood also reduced in numbers, and their stomachs and colons started forming ulcerations that would bleed.
All those changes were very slow and barely noticeable until significant damage was done to the animals, and eventually, the rats would die. According to Selye, these similar patterns might reflect a body’s general response to stress (Seaward, 2018). He theorized that, when in stress, an organism is bound to respond to it by overtaxing its various systems, which is why, if the stress is continuous, chronic, those systems may become exhausted. According to the researcher, many organs of the mice he worked with failed because of this exhaustion. He called this tendency the General Adaptation Syndrome because, from his perspective, all the negative outcomes of rat stress were the result of their organisms trying to get used to the situation. The poor rats tried to adapt to constant stress, but their bodies were not meant for such strain.
Now, humans are not rats or mice, and workplaces are typically not similar to a rodent torture chamber (keep it in mind that those experiments took place at the beginning of the twentieth century; it was a different time). However, human bodies do react to stress by overtaxing our systems, and chronic stress is something that we can experience. Also, human body systems, for example, the cardiovascular one, show deterioration as a result of stress. Consequently, Selye’s ideas about the way chronic stress are prone to exhaust bodies may eventually be of interest to humans (Seaward, 2018). This theory can explain at least some of the negative health outcomes that stressed people’s experience while also providing a very sad illustration of what happens when stress overwhelms a body. Even if it is a rat body, you cannot tell me that the story about the shrinkage or atrophy of various organs is not alarming. Similar ideas and analogies were also discussed in the interviews conducted for my project.
‘My body tries to adapt to any regime I choose to follow, but when deadlines are addressed and projects are completed, I feel being sick and I need one or two days of leave. I am wrung-out by then, and I understand what “unable to can” means.’
‘Sometimes I feel like being in a hamster wheel that I cannot escape from because of that work I have to do every day, you know,’ adds one of the participants. ‘I feel drained, like my body does not have an ounce of strength left. I can’t force myself to get out of bed.’
Yes, humans know what it’s like to overtax their bodily systems even if they do not put it like that. We have something to learn from rat experiments.
A note on differing effects
It is also noteworthy that the effects of stress depend on its nature. Acute stress, which is your response to an individual stressful event, is more likely to cause bowel problems like diarrhea or constipation rather than a major issue like angina. On the other hand, chronic stress is much more traumatic and can result in the most negative outcomes like heart attacks, suicide, or violence (American Psychological Association, n.d.). In any case, stress can have a direct negative impact on a person’s health.
It should also be mentioned that the outcomes of stress are mediated by multiple factors (keep in mind our stress model). For example, Landsbergis et al. (2017) report that one’s personality can significantly affect health outcomes of stress with more resilient people being less likely to experience significant adverse effects. Furthermore, the presence of social support is a particularly important dimension to consider; people who have the emotional support of others can be able to cope with stress more effectively. Also, the knowledge and use of healthy coping strategies is a factor. However, the potential of mediating factors cannot overshadow the fact that stress can be very bad for our health. As a result, even though some people might cope better than others, the health outcomes of stress should be viewed as the most significant concern for employers.
The Bottom Line (Companies and Stress)
Given the horrendous effects of stress on human health, it is apparent that managers must at the very least try to prevent occupational stress and alleviate their outcomes. After all, a manager needs to guarantee the physical safety of an employee and make sure that the job does not damage their health; the prevention of stress is just a way to secure the psychological safety in the workplace. However, there is another reason for managers to want to have healthy, happy employees: the bottom line.
‘From my experience, a stressed worker is never a good worker. They are not very focused; they can be irritable, or there is some other significant problem which prevents them from working well. It is bad from every perspective: they make mistakes, they endanger themselves and others, they are not very good with customers… They are also not very motivated.’
This manager was correct in every instance. He pointed out the different reactions that people have when stressed while also assuming that neither of them is good for performance. For instance, in the United States, roughly equal numbers of people report either feeling angry or anxious as a result of stress; also, many become depressed, sad, or overwhelmed, as well as fatigued, because of it. Moreover, about one-third of Americans begin to lose motivation when stressed (American Psychological Association, 2015). And all the mentioned reactions are not particularly conducive to good performance. Indeed, an angry employee may cause conflicts, which are not good for productivity. A fatigued or depressed worker will not be able to do their best. A demotivated employee is not going to be particularly helpful. As a result, it is not surprising that modern research indicates rather unambiguously that stress is bad for employee performance (Mosadeghrad, 2014). The rest of the company-related outcomes are similarly unattractive.
Indeed, apart from decreased performance, stressed employees are more likely to experience burnout and less likely to be committed to the organization which triggers such stress in them. They tend to have lower morale and job satisfaction as well (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Eventually, stressed employees have a greater risk of skipping or changing jobs. If I use business terms for the situation, I can say that stress increases absenteeism and employee turnover (Mosadeghrad, 2014). Furthermore, stress promotes the so-called presenteeism: the situation in which a person is present at work but remains withdrawn from it (Britt & Jex, 2015). For instance, employees can daydream, play games, or otherwise engage in some off-task behaviors, which eventually results in very little work being done.
Finally, there are also counterproductive work behaviors that are evidenced to increase as a result of stress. They are similar to presenteeism and can intersect with it because they are also off-task, but they are different in that they are likely to disrupt the working process. Thus, chatting with another employee is off-task and can be classified as presenteeism, but if the action becomes disruptive, it may become counterproductive. For instance, when the chatting distracts an employee who is in the middle of performing an important and urgent task or involves talking instead of working, this type of behavior is counterproductive. Other examples of counterproductive behavior can be more problematic like, for instance, sabotaging a task, damaging a piece of machinery, or engaging in abuse and harassment. In other words, counterproductive behavior is an especially serious outcome of stress.
Overall, the common examples of the negative effects of stress on employees are very detrimental to a company. They explain why employee performance decreases as a result of stress and hold some additional risks, especially in the case of extreme counterproductive behaviors. So, in the end, the bottom-line argument cannot be denied: stressed employees are not good for business, and to be effective, a company needs to find a way to reduce stress.
Positive Effects of Stress?
Stress is not a toxic condition; it is not the type of health state that requires a health intervention in every case and situation. As pointed out by the American Psychological Association (2013), “stress can be a positive force, motivating you to perform well” (para. 1). This idea is explored in detail in business settings by Britt and Jex (2015) in their book Thriving under Stress. The book is focused on the way occupational stress can become a motivational force. The authors suggest that, by managing stress effectively, a person can “harness” and use it for job achievements. The book also recognizes the fact that managers are an important force that can help to educate employees on the topic of stress.
However, Britt and Jex (2015) do not attempt to ignore the negative impact of stress on people. The costs of stress are among the first things that are covered by the book. Similarly, when considering stress management approaches, they specifically review the methods that can help to recover from anxiety. In general, their position is that high levels of stress are unlikely to stimulate people to become more motivated. Thus, the authors do not contradict the idea that stress is problematic directly: they recognize its negative outcomes and aim their book at assisting employees to reduce stress.
Still, Britt and Jex (2015) suggest that viewing stress as an “inherently toxic experience that should be avoided at all costs” is not likely to bring positive results (p. xi). This approach demonizes stress and promotes the idea that people should try to avoid or eliminate stress from their lives, which is not feasible. Instead, the authors demonstrate that stress can be symptomatic of a challenging environment, which can foster development. Additionally, they also suggest that certain negative outcomes of stress, in particular, health-related strains like irritability can have a silver lining since they signal the presence of stress in one’s life. As long as they are not debilitating, they can motivate us to make some changes which would be better for our health. For instance, after noticing some stress-related outcomes, one can choose to work less or take a vacation. In general, Britt and Jex (2015) support a positive approach to stress, which, as they prove, has its merits.
‘I consider my work as challenging and associated with both emotional and physical pressure and stress. But I got used to stressing in my life as a companion of all my activities, and I think I can achieve better results when working under stress,’ one of the interviewees explains his position regarding stress and motivation.
In this regard, it is important to remember that stress is mostly inevitable. The modern maritime business exists in an unstable, complex environment. Modern people experience unprecedented competition and are required to balance their work and life, both of which can be stressful. Worldwide or local crises can have an impact, resulting in unpredictable and harmful occurrences. Everyday events can be stressful too; non-work-related stressors are always going to be present. The need to develop is associated with changes and challenges, both of which tend to produce stress. Consequently, a more positive (or well-balanced) approach to stress may have its merits.
Stress and Eustress
In connection with the positive perspective on stress, it may be helpful to mention the term “eustress,” which means “good, positive stress.” For instance, when you undertake a difficult task that you find interesting and challenging or when you participate in a fun competition, you may experience eustress. It can also be the result of perceiving any stressor in an optimistic light. This beneficial stress results in some positive feelings like hope, vigor, enthusiasm, and so on. Additionally, eustress can boost performance and assist in the acquisition of crucial skills, including those related to stress management.
When discussing eustress in workplace environments, Britt and Jex (2015) use the example of positive stress associated with emotional labor, specifically the demand to produce particular emotions as a part of job responsibilities. A simple illustration is the need to deliver your service with a smile, especially when you do not feel like smiling. This situation can be stressful since it requires some level of acting. There is evidence indicating that employees who attempt to feel the emotions that they are supposed to project can receive beneficial outcomes. For instance, by recalling a memory that makes them happy, they smile, improve productivity, and reduce stress. Also, this type of acting is more convincing, and it receives a better response from people who it is directed at. Thus, there are specific varieties of stress that are likely to have little to no negative effects.
‘It is almost impossible to avoid stress in modern life, and sometimes, I just can’t stay positive and enthusiastic at work. My secret weapon against stress is thoughts about my children and funny moments that occurred this morning,’ shares Nina her feelings. However, solutions are something we will discuss in the next section; for the time being, just think if viewing stress in a positive light is possible for you. Perhaps, it is not a notion that is completely detached from reality.
Stress in the Maritime Industry: What Do We Know?
One of the reasons why I started this book, as well as the study of occupational stress in the maritime industry in general, is that there are not that many sources dedicated to this topic. There are occasional articles and some books that consider it, but most often, they are either dedicated to something different and merely mention stress or review a specific aspect of the maritime industry. In this chapter, I want to present you with the most recent research on the maritime industry so that you can make conclusions about the importance of this topic and its coverage.
The Importance of the Maritime Industry
Before I proceed to explain the significance of a stress-free workforce for the maritime industry, a few words should be said about the industry itself. The maritime industry incorporates multiple aspects, including seafaring, shipbuilding and repair, fishing, commercial diving, aquaculture, and so on (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 2017). However, it is particularly important because the majority of the world trade (up to 90%) is supported specifically by the maritime industry (Grant & Grant, 2015). This industry is crucial for islands like Singapore because of their easy access to the sea and the limited amount of land and resources (CIA, 2018; Grant & Grant, 2015). Singapore employed the industry’s benefits to successfully develop strong trading links with several other countries, which has resulted in the prosperity of the city-state (CIA, 2018).
In other words, you could argue that Singapore is a maritime-dependent state because its trade relations are mostly based on the development of this sector. Maritime enterprises located in the city-state contribute to the progress of the country’s economy, and the focus on this industry allows for determining trends in its development. Globalization has significantly influenced modern approaches to developing the maritime sector of each nation, not only Singapore. However, the example of this country can demonstrate what success can be achieved in the field. In 2009, the vision regarding the further development of the nation was introduced, and the goal was formulated as becoming a globally recognizable maritime state. It was determined that, by 2025, Singapore would have the most developed maritime sector based on the implementation of advanced technologies and innovations (Myles, 2017). Currently, it is possible to observe the dynamic growth of the maritime industry in this city-state, and it seems that the vision and goal for the development of the sector will be addressed.
‘I have been working in the maritime industry of Singapore for twelve years, and I remember how it began to alter in 2009. There were dynamic changes to address the demand for a more innovative and modernized sector that could assist in achieving the state’s economic goals,’ notes one of the interviewees from Singapore who participated in my project.
For the US, the maritime industry is also extremely significant to the point where it has affected almost every state, employing over 400,000 people (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 2017). Thus, the number of people working as seafarers, mariners, and employees at shipyards as well as in shipping companies is considerable. In addition to creating jobs for thousands of citizens, in the US, the maritime industry is the key source of trade and commercial relations, national security, and economic growth. Waterborne commerce is the main contributor to the national economy concerning the maritime sector of the United States (Myles, 2017). Therefore, much attention is paid to making the US maritime industry, the shipbuilding sector, the fleet, and other related organizations sustainable and profitable.
The respondents participating in the interviews that I conducted on the topic of occupational stress have stated that they understood the importance of their industry for the economies of their countries. However, this industry should still be viewed as one of the most problematic and challenging ones in terms of conditions and environments in which employees are expected to work. I have had a chance to interview seafarers, technicians, managers, and many other workers, and while a lot of them mentioned generic stressors like deadlines or quality control, many of them also had comments about the way the specifics of the maritime industry affected stress levels in their lives. For instance, issues like safety concerns, which are especially important in, say, seafaring or shipbuilding, were a common topic. I will discuss these problems in detail below, but I will point out this: a major industry that remains a backbone for the economy of many countries could use stress-free workers.
To sum it up, the maritime industry provides workplaces, seafood, the means of transportation, and many other benefits which make it one of the primary pillars of the modern economy in multiple countries. These aspects accentuate the necessity of researching and discussing working conditions and employees’ attitudes in this sector with a focus on the problem of stress. As we have discovered together, stress is bad for a worker, bad for an employer, and bad for the customer. To help our maritime industry to prosper, we need to find ways of eliminating the negative stress that is commonly experienced within it.
Seafarers and Stress
As I have mentioned, it is relatively difficult to find research that would focus on stress in the maritime industry, but I have to admit that this topic is rather huge. A lot of researchers choose to consider particular elements of the maritime industry instead so that they can hope to cover them more or less extensively. One of the aspects of the maritime industry stress that seems to receive at least some coverage is stress in seafarers. As highlighted by one of the researchers, Slišković (2017), the stress in seafarers is by no means studied exhaustively. The author points out that most of the studies on the topic produce rather weak evidence, especially since they typically consist of surveys, which are carried out ashore. Still, I was able to pinpoint at least some research on this topic, and I think that it may be useful for my readers.
The attention to this specific group of workers can be easily explained: seafarers are a very important part of the industry’s workforce, and they are likely to be subjected to particularly stressful circumstances. As reported by Yuen, Loh, Zhou, and Wong (2018), seafarers tend to have very high turnover rates, which, given their general shortage, is a significant issue for the industry. According to the authors, this problem is not country-specific; it is something that the maritime employers all over the world have to cope with. It is noteworthy, of course, that high turnover rates may be the result of excessive stress. Moreover, the stress in seafarers can be especially problematic because their job is often associated with danger; incidents and accidents at sea are not an insignificant or rare issue, and we know that stress can make a person absent-minded and accident-prone. Therefore, the attention of modern stress researchers to this group of maritime workers is understandable.
Chung, Lee, and Lee (2017), Håvold (2015), Slišković (2017), Yuen et al. (2018), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017) provide a general analysis of the stressors that are present in a working environment of a seafarer. They include the monotonous nature of their work and long and irregular working hours, which are common for the position. In response to these factors, seafarers often report fatigue and sleepiness, and the lack of rest or insufficient rest is another major factor for stress. It is noteworthy that sleepiness (just like stress) is also associated with increased safety problems; all of these factors are quite concerning.
The fact that seafarers are confined to one restricted location is also stress-inducing. Additionally, afloat, a physical environment is problematic: it often involves the noise produced by the ship and sea, which may make resting and sleeping difficult, and the movement can potentially cause sickness. Exposure to different climates, especially changing ones, maybe physically uncomfortable. Work-life boundary stress is also common for this group of workers: since the job requires being away from relatives for longer than usual, family time is often very short for seafarers.
‘On the sea, I cannot feel relaxed. When a sail lasts more than four or five weeks, I grow so tense – but I can’t show it either, I don’t think. I chose this job after all,’ says one of the interviewed seafarers. Similar ideas were also presented by other interviewees: ‘I am sure that people in our profession should or even must be rather ascetic to cope with challenges and limitations we face every day,’ one of the respondents shares his opinion.
Slišković (2017) and Yuen et al. (2018) also point out that an important aspect of a seafarer’s stress consists of their company’s (and management’s) attitude toward this group of workers. The authors note that seafarers often report being treated like “slaves,” are driven to work excessively, and are not sufficiently respected despite the significance of their work. If living and working conditions, as well as food, are low-quality, this problem can also be a source of stress, and it indicates disrespect toward seafarers too. As I have mentioned, insufficient reward systems are stress-inducing, and disrespect is one of the worst ways of “rewarding” a worker. Naturally, these studies do not imply that all the maritime industry mistreats its seafarers. But while Slišković (2017) focuses on specifically Croatia, Yuen et al. (2018) discuss the global maritime industry, which implies that this problem is probably not symptomatic of only one country.
Naturally, general stressors like conflicts with crew members or the fact of responsibility are also applicable to seafarers. However, Håvold (2015) specifically focuses on the fact that seafaring is a dangerous profession. Tough weather conditions can endanger a vessel and, in certain cases, may limit visibility, which is especially important for maneuvering. Complex machinery can fail, resulting in significant issues and, potentially, incidents, or accidents. Human failure and errors can endanger both the erring person and their crew. The responsibility of a seafarer is huge and can be incredibly distressing; lives might very well be on the line. As a result, Håvold (2015) notes, safety measures, and attitudes are especially important for reducing stress-inducing factors of the seafaring profession.
Slišković (2017) concludes by stating that the stressors experienced by seafarers are extremely numerous, which makes it difficult to cover all of them. However, this information can be used to explain high turnover rates and find some of the common mistakes of management in handling seafarers. Overall, the understanding of the topic would be beneficial for finding specific solutions to the stress experienced by these specialists in the maritime industry.
Some country-specific information about the maritime industry can be found in governmental sources. The interest of the government in occupational stress in the maritime industry is explained by its potential dangers for human health, as well as the increase in incidents and accidents that it tends to cause. As a result, governments fund research and disseminate information that can be of use to the people studying the topic. An example is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017) of the US. This governmental body presents its collection of research and summaries on the maritime industry, focusing on the issues that endanger the safety of its workers, which is why it predominantly focuses on hazards. Given that hazardous working conditions are among the reasons for stress, I will summarize them here.
As pointed out by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017), the maritime industry can be rather diverse. We have considered the topic of seafarers, but, for example, divers are at a particularly high risk of drowning, as well as different complications related to the respiratory system, and even hypothermia. On the other hand, longshoring workers are not likely to go diving, but they are often required to work with heavy loads (including carrying them around), which increases the possibility of being injured by objects with large weight. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017) discusses the chemical hazards present in the maritime industry, which, among other things, incorporate those related to beryllium, phosphine, styrene, and other dangerous substances. The environmental risks include the weather-induced conditions (heat and cold stress), as well as UV radiation. The respiratory system of the maritime workers seems to be particularly endangered, especially in the people who are confined to small spaces and work with welding and manganese and aerosols; occupational asthma is not uncommon for this type of work. Naturally, there are multiple injury hazards from falls to traumas to vessel disasters; decompression sickness, electrical safety, and machine safety are also important concerns.
Unfortunately, when discussing stress, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017) does not focus on the maritime industry individually; rather, it presents the general research, which is dedicated to stress in all industries. However, the agency acknowledges the fact that the maritime industry has some specific concerns, which are listed for seafarers above (the family time concerns are mentioned specifically, as well as the problem of being confined to one location). The agency is also interested in workplace violence and develops training resources for its prevention. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (2018) is similar in that stress is barely mentioned by it, and it is also predominantly focused on the safety and security measures. To me, it is clear that the example of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (2018) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health demonstrates that the topic of stress in the maritime industry could receive some more extensive coverage with attention paid to its unique features. In other words, more research is needed.
A Summary and Some Concluding Thoughts
So, we made it through the first section together. I think that it would be a good idea to recap everything that we have studied and explained how we are going to use that in the next section.
First of all, we discussed what stress is. To put it simply, stress is the reaction that human experience when they find it difficult to cope with something, and occupational stress is the stress that occurs at the workplace. The causes of stress can be nearly infinite; after all, people react differently to different conditions. However, when we are talking about occupational stress, it may be helpful to consider external and internal stressors. External ones happen outside of your workplace, although they still result in stressed-out employees. Internal ones are the stressors that occur at work: huge workloads, uncomfortable working environment, tense relationships with colleagues, bad management, that sort of thing.
The effects of stress are also important. As I have shown to you, they can be rather severe. In my view, the most important ones are the outcomes that harm us: the physiological and psychological effects from minor snappiness to depression, from diarrhea to heart conditions. The issues with attention and concentration can also be potentially very harmful, especially if your work requires attentiveness to keep people safe. However, for the more cynical of us, it can be pointed out that businesses do not benefit from employees (or managers) being stressed out: absenteeism, presenteeism, low motivation, and morale are not good for the bottom line.
Stress can be bad, yes, that is the general point of this book; that is why this book was written. However, I do want to remind you that keeping a more positive perspective on stress can help. After all, you cannot eliminate stress. Still, you can learn to discern it, which is the first step to controlling it. That is the general idea of this section anyway; hope it works.
In addition to that, we considered the maritime industry and stress within it. My general aim was to convince you that the maritime industry is immensely important and, at the same time, quite stress-prone, which is why yes, it is necessary to consider the two topics together. I wish I could present you with more information about industry-specific stress, but alas, it is not very common. That said, the existing knowledge is enough to suggest that at the very least, the individual working conditions (especially those related to safety) of various environments can make them stress-prone, which generally proves the idea that stress in the maritime industry needs to be studied. However, it is also apparent that stress remains stress in any environment; the findings of the studies that consider stress, in general, should commonly apply to the maritime industry. As a result, using both industry-specific and general research, I was able to amass quite a bit of evidence on how to solve stress among maritime workers. You will find them in the next section.
Solutions to Stress
So, you have determined that you have stress. You know that those migraines intensify when you worry about your next deadline, and you can tell that even the idea of talking to your boss gives you shivers. What are you going to do now? Probably, you will try to find some sort of solution; preferably, one that does not involve resigning since you need your job.
Conversely, you are not actually that stressed, but you are an employer, and you realize that quite a few of the stressors we discussed in the previous section can be found at your workplace. You want happy, healthy, and productive employees, and you look for ways of reducing stress as a result. How do you go about eradicating stress at your workplace?
Well, to be fair, attempting to eradicate stress once and for all is rather futile. People are going to experience stress at work, there is no real way around it. However, since it can be a major problem that has multiple negative consequences, it makes sense to introduce different precautions, especially in high-stress jobs like those that are often found in the maritime industry. This section will summarize the modern research on the topic of combating stress that is either applied to or can be applied to workplace settings and the maritime industry. A lot of the solutions below refer to something that a manager can do because managers have greater control over workplace factors and also more resources and means of altering them. However, even if you are not a manager, you may find these solutions interesting or helpful in managing stress and finding a job that would not be too stressful for you. Check out, for example, the general guidelines; they are meant to be widely applicable.
Now that I have discussed what stress is, it should be clear that the solutions will not be simple; for a problem that is as complex as stress, they cannot be. There is a wide variety of stressors, which we cannot even finish enumerating, and trying to control all of them is problematic. Also, as pointed out by Landsbergis et al. (2017), there exists more research on the topic of stress itself than interventions meant for solving it. It means that approaches to handling workplace stress may differ, and we might not be able to tell which one is better for the time being – we need more research first.
That said, it is possible to come up with a general strategy for resolving stress that can be summarized in a few statements. It is generally acknowledged that stress can be both prevented and mitigated, and there is a growing body of evidence and experience of handling stress by the managers. To systematize this information and give it structure, Landsbergis et al. (2017) and Slišković (2017) use the model of primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention and apply it to their discussion of occupational stress solutions. This model is commonly used in public health, especially when solutions to healthcare problems are developed, and it fits the problem of occupational stress well enough.
From this perspective, primary prevention measures would be aimed at reducing risk factors, which, as you have already discovered, consist of potential stressors. Secondary interventions intend to boost the ability of workers to cope with stress; they do not target stressors or stress itself but rather focus on the personal element of the Michigan model, as well as the coping mechanisms. Tertiary prevention is concerned with assisting the workers who are already stressed and, possibly, experience the damaging effects of stress. All three groups of solutions should be present in your plan of managing stress in your organization. Below, I will present a general overview of all the three groups.
‘We have a good understanding of what causes stress,’ stated Steve, one of my interviewees. ‘For instance, we recognize that overworking employees is not an option, and we have carried out a pretty successful experiment of introducing better vacation options.’
For primary prevention approaches to be devised, the people responsible for them need to study stress and understand what causes it. From my interviews, it appears that both managers and employees have at least some idea of how stress works. It makes sense; after all, most of them (if not all) have experienced it first-hand or have had other people describe their experiences for them. That said, it is important to consider the factors that are shown to be stressors by the research on the topic because people have different reactions to stressors. To put it simply, it will do us little good to base our interventions on the reactions of a particularly resilient person; rather, we should investigate some literature on the topic and then make conclusions as to how this information can be applied to our workplace. However, this fact does not mean that it is a good idea to ignore the personal accounts of employees; if employees report stress-inducing issues, they need to be investigated.
Thus, the first step towards devising a primary prevention intervention is research, which would contribute to the identification of stressors at a particular workplace. Then, research should be used to identify evidence-based solutions to the problem. This step can be especially difficult if the research on the topic is lacking, which is why alternative sources of solutions can also be considered. They include brainstorming, consulting specialists in the field, and communicating with employees, who can also provide insightful ideas on managing stressors.
‘Our solution is experimental. You will not find it in literature in its final form, although it is based on the general recommendation to provide employees with sufficient opportunities for rest,’ Steve continues. ‘However, there are so many details on how to manage your vacation policies that we mostly had to improvise.’
While it may be daunting to move in the dark, improvisation is not a bad thing. In fact, according to Steve, it can be beneficial. After all, the solution of his company ended up being tailored to the needs of the company, carefully balancing the employees’ need for rest and the company’s need to make profits. That is another important part of the plan for introducing stress prevention strategies: they need to take into account the company’s specifics, especially its resources.
‘See, vacation policies, especially the ones that incorporate paid days off, are expensive. I would love to say that our employees are more important to us, but actually, we did have to juggle it all a bit, to come to a compromise. A smaller company would probably have even more difficulties.’
After the decision on the intervention is made, it needs to be tested (implemented for a short period while being monitored), improved is necessary, and eventually implemented for good or discarded depending on its usefulness. Also, one needs to introduce the means of monitoring the outcomes. Think of the ways you can measure stress or its consequences, and you have yourself the criteria that will tell you if your intervention is effective.
‘We would not be allowed to keep an expensive policy that does not work,’ Steve admits. ‘We had to show that it worked, and we did: after its introduction, the absence and turnover rates in my department fell, so I consider it a success.’
Steve uses a specific example (vacation policies), but, naturally, it is not the only approach to reducing stress. Take a look at the list of stressors in the previous section, and you will see that there are multiple problems to be considered. In the following chapters, I will present the particular solutions that can currently be found in the literature on stress. However, keep it in mind that thinking outside of the box and finding customized solutions to stressors at your workplace can work as well – just make sure to research and test them first.
Secondary stress prevention methods can be simply defined as ways of coping with stress. The secondary level of prevention differs from the primary one in its focus: while the latter considers stressors, which is the first element of the Michigan stress model, the former is concerned with the second and third elements: the person who experiences stress and their coping methods. Since not every stressor can be removed, it is important to improve the resilience of oneself and one’s employees. For instance, the stressor of leaving one’s family on the shore is unavoidable for seafarers, but it can be mitigated by finding the means of contacting the family whenever possible. Similarly, an individual can manage his or her coping strategies by choosing the ones that are the least harmful and most enjoyable. Examples that I have encountered in my interviews included music, jogging, walking, napping, yoga, and so on. One of the interviewees confessed to using Candy Crush because it is not very “mentally taxing.”
‘What is my favorite method of coping with stress? Boxing, I guess. It is relaxing for me,’ reported one of my interviewees, and I have to admit that it is an awesome option (sports are good for you) which makes a lot of sense. Do you not want to punch something sometimes, especially when you are stressed? Yes, boxing as a stress-reducing technique makes perfect sense to me.
An interesting thing about secondary prevention is that it can be managed on a personal or group level. For example, a few interviewees told me that they received some sort of stress-coping training at their workplace, but they also made some research on their own, thus trying out both levels.
‘Our manager trained us on how to cope with stress in the workplace. Honestly, the offered methods are good, but I mostly use them when resolving problematic situations at home rather than at work,’ states one of the interviewees. If I can have a stress-free home as a result of those methods, it is a win in my book. And I do feel more productive when I know that everything is well at home.’
For the group level, interventions should follow the same structure as the one described above for primary prevention methods. In particular, there should be a research stage, a testing stage, and the means of monitoring the progress. At the individual level, a person works to prevent stress on one’s own, which is why the same formal structure is not usually followed, but its elements are often preserved. For instance, if you are reading this book to learn about stress and its management for yourself, you are at the first stage, research. If you find a strategy that suits your needs, you will test it, and most likely, you will determine its success or failure using certain criteria (for instance, how much better it makes you feel). This approach is very effective, so it may be a good idea to consciously apply it to your individual-level secondary prevention methods, that is, to find the best ways of coping with stress.
Using regular English, tertiary stress prevention consists of recovering from stress or helping employees to recover. Keep it in mind that being stressed or having your employees stressed is not a failure; stress is a common human reaction, and it is bound to happen once in a while. However, being stressed is not good for your health as we have discovered, which means that it is necessary to follow some techniques of recovery.
To return to the Michigan model, this type of prevention often focuses on the consequences of stress. For instance, training a company’s managers to recognize the signs of stress or depression would be a tertiary stress prevention intervention. This type of prevention focuses on consequences because it is aimed at reducing and controlling them. Yes, it is uncommon for us to use the word “prevention” when something has already occurred, but this medical term can be logical: even if you are not preventing stress, you are preventing further damage caused by it during this stage of prevention.
Not many of my interviewees described their workplace as having tertiary prevention methods, but in general, even things like days off can work. In this respect, quite a several people told me that their bosses were quite understanding when they learned about stressed-out employees.
‘It’s not a policy,’ told me one of the HR managers I interviewed, ‘but we do take into account the emotional state of our employees. That’s why we have a system of paid and unpaid days off and leaves; you can use them when you’re stressed, and if I see that my employee is stressed, sure, I’ll encourage them to get some rest.’
Due to the severity of the potential consequences of stress, it is especially important to have the means of tertiary stress prevention in any organization. It is essential to have the means of monitoring employees for signs of stress, and it is necessary to introduce various support methods. Again, the introduction of specific interventions should involve research and testing, but given that the outcomes of stress are multiple, I will not attempt to present all the possible examples of tertiary prevention here. In future chapters, we will consider the ones that are mentioned in the literature.
Why did I bother with these unfamiliar medical terms and an additional classification? Well, aside from the fact that medical terms are very applicable to stress because of its effects on human health, this classification exists to help to connect the solutions to stress to its components. Given the fact that interventions need to work, we must understand how they work, research the issues that they target, and employ evidence-based solutions. Our interventions are only going to be successful if we understand why they are required, and I think that the three prevention levels are good at explaining why and how interventions should be developed. Additionally, the model covers almost all possible interventions, and it is simple. I did promise you a simple, general guideline for managing stress. Now, we will move on to more specific solutions.
Who Should Bother?
Slišković (2017) notes that there are two main approaches to handling stress, which is connected to different perspectives on the problem. One of them implies that stress is a problem of an employee, a personal problem that should be resolved personally. As we have discovered, one can say that there is some merit to the idea: a person, as well as personal coping mechanisms, are important for stress management. Also, individual characteristics do affect the way people experience or handle stress. For instance, the fact that deadlines cause me significant anxiety is my problem; my employer would never be able to resolve this issue. Also, I am more likely to know how to handle myself when I am stressed by a deadline. In general, people tend to know what kind of stress coping techniques is especially effective for them (although some of those can be harmful). Moreover, it is often impossible to eliminate stress at work, which means that personal ability to cope is a particularly helpful asset. Although, admittedly, it is not always the case.
‘My colleagues think that I am stress-free because I try to look self-confident, but I just drag myself through,’ responds one of the interviewees to my question about individual stress-coping techniques. ‘I don’t think I know a way to deal with it. I tried jogging, but it’s not for me, and it takes too much time, and I am not going for yoga or something like that.’
Yes, even when you know yourself, you might not figure out a stress-coping strategy that would help.
It should also be noted that the individualistic perspective can lead to important improvements and advancement in the studies of personal stress management strategies. One might also argue that it can guide certain organization-level interventions, for example, those that empower people to manage stress on their own. Technically, that is not true; after all, if an organization believes that stress is the problem of a stressed person, most likely, its executives are not particularly interested in helping. Still, the idea of viewing stress from the perspective of an individual who experiences the issue is not without merit – the Michigan model is there to confirm this approach. However, it is also not without flaws.
First, as we have discussed, most workplace stressors are not within an employee’s control; in fact, many of them are directly controlled by an employer. Take, for instance, shift works. While an employee might be able to choose between different types of shift work, it is an employer who determines what options an employee has, and there are bad and good ways of designing shifts. The fact that employers may have greater power over many stressors implies that they can help, which is always a nice opportunity. Making people’s lives better can be a reward.
Moreover, there are some stressors, which an employer must manage. For instance, bad working conditions, especially concerning safety, can result in legal issues. Similarly, not managing discrimination in the workplace can cause lawsuits and for a good reason. After all, an employer is obliged to ensure safe working conditions for his or her employees. From this perspective, it can also be noted that employers may be responsible for stress, especially if working conditions that they provide are inappropriate. If an employer causes a problem, it is only his or her right and responsibility to resolve it.
‘For me, stress-free working environments mean comfortable settings that do not prevent me from completing my tasks. Sometimes, noise, heat, and humidity in the workplace can cause significant stress for me,’ states Steve. One may agree that employers can contribute to improving the situation and make all possible to address different types of stressors. Employers should pay attention to removing these and similar stressing triggers to increase employees’ satisfaction and productivity.
Additionally, there are things that employers do not have to do but would benefit from doing. The previous section shows extensively that a stressed worker is not unlikely to experience and cause problems, and few arguments would work better to prove that stress is not exclusively a personal problem. It is everybody’s problem, especially in a high-risk environment because it tends to produce stress and make it very dangerous. By leaving employees to deal with the issue on their own, employers leave it to chance. Maybe workers will indeed resolve their problems, but they might also fail. In contrast, addressing the issue of stress increases the possibility of employing stress-free workers who make fewer mistakes and are more effective, healthier, happier, and more satisfied with their workplace.
‘If our managers implement changes to improve our working conditions, I will support them,’ says one of the respondents. ‘Yes, I need more comfortable settings to feel calm and less anxious at work, and I think that it would show that my boss cares about my productivity.’
The bottom-line consequences of an important stress-related decision might also be complemented by reputational boosts. Slišković (2017) suggests that the latter argument is becoming more critical nowadays, and it works both ways. While efforts to reduce stress in the workplace are likely to make a company a more desirable employer, the lack of concern for employees’ health is problematic and can be damaging for a brand. Companies do have to compete for their workforce or customers; solutions that reduce stress are a good addition to your PR program.
‘I do my best to satisfy the needs of my employees,’ notes one of the managers I have interviewed, ‘because I think that an unmanageable or, worse, the unsafe working environment is an insult to them. Would you rather work for somebody who cares about employees or somebody fine with sticking them in some sort of rundown basement? I would rather go with a good employer, so I try to be a good employer myself.’
While the causes of stress prove that stress is not a personal problem, it is necessary to remember that addressing the causes of stress is only one of the ways of managing stress. Secondary and tertiary preventions are just as important, and they can also involve an employer’s efforts. For instance, introducing stress coping classes for employees would constitute secondary prevention performed by an employer, and various support programs for stressed employees would constitute tertiary prevention methods. The benefits for employers are the same: they avoid appearing uncaring for their employees and help them remain stress-free, satisfied, and productive.
According to Slišković (2017), modern managers experience public pressure to address stress in their employees, and my interviews mostly support the idea. Accordingly, the approach to stress as a personal concern does not seem to be feasible these days. The fact that there is a personal aspect of stress needs to be acknowledged, but in general, a more comprehensive approach is required. Employers should actively engage in providing primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention interventions and enjoy the benefits of taking into account the needs of employees. Employers should employ their greater resources and opportunities to improve the working conditions of their employees by reducing their stress. Finally, employers should bother at least as much or more than employees.
In my workplace, safety is valued above all else, and from what I have gathered through my interviews, it is a common approach. Most of my interviewees mentioned safety in one way or the other. While some of them criticized their companies’ approaches to ensuring safety, it appears that none of them could claim that there were no attempts to make their workplace safer.
‘Of course, my workplace is not the safest place in the world,’ says one of the interviewees who works in docks. ‘There are evident risks, and safety rules are not there just for show. And to be honest, my work remains hazardous and stressful despite all applied measures. I prefer not to think about possible threats, though, but focus on instructions; that’s something I can control at least.’
A safe working environment is extremely important for a person’s well-being, especially when it is reasonable to assume that this environment is hazardous. It is also the type of stressor that a company has to take into account. It is common for governmental bodies to monitor employers and motivate them (through incentives or sanctions) to guarantee the safety of their employees (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2014). As a result, aside from obvious risks of harm to people, equipment, reputation, and the bottom line, unsafe working environments are likely to cause legal problems.
While it is probably not the primary concern of the employers who try to ensure the well-being of their employees, safety is directly connected to stress, which is why I will consider it in this section. Indeed, safety concerns can cause stress, especially in a high-risk environment or position. For example, if persons have to work with hazardous substances or in a situation that can potentially endanger their limbs, they are likely to worry about the hazards and, as a result, can become stressed. Moreover, those people who are not directly endangered during their work but responsible for ensuring the safety of others can also be significantly distressed by their responsibility. In general, humans tend to worry about another’s health, which is also stress-inducing. That is why ensuring safety is going to be beneficial from multiple perspectives.
Stress can also result in increased dangers. As it was mentioned, stressed people are not unlikely to get overwhelmed and distracted, which can hurt their performance and result in mistakes. In turn, if a position requires attention, important decision-making, or is somehow connected to safety concerns, the costs of mistakes can be too high. High-risk jobs are dangerous for stressed people and everyone around them, which is another proof of the importance of workplace safety.
According to recent research, the problem of safety-related stress can be resolved. Indeed, by guaranteeing the physical safety of employees, a company can improve their emotional, as well as physical, well-being (Kula & Sahin, 2015). The employees who know that their employer makes reasonable efforts to protect their safety are less likely to experience stress than those who do not believe that they are adequately protected. Thus, the safety-related policies do not just assist in avoiding incidents and ensuring the safety of employees; they are also appropriate to reduce stress, and this rule applies to any environment and business.
Safety in the Maritime Industry
Since this book focuses on the maritime industry, it makes sense to reconsider its dangers. In this context, safety-related stressors depend on specific job positions, some of which are especially hazardous. For instance, terminal handlers in docks face rather high risks of injuries, which can range from sprains and falls to cuts, crushing injuries, and even amputations. Also, like many other physical labor jobs, this occupation can result in the diseases of the musculoskeletal system (those related to muscles and bones like back pain or arthritis) (Cezar-Vaz et al., 2014). The detailed considerations of occupational hazards in the maritime industry are presented by the Workplace Safety and Health Council (2014), which, by the way, is based in Singapore.
The Council has published a booklet that focuses on different types of jobs and offers specific recommendations and requirements that would help a company ensure the safety of its workers. I do not think that it would be helpful to copy the information from this booklet here, but it is appropriate to provide some general guidelines on how to promote workplace safety to reduce stress in workers. Check them out and compare them to the steps taken by your company to achieve safety.
Source of my guidelines: governmental safety efforts. Given the importance of safety within the maritime industry, which is prone to incidents and accidents, the governmental efforts that target it can be encountered. Their value is not limited to safety standards, although those are significant; the government has particular potential for research due to its access to resources, which is why its training and awareness programs can become as helpful as standards themselves. An example of a safety program implemented by a governmental agency is the Safety at Sea by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (2018). It focuses on providing people with information that can help to promote a safety-oriented culture at sea. Furthermore, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore reports that it works to make the program informed by the people who work in the maritime industry; that outcome is achieved by conducting relevant briefing sessions, which aim to explore the best safety practices of seasoned professionals. Eventually, such briefing is supposed to become a reporting framework that will regularly supply the information to update the effort.
Similarly, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2017) of the US also focuses on the investigation of different risks within the industry in the country, including occupational stress. It presents educational resources and produces the standards that are supposed to ensure the physical and psychological protection of employees of the industry. Examples of the latter include the workplace violence training and the Working Hours, Sleep and Fatigue Forum, which is devoted to the sleeping hygiene of employees. Overall, there are government resources that can be consulted to improve one’s understanding of the means to improve safety at the workplace. That is precisely what I will do right now.
General guidelines. Unsurprisingly, the overall plan for safety policy implementation is similar to those for all stress prevention strategies. On a very basic level, it consists of identifying hazards (researching risks), finding appropriate solutions, and implementing them. However, this is a specific stress reduction strategy, which is why I will consider it in greater detail.
Assign a risk management team. The Council states that a risk management team is necessary for successful risk prevention and control. In other words, a company needs people who will be there specifically to manage risks and ensure safety. Such a team should include specialists in risk management, as well as people who have experience and knowledge pertinent to a company’s field of activity. Thus, expert seafarers would be more likely to contribute important safety information for seafarers than people who are not familiar with a job and related tasks. By recruiting the most experienced employees, a team will be able to address workplace risks adequately.
Based on my interviews, I can tell that this practice is fairly common. At the very least, the companies that I managed to contact seem to appoint people who would be responsible for safety and risk management.
‘It’s an important part of our operations,’ one of my interviewees explains. ‘We have an HR department and an R&D department; naturally, we have a Safety Department too.’
Safety policies. The Council devotes much attention to safety policies; apparently, they are the first thing that a risk management team should be busy with. Here are a few of the features that a well-crafted safety policy needs to include.
- According to the Council, safety policies must be official, specifically compiled documents. That makes sense: safety policies cannot be recommendations; they cannot be unofficial or optional.
- A good safety policy is in line with the local legislation and, if possible, follows the recommendations of local, national, or international organizations, for example, the Workplace Safety and Health Council (2014).
- A policy needs to cover particular topics; its content is very important. Thus, good policy must determine the people responsible and accountable for the prevention, documentation, and investigation of incidents, as well as all the procedures associated with these processes. A safety policy is a document that describes how your company intends to ensure safety, and it needs to cover everything related to this topic.
- Also, the policy should naturally take into account a company’s resources and the interests of all stakeholders. In other words, it must be feasible; otherwise, it is not going to be of any use.
- The communication of the safety policy to every person in a company is particularly significant. Designing a simple-to-understand short version of the policy in the form of a handbook can be a good idea. It can be printed and handed out to employees, and it can also be published on a company’s website. You need to make the safety policy as accessible as possible.
- Finally, a good policy is regularly reviewed to ensure its relevance. The Council recommends coming back to it at least every few years.
I have asked the interviewees about safety policies utilized in their organizations and how their use might influence stress levels, ‘We have the opportunity to learn our safety policy during the employee orientation program; we get trained pretty well with an exam and everything. I think that it is good, but maybe not enough. I would feel safer if we had such training more often,’ one of the respondent’s notes with a nervous smile. It appears that something as simple as having a policy and communicating it well can help to reduce stress in employees and, conversely, the lack of communication may be problematic.
Research the hazards. After assembling a team and compiling the policy, which is technically a plan of action, it is necessary to determine what particular hazards your company deals with. The identification of those hazards has to be comprehensive. Your research should take into account the work organization, workplace design, and specifics of work processes, including the equipment, materials, and substances used in them. When considering equipment and materials, it is necessary to review all aspects of their use from fabrication (or purchase) to installation, use, and inspection. Abnormal working conditions should be taken into consideration (for instance, a power shutdown could cause hazardous situations). In general, it is important to review any foreseeable outcomes in the workplace, which is precisely why you need experienced workers in your risk management team – their knowledge will offer additional insights into relevant problems. Finally, the Council recommends determining the significance of different workplace risks: rating them according to their priority. This way, the most important ones can be addressed before the less important ones.
Find solutions. The prevention and control measures are issue-specific; they should be established by the risk management team individually while keeping in mind the company’s hazards and resources. However, strategies employed in the maritime industries are rather common; here is their very short, very limited list.
- First, you can (and should) try to eliminate the risk if possible. For instance, you can try to eliminate the risk of malfunctioning equipment by ensuring its appropriate maintenance.
- Second, if you cannot eliminate a hazard, you can try to substitute it with something less risky. For example, if a job that you want to make safer is connected to coming into contact with machinery, choosing the safest equipment will qualify as prevention and control for this type of risk.
- Finally, some risks cannot be eliminated or substituted. In that case, they or their negative impacts need to be minimized. For example, you can limit a worker’s contact with hazardous materials, which means that a hazard will still be present in the workplace. However, employees will be relatively safe, especially if you add a few warning signs, which are another risk management solution. This group of solutions also incorporates protective equipment. Indeed, you cannot eliminate the possibility of a terminal handler being injured as a result of their daily work, but you can at least provide them with appropriate protective clothing.
The Council reminds us that all the prevention and control measures must be included in the safety policy, that is, documented, approved, and revised regularly for potential updates. Also, the strategies need to be in line with the law, as well as the recommendations of any overseeing bodies.
Having fully developed your strategy, a company needs to implement and keep track of it. The Council suggests revising the risk assessment and control policies every three years. However, significant changes in working procedures should also warrant a revision, and they should naturally be reconsidered in case an incident occurs in the workplace. Hazard identification is a continuous, regular process undertaken by the risk management team that is responsible and accountable for all the related procedures.
Sidestep employee engagement. It should be taken into account that safety in the workplace is upheld by everybody involved. The Council notes that all the people who may at any point be the part of a company, including employers, employees, self-employed people, suppliers, and so on, need to “take reasonably practicable measures to ensure” the safety of their workplace (Workplace Safety and Health Council, 2014, p. 12-14). Indeed, any person who breaks safety rules endangers people around him or her. As a result, we might also need to consider the means of enforcing safety.
Upholding the policy: sticks and carrots. From the perspective of the Council, the enforcement of the policy is just another risk prevention and control measure. Indeed, if you punish failure and reward appropriate behaviors, the latter should stick. The Council does not offer specifics, providing companies with an opportunity to develop their own “incentive and disincentive system,” but it has a couple of suggestions. Disciplinary actions taken against people need to be followed by corrective ones.
For example, apart from disciplining employees, it would be helpful to make them re-read safety requirements that they have broken and, maybe, even make them go through retraining. The Council also notes that some people demonstrate “blatant” disregard for rules. For them, the Council suggests using “serious disciplinary actions.” Or, if they prove never to learn, their employment may need to be discontinued – for their safety. Finally, it should be noted that all sticks and no carrots would result in a very imbalanced system. It is a good idea to praise best practices, emphasize a department’s achievements in preventing accidents, and offer rewards for those who follow safety rules. However, each company should decide which carrots or sticks it wants (and can afford) as long as they are incorporated in the safety policy.
‘I do not understand those employees who don’t pay attention to their safety and the safety of their coworkers. They ignore policies and create risky situations, and I seriously do not understand that. Are they immortal or do they have a death wish? Or do they just not understand that lives are on the line? In any case, for them, a dismissal can be the only possible solution,’ says one of the docks workers who I interviewed. Thus, “sticks” for violating safety norms and policies can have different forms. Managers need to understand that by ignoring the safety policy violation, they endanger employees and create a stressful atmosphere because of potential threats associated with work in the maritime industry.
Naturally, you can only expect people to know what to do if you have already communicated the safety policy to them. In this regard, the training of employees is also highlighted by the Council as an important safety precaution. It makes sense: training ensures that employees are aware of hazards and equipped to deal with them. As a result, your risk and hazard prevention policy must incorporate appropriate training programs that take into account the specifics of working in your company and are approved by the risk management team. If you wonder what a training program should consist of, you might find its general structure familiar.
Safety training: the same thing all over again
Indeed, the general idea of how to introduce a training intervention is the same as the ones described above. First, it is necessary to do your research: determine the training needs of people in the workplace, as well as training requirements (that is the things that they need to learn to ensure safety). Keep it in mind that different occupations would require different types of training. For instance, crane operators require mandatory training in safe crane operation, and a welder needs to understand how to weld safely. However, every employee should also become aware of the company’s safety policies and be provided with all the information about potential risks that they might encounter, as well as the steps that they must take to keep themselves and others safe.
Then, the intervention needs to be devised: check which courses you would like the employees to attend (you might want to implement your courses or outsource the task) and plan the allocation of resources (especially time and money) to them. Scheduling may be particularly problematic, but untrained personnel mustn’t be allowed to operate. After that, the plan is to be implemented, evaluated, and changed if necessary. Thus, the courses will incorporate the means of assessing the change in employees’ competency, but if they do not, such means should be devised. Regular monitoring and revision would ensure that the courses remain up-to-date and effective.
Safety culture in the maritime industry
Aside from training, another important component of a safe workplace needs to be considered: safety culture. The term “safety culture” started to be actively applied in industry reports after the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred at a nuclear station and resulted in a massive discharge of harmful radiation. In the maritime industry, this term became used in publications, discussions, and reports on accidents involving such ships and tankers as Sleipner, Bow Mariner, Prestige, Scandinavian Star Estonia, and others (Oltedal & Lützhöft, 2018). The analysis and discussion of these accidents contributed to the development of the principles of a safety culture in the maritime industry. The culture of safety in this specific field prioritizes the focus on following safety principles and measures through forming a positive attitude to safety standards in people working in the industry (Froholdt, 2018). Thus, a safety culture on ships exists only when all members of a crew share and follow safety rules. In this case, their awareness of their safety increases, and certain fears of onboard disappearing, reducing stress levels.
What methods can be used to develop a safety culture in crew members and other employees in the context of risks typical of the maritime industry? How can the developed safety culture be related to human resources’ stress? The adoption of this culture in a certain environment is based on sharing the view of the necessity of following safe work practices to prevent accidents and guarantee safety. However, even if employees in the maritime industry know about specific risks of their profession and widely discussed cases of accidents in this sphere, their attitude to a safety culture can be negative.
‘I am not enthusiastic about following safety rules in cases when some of them can be ignored to save time and resources,’ claims one of the interviewees. ‘When I see that some of my colleagues ignore norms of safety adopted onboard, I am just praying, and I do not hesitate to report the riskiest cases to supervisors,’ says another person. These answers illustrate two opposite attitudes to a safety culture in the maritime industry; from the perspective of forming a safety culture, only one of them is correct (yes, the latter).
Thus, to persuade the first respondent to follow safety rules in all cases and while performing all tasks, it is necessary to develop his understanding of a safety culture. He needs to be informed about how he can benefit from adhering to standards; in this case, only telling him about the punitive action he will be subjected to will not work. The promotion of safety culture should be based on the development of a positive attitude to safety policies.
Employees need to be trained regarding safety principles and rules, and they should share the idea that safety is prioritized in any work. They need to recognize the idea that all accidents can be prevented, determined safe procedures guarantee positive outcomes, and adherence to safety is rewarded. People need to learn how to work concerning the idea of safety, and they also need to see that all their colleagues, and especially supervisors, also focus on safety in their daily practice.
To spread the principles of a safety culture, a manager can apply certain practices like training programs, presentations, case study analysis, and meetings. The reason for accentuating the necessity of following a safety culture with the help of training, presentations, and meetings is that employees in the maritime industry need not only theoretical knowledge regarding the issue but also practical skills. Therefore, researchers also emphasize the effectiveness of reflective training for employees after discussing safety norms of working with onboard equipment and learning the work of safety management systems (Gilbert, Journé, Laroche, & Bieder, 2018). These regular practices help employees perceive a safety culture as the core of their work in the maritime industry. Such training sessions and meetings contribute to maintaining safety as the key feature of operations in the industry, and it is a critical factor for creating a safety culture.
What other techniques can be used by managers to promote a safety culture and make a working environment friendlier for employees? According to the respondents participating in this project, managers often choose to conduct risk assessments and train workers additionally if safety problems are noticed. Changes in using equipment and improvements in processes are promptly discussed during meetings, and additional training is usually proposed. The interviewees also mentioned the positive effects of encouraging and rewarding employees to identify and report different safety issues. Some of the interviewers noted that such easy steps as the use of posters and noticeboards can increase one’s awareness of the importance of a safety culture in their industry.
The promotion of safety culture as a manager’s task can also lead to decreasing stress in the workplace. However, an individual employee can help as well. Simply leading by example is a good choice; however, reinforcing the approach verbally can be even more effective. In this process, everyone’s contribution is important, and the goal – a safe working environment – is worth the bother because it will make sure that you can worry less about the safety of yourself and your colleagues.
If people understand that a safety culture is effectively promoted in their organization, stress triggers eliminate, and they feel more comfortable and secured. On the other hand, continuously observed violations of safety norms usually lead to stress in employees even if they are not conscious of their stress. Working in a threatening environment, employees can suffer from pressure, and their productivity decreases. Therefore, the development of a safety culture is an important task in the maritime industry as a safety-critical one. Stress goes down, performance goes up, and nobody suffers an accident; that is what safety culture can help to achieve.
Some creative ideas about safety culture
When considering the means of stimulating the employees’ interest in safety policies and upholding safety culture, the Workplace Safety and Health Council (2014) proposes holding promotion campaigns. Think about political PR campaigns and imagine one for a safety policy. For instance, a company can design posters devoted to important safety concerns (the Council suggests regularly changing and updating them to keep them fresh and interesting). Similarly, if your company has its magazine, it can incorporate safety-related information. It does not have to be devoted to concerns only. For instance, major accomplishments like the acquisition of especially safety equipment could be described or interviews with specialists in the field could be featured.
Also, the Council points out that while the violation of safety regulations can and should be punished, it may also be a good idea to reward adherence to them. To this end, safety-based competitions can be held in which a department or a team that excels at safety gets acknowledged and rewarded. According to the Council, with the help of appropriate prizes and publicity, a company can encourage employees to engage in safe behaviors. Another approach to such competitions would involve developing quizzes about safety: the employees who know the most about safety at the workplace would get rewarded while also revising safety requirements and having some fun. And you want to make safety fun, I think, at least if the workers are not opposed to the idea.
Safety and Stress
To finish this part of the book, I would like to report to you some of the results of my interviews. I want to state it once again that more or less every person from the maritime industry that I asked about stressors noted that safety was a concern. It was especially prominent among the employees who did not work in offices, but apart from that, safety seemed to be giving managers real headaches. This finding does correspond to what the literature on the topic says: an unsafe environment is bound to cause stress, and in the maritime industry, you cannot eliminate all the stressors. When asked how they cope with it, most workers responded that they “deal with it,” but a few did note that safety polices or training could help.
‘If I know what to do in threatening situations and have received appropriate training, I feel more confident and less stressed,’ claims one of the specialists.
‘I know that my company takes safety seriously,’ another one notes. ‘The policies are sound and up-to-date, and they are enforced regularly. That’s good. That makes me feel safer.’
In other words, the primary concern for an employer when developing a stress-free working environment would be to check if everything is fine with the safety policy that they have and to work toward developing a good, healthy safety culture. That will be the first step; a few other ones are coming too, do not worry.
Apart from the factors that make a working environment safe, some features make it comfortable and stress-free (or, at least, not stress-inducing). Naturally, there is no single work environment for the maritime industry; rather, there are different areas that have unique environments with individual risks and considerations. Indeed, the people who are traveling, working with repair equipment, and draft financial statements are all subjected to different levels and types of stress. For the first one, the stress of changing the environment needs to be taken into account; for the second one, safety considerations are extremely important, and for the third one, the issues of repetitive work and extreme responsibility should be considered. You will also notice that not all of these risks are specific for the maritime industry; if anything, their categories are almost universal, even if their unique manifestations can be specific. Still, a couple of categories of the environmental factors can be named: they include the physical environment and the socio-emotional one.
A physically uncomfortable environment makes it difficult to perform well; also, it can cause stress. Additionally, a worker might be tempted to take breaks more often or have prolonged lunches just to avoid staying in a physically uncomfortable environment. All of the mentioned outcomes are not good for employees’ productivity, which explains the significance of improving the physical environment of your company. If a working place remains to be uncomfortable for an individual, his or her level of stress increases even if it can be unnoticeable and imperceptible. The problem is that a person unconsciously spends more time not to notice distracting aspects and concentrate on work and completing different types of tasks. Speaking and laughing colleagues, the noise produced by the working equipment, and different types of signals can be perceived as normal aspects of the everyday work, but they prevent individuals from concentrating and being fully attentive in the workplace.
Some of the commonly considered aspects of a physically uncomfortable environment include sound (noise) levels, temperature, humidity, and lighting. Recent research indicates that temperature and air quality have notable effects on employee productivity (Roelofsen, 2002). If the temperature of the air is uncomfortable for a person, he or she tends to be distracted and focus on resolving the problem. According to studies, the comfortable temperature in a building should be 23-26°C because this temperature does not affect employees’ productivity (Roelofsen, 2002). High and low temperatures make the body adapt to them; as a result, some processes in the organism become accelerated when others slow down. These changes in the heart rate and the temperature of the body, and a possible headache make employees stressed and less productive. The same effect is typical of the change in humidity levels. Therefore, there should be norms adopted for companies’ facilities regarding temperature and humidity levels.
‘I work in an office with twenty other employees. Although we have modern air conditioning, I hate summer months when I have to work in my office. I try to work from home when possible because I think about the heat during my working hours rather than about my tasks,’ notes Stacy.
Regarding the rest of the factors, humans can adapt to different lighting relatively easily, and the noise that is below damaging levels is not proven to reduce employee productivity significantly. However, they might still cause discomfort, which is why their management may also be important. Additionally, Roelofsen (2002) notes that the ability to control the environment can be appreciated by employees. At plants or on board, it is problematic to control the levels of noise, but there are still standards that should be followed by executives and managers. Lighting should also be controlled to avoid decreases in employees’ productivity and avoid potential errors.
Still, the maritime industry is also associated with such physical conditions as the exposure to the increased levels of dust, chemicals, and smoke in the air among other factors. Moreover, it is expected that people work with different types of equipment and machinery, and the use of these technologies is associated with following certain rules. In most cases, these aspects are taken into account when organizing workplaces for employees, but overall environments can be rather stressful for persons. The appropriate organization of a physical working environment is important to avoid different health issues experienced by employees because of the low quality of their workplaces. These problems can include fatigue, dizziness, eye irritation, allergy, and dry skin among others. Managers need to pay much attention to addressing factors that can provoke these symptoms to avoid employees’ absence in the workplace.
‘My friend working for one of our suppliers had to change her job because working conditions were not appropriate for her. She had to spend ten hours per day in an office where the temperature was not higher than 16°C, and she suffered from frequent colds, but she could not take so many sick leaves,’ says John. ‘I understand her decision because it seems impossible to be productive when being unhealthy.’
After all, the objective environment is not the only aspect of the environment that matters. The subjective or psychological environment (that is, the way it is perceived by employees) maybe even more important than objective one (Britt & Jex, 2015). Therefore, by enabling employees to change temperature or ventilation, a manager can help them in creating an optimal working environment that will not cause stress because of its physically uncomfortable conditions. Any efforts oriented toward making working conditions of employees comfier will result in decreasing their stress and increasing their productivity and improving performance. The subjective environment is also related to such aspects as workloads, high demands and set expectations, the capacity to work at high speed, the predictability of work, and the freedom to organize a working day and performance of tasks. All these aspects directly influence the quality of employees’ work and their commitment, as well as levels of their daily stress.
As it was mentioned, the interactions with other people can result in notable stress, which means that our social environment can and should be modified to minimize the number of stressors in it. In this section, let us consider at least some of the social stressors and discuss how, as research suggests, they can be resolved.
When I told my friend about this section of the book, she was surprised that I would bring something like this up. Doesn’t bullying refer to kindergarteners or junior-to-middle schoolers at most? Would you call conflicts at work “bullying”? As it turns out, this position is not unheard of. Faucher et al. (2015) note that even in the literature on the topic bullying was considered in the context of schools or higher education, as well as cyberspace. According to the authors, there are even some studies that can indicate that the peak of bullying occurs in middle school with older people being less engaged in bullying. However, Faucher et al. (2015) highlight that other investigations demonstrate that bullying does not only occur in the workplace; it is rather prevalent with 25-30% people reporting being bullied despite their age all over the world. Bullying is not an exclusive kindergarten problem.
‘Luckily, I did not experience bullying in the workplace, but I know people who did. My cousin was bullied at work when he was in his twenties because all his colleagues were much older,’ says one of the respondents. ‘They acted just like children: sent terrifying messages, left negative comments, interrupted his speech at meetings, and refused to cooperate.’
If we refer back to the definition of bullying – aggression perpetrated by someone with more power towards the relatively powerless on a more or less regular basis – we can see that the workplace is probably conducive to this type of behavior. It involves people who are often arranged into a hierarchy (which presupposes power imbalances) meeting regularly (which presupposes the possibility of repeated aggression toward those with less power) in a stressful environment (which can promote aggression). Unless we do something to prevent it, bullying is more than likely to occur in the workplace!
If the term seems childish to some, well, there is no real reason to invent a new one when this specific notion does its job. After all, the consequences of bullying are not trivial at all; it can be extremely damaging to the bullied individual, his or her coworkers, and the social climate of a company. Eventually, the bottom line may suffer as well as absenteeism and turnover can be observed (Escartín, 2016). Though, from my perspective, the fact that bullying is known to lead to suicide in some cases is the most important negative outcome (Faucher et al., 2015). Bullying in the workplace is a thing, unfortunately, and we need to find ways of preventing it. Now, there is not very much research on the effectiveness of bullying interventions; not as much as we would want for conclusive statements, anyway. However, several methods have been studied, and I will present them here for your consideration.
A major problem that has been found by researchers is that bullying is not always reported. There are a few reasons why people in various settings, including the workplace, may choose to stay silent. Some of the commonly cited motivations include the fear of retaliation from the bully, the feeling that things might not improve (especially if no action is taken by the management to remedy the situation) or might turn worse (again, because of the retaliation). Also, there is a fear of being perceived as weak or incompetent. For example, if a person believes that they should tough it out or show superior negotiating skills, they might worry about the impact of bullying incidents on their image.
One of the managers commented on this situation in his interview: ‘As a manager of the department, I noticed some signs of bullying in my previous workplace, but the bullied individuals did not report the problem and they did not react to my willingness to help and address the issue. I think this is because they did not want to seem like being powerless and broken.’
Also, many people report not knowing how to handle the situation, how to file a complaint, and how a company commonly deals with the issue up to the point of not knowing if their workplace even has any rule or policy against bullying. Also, many victims of bullying do not identify themselves as such. For example, in a study that was carried in the US in 2007, around a quarter of respondents reported acts that qualified as bullying, but only 9% recognized the fact that it was bullying and were identified as bullying victims (Faucher et al., 2015). A similar picture can be found in other countries and settings; people seem to either misunderstand what bullying is (like my friend did) or feel uncomfortable admitting that they have experienced bullying. This factor also reduces the probability of bullying is reported.
‘Even if I become the victim of bullying or any other kind of pressure from my co-workers, I will not report the case until it prevents me from performing my tasks,’ shares Jake his ideas. ‘I am a big boy, and I can cope with the problem by myself, without involving other people.’
What does that mean for our attempts to improve the social environment of our workplaces? Well, first of all, bullying is a covert problem, which means that while it helps to keep track of bullying complaints, they are unlikely to demonstrate a full picture – unless, that is, we manage to eliminate the causes of the underreporting of bullying. As you can see, the root problem is in the lack of awareness of bullying: a person who does not know what bullying is or what a company’s policy and stance on bullying are may not be able to report the problem. The obvious solution is education; the same way a company teaches (or should teach) its employees about safety policies and their importance, it can also educate employees on the topic of bullying and the measures that it takes to protect the bullied and correct the bullies.
Additionally, such efforts may also be aimed at empowering bystanders (that is, promoting the ability of people who witness bullying to report on it, which improves the reporting of the issue). This method of combating bullying does not seem to be very widespread, but research suggests that it has the potential for reducing bullying (Escartín, 2016). Also, it is the most reasonable course of action given the problems that people may have with identifying bullying.
That said, obviously, a company also needs policies that can be applied to bullying and the mechanisms of handling such complaints. Now, it is entirely possible to use non-specific procedures; for example, a general policy of conduct may include bullying protections, and if it works appropriately, there may be no need for the additional bullying policy. It is a relatively common practice in modern organizations, although it should be pointed out that the lack of any code of conduct that at least mentions bullying may result in the lackluster management of the issue (Escartín, 2016). Consequently, a specific procedure may be an excellent way of attracting the attention of employees and managers to the problem, and it might facilitate dealing with the problem. An example of a bullying-specific policy is zero-tolerance toward bullying. According to Escartín (2016), it is effective, but the number of studies on the topic is not very large.
‘In our organization, there is a policy regulating the conduct of employees in ethical terms, and statements regarding bullying are also included in it. I am not sure how it works, but I feel more confident because I know that we have tools to combat this problem if necessary,’ notes one of the interviewees.
Like always, I will not make direct suggestions on what a bullying policy should include, but what is important is making sure that the strategy does work. Current research shows that desired outcomes are not always achieved by anti-bullying policies (Escartín, 2016), and that is why it is important to monitor them. Here is when the research part of dealing with bullying comes in. Keeping track of bullying complaints is very important because their rate will help you determine the effectiveness of your policies, education, and all other interventions. It may also help to survey or interview the people who participate in various bullying prevention measures; they might have helpful ideas on how to improve the approaches that you currently use. Revising policies, especially if they are shown to be ineffective, is of primary importance. An employer needs to be aware of the climate in the workplace, and the only way to achieve that is research.
In addition to that, keep in mind the three levels of prevention. While education as the primary prevention intervention is perfectly good, you will also necessarily need secondary measures: disciplinary methods for bullies are probably the most obvious ones, but they can also be combined with extra training sessions, coaching, or counseling in certain instances (Escartín, 2016; Faucher et al., 2015). If you manage to introduce a tertiary preventative measure as well, for example, counseling services for the victims of abuse who suffer from the consequences of being bullied, you will have gathered all the possible approaches to resolving the problem of bullying in the workplace.
Finally, it should be pointed out that recent research suggests that bullying mostly occurs in the environments that allow it (Escartín, 2016). If we want to prevent bullying, we need to focus on the organizational climate. A company needs to make it very apparent that bullying is discouraged and inappropriate for its employees and managers. It is necessary to work on the collective understanding of the negative nature of bullying and the importance of the fair, respectful treatment of everybody involved. These outcomes are generally achieved through the above-described means (education, policies, disciplinary measures, and so on), but while developing those measures, it is important to keep this aspect of bullying prevention in mind and devise them to promote a positive, anti-bullying climate. Overall, bullying prevention and management is a complex endeavor and it requires multilevel solutions; most likely, a workplace will have to introduce all of the above.
‘Bullying occurs in those workplaces where people do not know and do not support each other, where teambuilding is not a part of the corporate culture and training, I think,’ states the respondent obtaining a managerial position in the maritime industry. ‘If you know a person, spend much time working with him or her, collaborate in groups and aim to achieve the same goal, there is no place for bullying, and a manager plays a key role in preventing such destructive behaviors in the workplace.’
Bad management as a stressor
The phrases “bad management” or “bad leadership” are rather judgmental, which is why I feel that it would be helpful to consider what they signify before proceeding. Now, in general, bad management (or leadership; I am going to use the terms interchangeably from now on) are toxic managerial or leadership patterns which, naturally, result in negative outcomes, including stress. It may be difficult to enumerate all the potential bad management behaviors, but I will try to give a general list of the most common ones as described by Bachmann (2016) because that work analyzes the topic rather extensively. I will also try to define the behaviors that do not qualify for bad management to avoid shaming and judging managers who are not toxic. Let us begin.
- Bad management does not include every mistake a manager makes; in fact, we are all humans, and we are going to make mistakes, which is not a problem. However, a very common signifier of bad management is the lack of desire to admit a mistake or even correct it.
- This issue is also connected to inability or unwillingness to take responsibility – passing the blame onto somebody else, most often, an employee. Managerial positions usually come with the need to take responsibility, so if a manager cannot do that, it may cause issues.
- Being authoritative does not necessarily mean that a person is a bad leader, but completely overlooking employees’ ideas, especially their concerns, is a definite sign of a toxic manager.
- Conversely, stealing employees’ ideas and presenting them as one’s own is unethical and a sign of bad leadership. In general, unethical behavior is very likely to qualify as bad leadership. There is a reason why we talk about leading by example; a leader should try to make ethical decisions.
- Any sort of employee mistreatment is going to be toxic. That includes bullying and harassment, but also the general lack of respect can be problematic. For example, Bachmann (2016) reports that treating employees like resources rather than people, refusing to greet or thank them, screaming at them is going to cause difficulties. I will also include unfair, unreasonable criticism here, as well as excessive pressure; they may not always amount to mistreatment per se, but they are unjust and should not be tolerated.
- On the other hand, favoritism and nepotism are also likely to be toxic. Put simply, they refer to the preferential treatment of certain employees (friends, family, simply the people who a manager likes). The examples that Bachmann (2016) uses include promoting people based on personal preferences rather than merit, offering bonuses or more flexible schedules to the people a manager likes more, and so on. It is a form of unethical leadership, I suppose, but it is a very specific issue that is not uncommon, so it seems to be worth mentioning.
- Bad management often presupposes the lack of important managerial skills like planning or problem-solving. Also, one might argue that the lack of interpersonal skills is a significant issue; it may, among other things, be reflected in the above-mentioned mistreatment of employees.
- A very common example of bad management is conflicting messages. In this case, the problem is likely to be concerned with policies and rules rather than individual managers (although conflicting messages from one person are also a possibility).
If you look at this list, you will generally understand what is needed to avoid bad management. You need to avoid these unhealthy behaviors, and everything will be fine. However, as you may have noticed, the range of bad management behaviors is rather impressive. They do have a general theme of unjust, unethical, or incompetent performances and actions, but overall, they are relatively diverse.
Many of the asked interviewees had something to say about bad managers about stress experienced at work. ‘The manager I had a few years ago, she was a nightmare. She just could not use her normal voice to speak to me, only shouts. She changed her mind each hour and, yeah, she used conflicting messages. She was always dissatisfied with each aspect of our work. When she was approaching me, I just felt how my blood pressure was getting higher and my palms were becoming sweaty. A nice experience, really,’ smiles one of the interviewed employees.
An attentive reader might notice that my list of toxic behaviors also includes rather subjective things; for instance, what does unjust criticism include? More than that, how do you even define excessive pressure? Most likely, people are going to perceive various levels of pressure very differently; it is entirely subjective! And that is why, from my perspective, one of the best features of good managers (even if they do make mistakes sometimes) is listening to their employees. It is extremely important to institute good, reliable, working mechanisms of communication between employees and managers. In that case, an employee may be more likely to report on an issue, for instance, with excessive pressure, which will enable a manager to resolve it.
‘Once I noticed how the attitude of my subordinates toward me had changed significantly. They did not trust me and my words anymore,’ tells Julia who works as a regional manager in her company. ‘Later I learned that one person began to spread a rumor that I had favorites at work and other people had to work more and prove themselves because of that. So … that was not true, but I gained the reputation of a bad manager.’
The solution to bad management is not something that can be completely addressed on an individual level (Bachmann, 2016). Managers who are committed to improving their leadership and management are likely to do their best to resolve the problem, but then, those managers are not bad, are they? These people are incredibly good, even if they fail at times. But what about actually toxic managers – nepotists, for example, or people who look down on their employees? And what about the issues that an individual manager simply cannot resolve, like bad policies or the problem of managers being insufficiently trained?
Here is when organizational-level interventions come in. They seem to be familiar if you have read the previous chapters, and they include the means of preventing bad management, means of dealing with the existing instances of bad management, and the means of resolving negative aftereffects of bad management. Here, the diversity of bad managerial practices also matters. We can prevent unskilled leadership by encouraging leaders to receive additional training or, possibly, providing it and paying for it. We can stop nepotism by introducing the policies that make preferential treatment more difficult, allow employees to report on such cases, and include disciplinary measures for nepotists.
‘I remember the situation when we reported the unprofessional behavior of our supervisor to the upper management: he insisted on hiring his wife for a well-paid position, but she was absent three days per week. We could not ignore this practice because it directly affected our work. There are no excuses for nepotism at work,’ explains Jerry his position.
Harassment and bullying can be prevented and dealt with through many relevant policies (check the previous chapters for them). As you can see, there are methods of combating bad management. However, the problem is complex, which is why there is no simple one-step solution; again, it is necessary to investigate potential and existing problems, seeking out customized solutions, and monitoring their effectiveness. Some things never change. Still, acknowledging the fact that bad management exists and can be a problem that heightens employee stress level, absenteeism, and turnover is important. The identification and acknowledgment of an issue is the first step toward resolving it, and when you ponder on possible solutions, keep it in mind that among other things, you are making the workplace a little less stress-prone.
Managing diversity in the maritime industry
This book has presented the facts which indicate that ill-managed diversity (or unmanaged diversity) leads to discrimination and the failure to make the workplace sufficiently inclusive. As a result, ill-managed diversity is associated with an increased risk of stress for minorities. However, there exists sufficient evidence to suggest that diversity can be managed well, and the outcomes of such management involve the reduction of stress. For instance, Ferris et al. (2014) report that when employees feel that they are treated equally, they experience reduced stress, improved well-being, and greater commitment to their organizations. Similarly, when employees feel that their organization’s culture incorporates the values that are in line with the culture of their group, another stressor is removed from their social environment. Thus, we need to consider approaches to appropriately managing workplace diversity.
Although diversity and inclusiveness are promoted in all organizations and businesses, including the maritime industry, the achievement of diversity goals can become challenging for HR managers. To overcome obstacles associated with the necessity of managing diverse employees, HR managers usually adopt the following practices: respecting employees’ individuality, acknowledging people’s differences, focusing on persons’ cultures and beliefs, and recognizing employees’ capacities (Mor Barak, 2017).
‘I found the best example of diversity management in the company organizing logistics in our sphere,’ says one of the African American male specialists working in the maritime industry. ‘Managers treated all diverse employees with respect, and this aspect was accentuated during employee orientation. I saw that each employee’s perspective and idea were heard and discussed. They created an inclusive environment, in which employees communicated friendly and positively.’
The interviewer also reported that such an atmosphere of support and respect made him perform his working duties with pleasure. ‘That was the first time in my career when I did not perceive my work just as the responsibility, and I was satisfied with my job,’ continues the man. Responding to the question about stress at work, he also added with a smile that he even did not think about problematic situations and challenges as stressful ones, the overall atmosphere did not contribute to developing such perceptions and attitudes.
Unfortunately, not all HR managers can succeed in promoting diversity effectively to eliminate the number of stressful situations in the workplace. What is recommended for managers interested in creating inclusive environments is the stimulation of diverse workers’ positive collaboration. At this stage, managers should organize discussions of individuals’ ideas to maximize the use of their unique skills, experience, background, and perspectives. Also, tasks should be assigned depending on employees’ abilities and preferences (Hays-Thomas, 2016). Moreover, there also should be diversity training that not only illustrates how to collaborate with colleagues but also demonstrates how to address situations of stereotyping, discrimination, or harassment in the workplace.
The management of diversity in the maritime industry with a focus on creating an inclusive working environment is a complex process because the development of positive relations between diverse employees is not a one-day task. ‘Managers state that our diversity is recognized and respected, but in reality, many of my colleagues suffer from stereotyping and prejudice despite the adopted policies,’ claims one of the respondents. He noted that the problem is that white men prefer to work in teams only with other white persons. African Americans in predominantly white teams are discriminated against and viewed as having less knowledge and experience.
Furthermore, the man noted that his colleagues seem not to respect women taking leading positions in their organization, and the spread of jokes about female leaders is a common situation in their organization. This example illustrates that the adoption of formal diversity and anti-discrimination policies cannot guarantee the immediate creation of an inclusive environment. Referring to the complex issue of promoting diversity in the workplace in the context of eliminating or increasing stress, I asked interviews about their attitudes to diversity programs in their organizations. I also asked about possible “ideal” practices and strategies that can be used in companies to make the workplace diverse and inclusive.
‘I do not understand the idea of diversity as it is declared by our managers – we are all similar, but we are diverse. What does it mean? In my opinion, an inclusive environment is when we are viewed as individuals, but we are still equal to receive all the benefits of working in this organization,’ shares one of the respondents.
‘I am a woman of color, and my “uniqueness” is accentuated throughout all my life, but I want my managers and colleagues to view me only as a good specialist when I am at work. Thus, an inclusive and stress-free environment for me is that one where I am not perceived only as a woman or as an African American,’ says Wanda.
‘Our managers should understand that discrimination and stereotyping have no place in the 21st century; therefore, those people who bully their colleagues, participate in harassment, or spread biases should be punished. Diversity is the key feature of our society, this aspect cannot be ignored,’ claims John.
The respondents’ answers emphasize the idea that to build a diverse and inclusive working environment, managers need to promote an inclusive culture. This culture is characterized by the presence and active involvement of diverse workers in organizational processes with a focus on their representation and support. Employees are promoted and supported depending on their abilities, qualifications, and experience, as well as their potential to contribute to the organization’s progress. As a result, employees are not discriminated against because of their gender, race, disability, or any other aspect.
Another feature of this culture is receptivity that is associated with respecting diverse workers for their differences, strengths, and skills. One more important aspect is fairness reflected in employers’ and managers’ attitudes or their promotion of equality (Mor Barak, 2017). Inclusiveness is based on the idea that all employees are unique, and all of them should be treated equally and positively in a working environment. The corporate culture of companies in the maritime industry is expected to be grounded in these ideas.
As a result of creating an inclusive working environment, employees feel comfortable and safe at work because they do not suffer from stress and pressure of being stereotyped or discriminated against. In creating such a specific positive and inclusive atmosphere, each detail matters, including how managers organize teams or how often diverse employees have lunch together. Organizations in the maritime industry should be perceived as networks, and the effectiveness of employees’ work depends on their personal and professional relationships and understanding of each other, especially in crews. If there are issues related to discrimination, harassment, and bias, the quality of a crew’s work is negatively affected.
‘In our company, new employees cannot join a team without completing training in diversity that was developed by experts in the field five years ago,’ says one of the interviewers. ‘This training is focused on developing our knowledge regarding different cultural groups, empathy, support, and awareness.’ Similar training and development sessions are adopted in different organizations for helping their employees accept the idea of diversity and the principles of an inclusive culture. These sessions are used by managers as one of the methods to design positive environments in which diversity and inclusiveness are respected and appreciated. The adoption of such training can be the first step toward building an inclusive workplace.
The role of managers
‘I think that managers are the people who have the greatest number of opportunities to keep the relationships between coworkers civil,’ says Alice, a marine electrician with over eleven years of experience in the industry. ‘I am not saying that the rest of us are not responsible, but managers simply have more resources. And probably knowledge, right?’
Indeed, while the social environment is dependent on multiple players, including the employees, the managers are usually the ones who are expected to address the related issues. After all, managers have the means of resolving interpersonal stressors in a way that employees do not: think of policies, authority, and, indeed, the training in interpersonal relationships that are not always available for non-managerial positions. Here, it should be noted that interpersonal stressors can be associated with other issues; for instance, if a person is stressed because of excessive workload, they are more likely to be irritable and, therefore, stress out other employees. Consequently, the actions of managers that help to reduce stress are likely to contribute to the improvement of the social climate as well. However, there are approaches to managing specifically interpersonal stressors, and this is the topic that I want to cover in this section.
In their analysis of interpersonal stressors, Britt and Jex (2015) discuss very important components of the successful management of interpersonal stressors: knowledge, rules, and leading by example. Indeed, the first step toward using one’s managerial skills in improving the working environment consists of learning about the state of the said environment. The only way to achieve this outcome is communication; specifically, it is necessary to establish the means of communication between employees and managers. They can be informal ones (for instance, personal communication) or more formal ones (grievances handling procedures and regular surveys). The point is that the manager needs to have the means of learning about interpersonal stressors to be able to manage them.
‘I know that many managers prefer to avoid touching conflicts between employees unless it’s something very serious,’ notes Alice. ‘I understand why they do not feel like they should interfere, but I think that when conflicts become bullying or harassment, their intervention is necessary. And they are not going to learn about these issues if they are used to turning a blind eye to everything that happens between employees.’
On top of that, Britt and Jex (2015) highlight the importance of making it clear what types of behavior managers support, tolerate, and condemn. Making it apparent, for example, that the company will not tolerate bullying is a good way to reduce the possibility of employees engaging in that kind of behavior. A good approach to achieving that is an anti-bullying policy, but informal communication can also be very helpful.
‘In my experience,’ says Alice, ‘policies are worth little when the more subtle, unspoken rules do not support them. It is especially clear when your boss does not follow the policy – not just because it is more difficult to stand up to someone with more authority and power but because people start to emulate what their boss is doing. And if the boss is abusive, it becomes a serious problem.’
Britt and Jex (2015) also considered the ability of a manager to lead by example. This is particularly important for an organization that does have anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies because a manager who breaks such policies is very unlikely to be able to instill the wish to follow them in their employees. On the other hand, even if relevant policies are not present in an organization, a polite, respectful manager may be able to influence the behaviors of other people at the workplace. Overall, the personal behavior of a manager is crucial for reducing interpersonal stressors in the workplace.
In addition to that, I would like to focus on the interventions that a manager can use to improve the workplace climate. As was mentioned, policies and the means of communication are important tools, but the problem is that employees are maybe not aware of what interpersonal stressors imply. For instance, while they may know that there are terms like “bullying” and “harassment,” they might not fully understand them and, as a result, they might not recognize them when witnessing, experiencing, or even exhibiting such behaviors (Workplace Bullying Institute, 2014). That is why it is necessary to educate employees.
In general, the solutions to interpersonal stressors often incorporate related training and education. For instance, diversity training is likely to reduce the instances of casual racism and sexism specifically because it focuses on explaining to people why certain interactions and behaviors are problematic. Similarly, bystander intervention training is a very good way of empowering employees to discern and be able (and willing) to prevent negative behaviors. Additionally, civility training will educate employees on the topic of respect and respectful interaction, which can be particularly good for eliminating incivility that, as I have mentioned, is mostly unintentional and results from the lack of understanding.
Finally, the topic of organizational culture should be noted. It will be discussed in greater detail later in the book, but here, it is necessary to note that organizational culture is a very important component of a healthy social climate. This culture needs to be inclusive to prevent the common reasons for bullying and harassment; it needs to explicitly discourage predatory behaviors, and it needs to support healthy relationships and communication. For a more detailed description of the topic and the means of modifying organizational culture, check the chapter dedicated to it.
Checking Work-Related Problems
A short note should be made on the topic of work-related problems, that is, the problems of badly designed tasks, badly defined roles, and so on. Technically, this issue can be connected to bad management, and I will keep it close to the social environment topic. Now, I need to point out that work is inherently stressful. There are responsibilities, deadlines, complex and challenging tasks, and so on; you cannot make work not stressful. However, you can at least eliminate some of the issues that are associated with bad management. Let us take a look at role ambiguity and shift design.
Role Ambiguity: The Role of Managers
Role ambiguity, as I have mentioned, is a problem that is rather common in our workplaces. It should be noted that the primary reason for role ambiguity is the inappropriate communication of roles. Britt and Jex (2015) note that the key figure that transmits this information is managers, which makes them very important for reducing role-related concerns. The authors offer several pieces of advice specifically for managers as a result.
First, managers need to be aware of the job descriptions that are used by their companies and, most importantly, of the problems with said job descriptions. It may be a good practice to regularly update them to ensure that no outdated information is communicated to employees. Also, it is extremely important to make sure that the descriptions are clear. Soliciting the opinions of employees could help; after all, people can perceive the same thing very differently.
Apart from job descriptions, other sources also translate role-related information. Managers themselves are likely to explain certain responsibilities to employees, and in this regard, managers’ words need to be as clear and apparent as possible. Furthermore, Britt and Jex (2015) note that it is very dangerous to simply assume that other people understand you perfectly or that their perception is identical to yours. Rather, it is helpful to ensure that you understand each other by asking them to re-explain the provided information. Furthermore, if any other people might be communicating role-related information, a manager should encourage them to follow the same principles of clarity and understanding. Different managers mustn’t provide employees with conflicting information, which also demonstrates the significance of communication between managers themselves. Overall, as with any topic that is related to significant information, clarity and successful communication are the primary concerns.
Shift Design: Some Pointers
I mentioned bad management in this section, but actually, I am not sure that every badly designed shift qualifies for that term. Shift design is an art, it seems, or such is my impression after studying the way a badly designed shift can cause stress and other health problems. Fortunately, there are legal requirements and friendly recommendations on how you should go about designing shifts. I find it interesting; perhaps, you will as well.
A very common example of stress-inducing shifts is rotating shift work and night shift work. As it has been mentioned, these kinds of shifts are associated with very significant negative outcomes, especially those related to sleep (Landsbergis et al., 2017). Naturally, sleep disturbances are likely to affect alertness and performance, which, in certain conditions and especially in the maritime industry may become problematic from the perspective of safety. There is no simple solution to the issue since the shifts are typically introduced for a good reason. However, some advice on the matter can be provided.
A not very recent but evidence-based guideline was published by the United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive, and its general principles can be used by employers and employees. The former need to set certain standards for their shifts, especially in terms of time. For instance, the guide points out that morning shifts should not start before 6 AM, and that greatly extended shifts are bound to cause stress-related issues. Furthermore, while it may seem apparent, shifts need to be planned in a way that would allow for sufficient rest with separate rest days and at least 11 hours of rest every day. Night and evening shifts that are followed by a morning shift are also likely to be problematic; in general, very rapid changes in sleeping schedule are bound to cause issues. On the other hand, more than three morning or night shifts in a row should also be avoided. Clockwise rotation is preferable, and night shifts should come at the end of the shift cycle rather than at its beginning. Finally, it is necessary to take into account employees’ preferences; they should have a choice between permanent and rotating shifts since the latter are a significant stressor, and people who are older than 45 should be offered the opportunity to avoid rotating shifts because of health concerns. Do not be a bad manager; listen to your employees!
As for employees, while they would also benefit from the above-presented advice, for them, it is suggested that 11 hours of rest days are a requirement for healthy rotating shift work and that night shifts can be made more manageable through short pre-scheduled naps. Most importantly, though, workers with rotating shifts or night shifts need to maintain healthy sleeping routines: they should make their family and friends aware of their sleeping schedule so that their sleep is not disturbed; they require a good sleeping environment that would be dark and quiet, and they can use their sleep strategically with short naps for the days when their shifts or social environment disallow good undisturbed sleeping. Thus, when shifts are concerned, both employers and employees can make sure that their impact on stress is minimized. All they have to do is make sure that they have done their research and know what is best.
While work is one of the most significant stressors in the life of an average modern worker, it is by no means the only one. A lot of other things can cause stress: one’s child going through a rough phase, one’s pet getting ill, one’s relative being in the middle of a nasty divorce – you name it. Are these extra-organizational stressors important for an organization? The simplest answer to that question is “yes.” First, they impact an organization, which is why they cannot be overlooked. If a person comes to the work already stressed, the organization will experience all the negative outcomes of stress in the workplace. Thus, at the very least, extra-organizational stressors have an impact on a business.
That said, are organizations supposed to address extra-organizational stress? In fact, can they even do that? After all, it is not like an employer can (or should) intervene and resolve all the problems that their employees have. Well, here, it may do us some good to remember the three levels of stress prevention, in which the only one is technically aimed at preventing stress, that is, at resolving its causes. Of course, an employer cannot help a person with their family life or magically cure their illness. However, an employer can either help an employee become better at handling stress or reduce its outcomes. This section is going to be devoted to these kinds of interventions. Remember, that they are particularly helpful because they can resolve any type of stress, but they are your primary tool in dealing with extra-organizational stressors, which is why they are presented here.
Identifying Stressed People
The management of extra-organizational stressors is particularly difficult because they are not within reach of the organization. Often, the coworkers and managers of an employee are not even aware of their difficulties. However, as it has been mentioned, one of the sources of social support in the workplace; an employee’s supervisor or a colleague can help deal with stress. As a result, an important element of ensuring the psychological safety of employees that can be performed by managers and coworkers is identifying the employees who seem to be stressed (Britt & Jex, 2015). Then, appropriate interventions can be carried out by the people who have the resources and connection with the stressed-out employee.
As I have mentioned, stress can result in extremely negative psychological outcomes (Mosadeghrad, 2014), and such outcomes are typically associated with certain behaviors that can help in identifying issues before they cause significant problems. Britt and Jex (2015) recommend looking out for the cues that may be indicative of anxiety and depression. An anxious person may find it difficult to concentrate and sit still, as well as relax. A person with sub-clinical depression (a depression that is very low in severity and does not require medical intervention) may have problems in finding the energy to perform their tasks or socialize.
Also, depression is often associated with flat affect – people become less emotional, less likely to react with strong or vivid emotion to various situations that should normally cause such a reaction. In general, the lack of motivation and reduced energy are the common signs that can cause concern. Additionally, Britt and Jex (2015) suggest paying attention to the cues of frustration like repeated complaints and verbal aggression: they may also be connected to stress. Any of those signs are problematic on their own, but they are particularly likely to indicate issues if they develop over time. In other words, if a person used to be emotional but now appears not to care about anything, they might need some help. One of my interviewees supplied a personal anecdote that I think can illustrate this idea.
‘I was in a really bad, unhealthy relationship,’ she supplies without going into detail, ‘and I felt drained, but I also snapped at everyone, and I am honestly ashamed of how I behaved, but it helped eventually. Maybe it’s some way of telling other people that you are not OK? Anyway, my favorite girl here, she was the one to tell me that I changed, and she asked me what was wrong, and after that, I kind of started noticing that I was not myself. That’s how I saw that I had a problem and needed to do something.’
It can also be noted that absenteeism and presenteeism are the common signs of a person being stressed. The people who are frequently absent from work might be struggling with stress (absenteeism), but also a person who is physically present but technically does not do much work may be a likely victim (presenteeism). Counterproductive behavior is another potential sign: if a person sabotages their work, it may be an outcome of stress. It is noteworthy that while the signs of anxiety or depression may be difficult for a manager to notice, absenteeism, presenteeism, and counterproductive actions are likely to be brought to their attention. These kinds of behaviors are typically monitored and investigated. Knowledge of the fact that these behaviors are associated with stress may help a manager to search for appropriate interventions rather than resorting to ineffective punishments.
‘We use absenteeism figures to monitor the effectiveness of our stress reduction methods,’ Steve, who is one of the managers I interviewed, reports. ‘Interviews and surveys are helpful, sure, but they are very subjective, and we want an objective measure. And absenteeism is more complex, of course, it is not caused by stress only. But it has served us just fine in conjunctions with surveys, and I would recommend at least looking at absenteeism figures when working with stress. It does help to get a clearer picture.’
While it looks like some literature (Britt & Jex, 2015) encourages monitoring employees for signs of stress, it should be noted that coworkers and managers are not entitled to inquiring employees about their emotional state. As for the reasons for stress, inquiring about them may be a very bad idea, especially if you are not very close to the person who you think is stressed. People have the right to privacy and are not obliged to provide information about their problems. Now, this rule can prevent their colleagues and superiors from assisting them with extra-organizational stress. However, it also hints at another conclusion: it appears that a key solution to extra-organizational stress would be simply recognizing the fact that humans are not machines. Indeed, they can sometimes experience stress, which may affect their work, regardless of the efforts of a company to reduce stress at the workplace. It is just the fact of life that must be taken into account in an industry that employs people. But despite this, one can still empower the stressed-out employees to deal with extra-organizational stressors. Let’s talk about enabling people to deal with their stress individually.
Individual Stress Management Approaches
Given that stress is a prevailing, daily reality of our worktime experiences, it is necessary to be able to manage it. However, the American Psychological Association (2015) reports that it is fairly common for people not to know what to do with stress or not do “enough” to manage it. The solution to the issue is apparent: the people who encounter stress at their workplace need to be provided with the means of fighting it. The information about stress management is a major step towards that outcome. Apart from that, a manager needs to promote a proactive approach towards it: that is, employees need to be encouraged to learn more and find the methods that work for them (Chang & Taylor, 2013). This method of resolving the stress problem is empowering; as pointed out by Britt and Jex (2015), employees are not some passive objects that are influenced by the working environment; they are, in fact, actors who can affect it. Therefore, it is especially important to enable them to affect it in the right way.
Coping strategies: can they be bad for you?
An important element of stress management is coping strategies. There is no universal approach to the task; for some people, seeking support is the most effective strategy, but others prefer coping on their own, for example, by exercising or listening to music. In certain cases, it is best to contact a psychologist or another mental health professional (American Psychological Association, 2013). Individual preferences and traits should determine the choice of approach for each employee. The specific strategies are extremely numerous, but they are usually divided into a problem- and emotion-focused ones (Chang & Taylor, 2013). The former group aims to improve the circumstances, reducing the effect of the stressor that causes negative emotions. The latter helps a person in regulating their response to the stressor, minimizing the negative feelings that it triggers. The emotion-focused group is particularly helpful when the circumstances of the stress situation cannot be changed. Additionally, Chang and Taylor (2013) note that there is the strategy of avoidance, but it is not effective; while it is technically a coping strategy, it is a problematic one, which should be discouraged. Furthermore, there are undesirable, unhealthy coping behaviors that you can probably anticipate: substance use is a good example, as well as overeating.
That said, coping strategies are quite indispensable. Although an individual’s organism can adapt to stressful situations, this natural coping mechanism has such negative effects as the development of chronic stress. Therefore, healthcare professionals promote the idea that each person should learn how to cope with stress and pressure at work. Healthcare providers, psychologists, therapists, and counselors propose specific coping strategies that are known as individual stress management techniques because people can use them individually, without the participation of an organization (Dewe & Cooper, 2017). What are these effective techniques that can help employees cope with their everyday stress? Professionals usually recommend following a healthy lifestyle, changing eating habits, trying meditation, increasing physical activity, improving sleep patterns, learning relaxation strategies, and visiting counselors (Dewe & Cooper, 2017; Seaward, 2018). Thus, there are good and bad coping strategies, which highlights the importance of analyzing the ones that we use and, possibly, finding the means of improving them. For example, by reading the next few chapters.
A healthy lifestyle as the key to overcoming stress
When I hear about the necessity of following a healthy lifestyle, I cannot focus on its specific role in stress management because the overall approach seems to be too complex to change life habits in one day or notice significant results immediately. However, researchers note that those people, who can describe their lifestyle as healthily, usually cope with regular work stress more effectively than their colleagues who are not focused on such a lifestyle (Rabenu, Yaniv, & Elizur, 2017; Seaward, 2018). The components of a healthy lifestyle include eating healthy food, green vegetables, avoiding sugar and saturated fats, doing exercises regularly, increasing physical activity, sleeping 7-8 hours, walking, and having rest (Seaward, 2018). According to this description, following a healthy lifestyle generally means keeping to positive habits that are well-known to all people and associated with effective daily regimens, but they are often ignored in the context of work pressure.
‘My life changed when I became concentrated on my daily routines and regime and adopted the philosophy of a healthy lifestyle spread in media. I noticed that my reactions to stressful situations changed because of my positive mood and strengths to cope with problems without suffering from pressure,’ claims a full-time employee from a maritime organization. This view is supported by experts who accentuate that healthy habits contribute to strengthening a human organism and its abilities to manage stress (Dewe & Cooper, 2017).
‘People talk a lot about a healthy and active lifestyle, about their successes in improving their health and increased productivity. But I do not have time to follow all these routines because of constantly feeling tired,’ says an interviewer working in the maritime industry. It is obvious that this person needs to change his everyday life habits to cope with stress, but he is stressed and cannot bring himself to do so.
Unfortunately, this situation is not unique, and professionals recommend adopting new healthy habits little by little, without causing additional stress for an organism. It is important to start by formulating a list of healthy habits to be integrated into daily life and use habit trackers for marking the progress (Seaward, 2018). For one month, it is recommended to focus only on 2-3 habits that will help to alter a lifestyle and contribute to stress management. In this case, a person will observe positive changes related to his or her well-being shortly.
Time to change eating patterns
At first sight, there is no direct relationship between eating and stress management. However, researchers promote an opposite view, stating that human organisms require good nutrition to be ready to cope with stress and maintain emotional and physical stability (Cooper & Quick, 2017). Interviews with employees in the maritime industry revealed that people often chose different strategies associated with eating to improve their emotional state and address stress. One group of interviewers reported the increased intake of sweets, including chocolate and ice-cream, and coffee. The other group emphasized eating more fried, fatty, and sweet food at night. Some people also stated that they ate fast food when they were under pressure because stress in their workplace was associated with strict deadlines, overwork, and the lack of time to prepare meals. Other people reported the loss of appetite because of stress. These answers demonstrate that individuals are inclined to associate eating and stress, but they should focus on how to alter eating habits to improve their stress management.
To help the body cope with stress, nutritionists advise to balance a diet and monitor the number of carbohydrates, fat, protein, minerals, and vitamins in meals. This balance is important to contribute to the work of the immune system. Experts also note that the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables can lead to stress reduction because they include certain antioxidants and vitamins (Seaward, 2018). Such carbohydrates as sugars in sweets are recommended to be changed with honey, sweet fruits, and dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa to increase the level of serotonin. This hormone helps a person activate the stress management mechanisms of an organism.
‘My friend advised me to add cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger to tea when I feel tired and stressed, and this works! I usually feel much better and energetic after a cup of this spicy tea,’ claims one of the interviewers in this project. This advice is also found in the literature on stress management for using when it is necessary to increases levels of energy (Schiraldi, 2017). When a person needs to cope with stress and anxiety, researchers also recommend drinking tea with chamomile and peppermint. Other general advice on improving eating habits includes balancing the nutritional value of foods, avoiding skipping meals, consuming more vegetables than meat, eating seafood and fish, changing sugar-based sweets with fruits and honey. These easy steps can help make stress leave your life.
Meditation: finding harmony in the face of stress
One of the most popular recommendations given to persons suffering from stress is practicing meditation. Still, the majority of employees who are daily under the pressure of working tasks and stressful situations even do not try to meditate some minutes during a day. The reason reported by professionals in the maritime industry is the lack of skills in meditating, the inability to concentrate, and the absence of immediate positive results.
‘When I say I feel stressed at work, my wife asks me to join her meditation sessions. She meditates every day before going to sleep, and this action usually takes her about 15 minutes,’ states the person I have interviewed for this project. Steve continues, ‘Nothing seems to be difficult in this process, but I cannot concentrate more than 2 minutes, and thoughts about work occupy my mind again.’
This problem is typical of many people trying meditation for the first time. The paradox is that meditation works when individuals can avoid focusing their thinking on different thoughts when meditating, but they cannot do that without practice. The most important advice that I received when starting to practice meditation is that the first meditating sessions should not belong and “perfect.” Beginners in meditation, especially those who suffer from stress, should start meditating from about 5 minutes of trying to clean their mind off any thoughts that make them worry. Furthermore, another meditation technique is based on concentrating on pleasant images or thoughts, finding “a safe place” to get rid of anxiety and nervousness associated with stress. It is important to remember that a person should feel comfortable when meditating to avoid additional stress if he or she thinks that a meditation session is not perfect, not conducted correctly (Cooper & Quick, 2017). Thus, the most working advice for people thinking about meditation is “Just try it right now.”
Physical activity as a way of managing stress
How can the increased physical activity associated with making significant efforts and physical and emotional pressure contribute to reducing stress levels? According to researchers, the secret is in increasing levels of hormones responsible for stabilizing the emotional state (Seaward, 2018). When you run, play basketball or tennis, do exercises, or perform yoga practices, the production of endorphin rises, and you feel better and more positive. Thus, it does not matter what type of physical activity to follow, and experts recommend focusing on the most pleasant kinds of sports for an individual. If a person runs every morning only because it is a current trend and running helps to cope with stress, outcomes will not be as positive as it is expected.
‘I noticed that when I started to play tennis with my friends each week, I began feeling less pressure at work,’ says Steve. ‘I found that I think about coming weekends, and these thoughts make me feel happier. Moreover, after two months of regular training, I found I became more concentrated.’ This example demonstrates that common recommendations of healthcare providers regarding increasing physical activity in working people are also effective for coping with stress.
The most enjoyable aspect is that any type of regular activity will lead to improvements in one’s physical and emotional health while also enhancing stress resilience (the ability to manage and cope with stress). Male and female individuals can choose from yoga, jogging, aerobics, fitness, stretching, playing tennis, basketball, and football to add them to their weekly plans. In this case, stress relief is achieved in association with increasing strength, energy levels, and improving mood.
‘I am not a fan of jogging or yoga that is popular among my friends, but I like classes in stretching that I visit two times per week. I like this feeling of muscle tension that is followed by relief,’ states one of the women participating in the interview. Physical activity and associated muscle work usually contribute to decreasing the level of emotional pressure by making the body get rid of stress.
The role of sleep in stress management
The first thought in my mind associated with stress management techniques is related to improving sleep patterns. Different media promote the idea that the lack of sleep leads to decreasing life energy and higher risks of stress. The problem is that stress in its nature can also provoke problems with sleep and even cause insomnia if it is chronic. Thus, sleep and stress are in close and direct relationships.
More than 50% of respondents in this project noted that they often suffer from insomnia because of stress. Some of these individuals take medications to fall asleep, and others reported problems with sleep because of going to bed late at night. The key advice given by healthcare professionals to persons with stress is to improve their sleep patterns, monitor the duration and quality of sleep, and go to bed before 11:00 pm. However, for many adults, this advice seems to be hardly feasible because of the necessity to cope with many working and home tasks during a day.
‘I was diagnosed with chronic sleep deprivation three years ago, and my counselor advised me to change my sleep regimen. We started from avoiding watching TV or using a laptop and a phone one hour before preparing for sleep, going to bed at 11:00 pm, and waking up at 6:30 am,’ one of the respondents shares his experience. These simple tips are usually mentioned by specialists for people having problems with sleep and suffering from constant stress (Seaward, 2018).
According to research, the reason for improving sleep patterns to cope with stress is also associated with hormones. Sleep deprivation leads to decreasing melatonin levels, and persons face difficulties with managing stress and stabilizing their emotional level because of problems with regulating their circadian rhythm (Seaward, 2018). Cortisol is another type of hormone that is usually released in response to sleep deprivation leading to increased anxiety. Simple steps for improving sleep patterns will contribute to improving the work of the endocrine system, and stress will be managed easily.
Relaxation strategies for coping with stress
I agree with the ideas of researchers who state that the ability to relax is important to manage stress in the workplace because an organism needs rest when addressing pressure and different troubles (Cooper & Quick, 2017). Several widely-known techniques for relaxing include massage, aromatherapy, deep breathing, yoga and meditation exercises, art therapy, and muscle relaxation (Seaward, 2018). What effects can these techniques have on reducing stress levels in working people?
When persons focus on relaxation techniques, they avoid triggers of stress, find comfortable places to relax, and concentrate on their bodies’ responses. As a result, the heart and breathing rates slow down, stress hormones become less active, and muscle tension can decrease (Seaward, 2018). Individuals can practice relaxation at home, performing self-massage, focusing on deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques are easy to learn, and they do not require specific skills. However, the assistance of professionals in massage, coordinated yoga, and art therapy also has positive effects on overcoming stress.
Still, there are also more available strategies for relaxing at home. ‘When I feel stressed, I like to listen to my favorite music and watch a good film,’ states one of the interviewers. Female respondents working in the maritime industry noted that they like to cope with stress with the help of baths, weekends spent in nature, and reading books. These easy strategies are also effective for coping with worrying and anxiousness and stabilizing the emotional state.
Data in the literature on stress management and coping techniques and strategies provide the background for the following question: what is the most effective relaxation technique to overcome stress as quickly as possible? According to experts, such techniques as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and massage are more working in coping with stress than watching a film because of provoking the body’s response to the problem (Seaward, 2018). However, I believe that any strategy that helps you relax can be used to manage stress and restore your levels of energy and optimism.
Counseling for coping with stress
If stress becomes an integral part of life and a person constantly experiences pressure at work, stress management can become a difficult task to complete in this case. Some people who cannot self-manage stress require counselors’ help. Different types of therapy can be proposed to overcome the causes and symptoms of stress, including cognitive behavioral therapy, art therapy, stress inoculation therapy, and emotionally focused therapy (Seaward, 2018). The problem is that individuals are often not ready to admit the presence of such a health issue as stress. Employees in the maritime industry usually ignore symptoms of stress and anxiety or try to cope with them independently, as it is reported by the respondents.
‘Today, people often discuss stress in the workplace, but I am not sure that I experience significant stress at work. Of course, I do not think that I need specific support or counseling. And yes, I often feel tired and even exhausted after a working day, but I do not view this as anything unique. Many people face the same problems,’ asserts one of the interviewers having the experience of 7 years in the maritime industry. Thus, many working people often do not recognize the levels of stress they have to cope with, and they do not ask for the assistance of professionals due to a variety of reasons.
If stress is untreated, it leads to chronic exhaustion of a human organism, problems with the immune and endocrine systems, and decreased levels of energy. Therapists and counselors can help employees reduce stress with the help of the mentioned therapies. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is useful for helping individuals change their perception of stressful situations to decrease the effect of stressors on people’s health and emotional state (Seaward, 2018). Participating in this therapy, people develop a new way of thinking regarding their daily working responsibilities and associated stress.
In its turn, art therapy allows for focusing on pleasant images rather than thoughts about work or on reflecting on stressful situations with the help of drawing and painting. Stress inoculation therapy helps people prepare for stressful events that can include promotion or retirement in the context of working environments. Emotionally focused therapy helps individuals understand their emotions and needs as well as correlate them to achieve satisfaction for a person (Seaward, 2018).
These approaches are actively used in therapists’ work with clients’ stress, but people have little information about counselors’ role in helping to overcome stress, and they often avoid visiting professionals. Still, consulting specialists regarding therapies, relaxation, meditation, sleep, and nutrition can become an effective strategy for employees who feel that they cannot cope with stress independently. The adoption of various stress management strategies, in this case, can have a positive effect on an individual’s emotional and physical state.
Building up personal energy
Returning to the topic of potential stressors, I would like to revisit the concept of personal energy. Britt and Jex (2015) pointed out that the loss of this resource is associated with stress, which highlights the significance of finding the means of replenishing it. Indeed, the authors demonstrate very clearly that the only way of avoiding the stress of being low on energy is to have an effective method of restoring it. The simplest way of achieving this outcome is a break, which can be customized to your personal needs and preferences. Indeed, a break can be an actual opportunity to simply have some rest: you may choose to play a game, browse social media, or daydream. On the other hand, you can take a break from the particular activity that you are engaged in and a switch to another task – from job-related ones to, for instance, cleaning your working place. Meditation can also be a good activity during your break, and naps are very effective, but they are not always an option. Overall, the approaches to breaks can vary; just find the one that suits you the best.
Unsurprisingly, glucose is another helpful resource that can help you to restore your energy levels. Small amounts of sweet foods can provide a quick energy boost that is beneficial for a variety of tasks, especially those that require self-control or intense attention. Just remember that overindulgence in sweet foods may be unhealthy. As for less urgent means of restoring energy, rest (especially sleeping), nutrition, and exercise are the primary solutions. The people who maintain good sleep hygiene (sleep enough, avoid eating, drinking, and smoking before bedtime, and treat sleeping disorders) and have proper nutrition are generally more energized than those who do not have the luxury. Together with exercise, these methods are good for our well-being from multiple perspectives.
The interaction with other people can also become a source of energy as long as it is positive. Examples include discussing a problem, thanking coworkers for their help, offering help to others, or seeking feedback on your work. Furthermore, finding inspiration for one’s work is a good way to ensure the presence of energy to complete it; in practice, you can achieve this outcome by thinking of the meaning of your task and its importance for the organization or your community.
It is also noteworthy that our levels of energy can be expanded as we become more proficient with varied tasks. For instance, if you frequently have to perform the activities that require self-control, you will eventually become better at it, and similar tasks will not take up as much energy as they used to. As a result, it is possible to deliberately drain our energy reserves. Overall, there are multiple strategies for the improvement of one’s energy levels, and it is possible to devise customized strategies based on personal preferences.
Social support is one more resource that can reduce the stress experienced by people in the workplace. This support is a result of efforts demonstrated by an individual’s social network that usually includes a family, relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Social support is observed when family members, coworkers, friends, and other people encourage you, they are ready to assist and provide guidance or advice. In addition to emotional support, people can also provide physical support to demonstrate their empathy, and they can even guarantee financial assistance if necessary. This help is important for a person in different problematic periods of his or her life, and as a result of this social support, stress can decrease. If an individual has no relationships, in which he or she can be listened to, encouraged, or cared, stressful situations become a significant obstacle.
Researchers agree that a family, partners, and relatives usually represent the most influential support system for people because of their role in reducing stress. Close people often provide emotional and practical support, and their assistance is usually most meaningful for individuals under stressful circumstances (Nicholas & Steyn, 2017). Social support in the form of physical support and sympathy or comforting improves the immune system, relieves pain, and decreases blood pressure.
‘When I come home after a working day full of challenges, I feel relief immediately after hugging my wife,’ says one of the respondents. ‘This easy ritual helps me become aware that I am at home and all problems remained at work.’ I should state that, for many people, one of the simplest ways to cope with stress is to share one’s thoughts and worries with a partner or a close friend. Those people who have no social support have higher levels of stress because they remain alone with their thoughts and unrest.
The people who have not managed to secure a well-developed social network for themselves experience greater risks of multiple psychosomatic symptoms that are associated with stress. Also, the lack of support can be stressful and harmful on its own. These ideas are usually started by researchers in their studies (Nicholas & Steyn, 2017; Seaward, 2018). Therefore, if a person has support at home or in relationships with friends and other close people, she or he feels healthier and stronger than lonely individuals. Support in different forms helps persons cope with everyday challenges more effectively and understand that they will receive the necessary assistance when required. As a result, people with wide and diverse social networks, including individuals they love and respect, rarely suffer from chronic stress and diseases associated with psychosomatic causes.
Social support is also important at work where people spend a large part of their life. Work is usually associated with stress, and to cope with its negative effects, managers are interested in creating a specific supportive climate. This climate is based on following the principles of mutual respect, assistance, and encouragement. If employees do not feel the support of their colleagues, their stress increases in correlation with decreases in their productivity.
‘I left the previous job position in a well-known company because there was no social support in their corporate culture. Much attention was paid to formalizing interactions, and personal contacts between employees were not supported,’ Stacy shares her experience. The woman also noted that she did not feel any assistance from her supervisor and colleagues, and the feeling of helplessness and stress made her find another job. The trend of formalizing relationships at work is followed in many modern organizations to boost employees’ productivity and improve their performance by eliminating triggers for communication not related to work.
However, the lack of social support in the workplace can result in an opposite effect associated with decreased productivity and the absence of commitment due to increased stress. A supportive climate at work based on guidance, advice, assistance, and sympathy is traditionally viewed as an effective stress reduction strategy. Still, the percentage of employees who report being supported by their managers and colleagues is rather low, according to the results of the interviews conducted with professionals in the maritime industry. More supportive relationships are typical of employees working in crews onboard because they need to spend much time together, and their external social contacts are limited. In this case, members of crews can cope with stress effectively if they feel the support of their colleagues, they do not feel lonely and abandoned in stressful situations.
Still, the climate in organizations in the maritime industry that are not directly associated with maritime transportation and the work in crews is commonly formal. Thus, employees can feel much stress when working in shipping companies, for example, even if their environment is less stressful than it is in crews. The reason is that a positive and supportive climate at work is important to guarantee that all employees can receive assistance from each other, information is exchanged easily, and an overall atmosphere is comfortable.
‘I began to experience less stress at work when a new manager joined our team. Previously he worked in another department of our company, and he had developed skills in building strong positive relationships with employees,’ states one of the respondents in the interview. ‘He started with organizing weekly team-building sessions to help us get acquainted and trust each other. I am usually rather skeptical regarding these activities, but it worked!’
Supportive management is the key to creating a supportive climate at work. Leaders need to demonstrate what type of behavior is appreciated in the workplace, and employees as their followers will imitate this pattern. If managers promote only formal communication between employees, stimulate competition, and encourage it with the help of rewards and bonuses, it is almost impossible to expect that coworkers will be supportive about each other (Nicholas & Steyn, 2017). Such working conditions are extremely stressful for employees, and the only way to feel comfortable is to find social support at home.
The promotion of support at work can also be associated with supportive leadership. Thus, supportive leaders provide their subordinates with all the required guidance and tools to perform their duties effectively. If a person knows that he or she can ask questions and will receive answers, the levels of stress also reduce. From this perspective, each type of social support (emotional, practical, informational) is important in the workplace because they lack support leads to worsening stress. When people do not know how to resolve a working issue without the advice or assistance of their colleagues, they experience stress even when being professionals in their areas. Furthermore, social support at work contributes to developing the feelings of commitment and belongingness in employees, they begin to perceive their working environments as friendly, and they do not experience stress typical of people who are not satisfied with their work.
The role of a manager
Even though employees are capable of taking care of their energy level, the role of the manager is still noteworthy. Indeed, given the fact that personal energy gets depleted, it is important to avoid overloading employees with tasks, and it is necessary to provide them with sufficient opportunities for restoring their reserves. The latter point refers to breaks, days off, vacations, and so on, but is not limited to them. It is also important to acknowledge that people are different, and some of them may need more breaks and more time off work to be able to restore their energy. A manager needs to respect this fact. Naturally, some people may be (or appear to be) particularly resilient and state that they do not need to rest too often. However, this position may not be very healthy; in general, it may be better to avoid encouraging excessive work: after all, the potential negative effects of depleted energy (including stress and worse performance) are most undesirable.
Employees can be inspired to accomplish important things through leadership, the support of the company’s vision, and organizational culture. Employees are much more likely to be enthusiastic and energetic if they like what they are doing and if they understand the aims of their activities (especially when they approve them). Also, the relative freedom of expression at the workplace can have beneficial effects while continuous supervision is likely to be demotivating (Britt & Jex, 2015). The successful management of the organizational climate can ensure that employees’ interactions are positive. Further, it is not uncommon for a company to present employees with healthy food options and the opportunity to exercise during breaks. Both these approaches can help to keep employees energized. If a particular position makes it possible, allowing employees to take naps may also be a great solution, but it is clear that not every company would permit that.
A manager can also organize stress management interventions and customize them to the needs of employees. However, this solution will only be useful if the employees are allowed to provide their input. As it was mentioned, the strategies of stress management are very diverse, and without the information about the preferences and abilities of employees, a manager will not manage to choose the right options. Also, as pointed out by Britt and Jex (2015), it is very common for stress management approaches to view stress as “inherently toxic” (p. xi). Therefore, a less one-sided approach could be more useful. In it, the positive aspects of stress would be taken into account, as well as the fact that it is not feasible to try and eliminate it absolutely and completely.
We have covered most of the easy topics. Now, it is time for the big stressor, the one which is both external and internal, the one that more or less universal, the one that is caused by complex issues and requires complex solutions: the work-life balance. I know that it is a big one (just like safety) because it is all over my interviews and literature. Work-life balance is a major topic when it comes to stress management, which is why I am going to talk about it at length. Also, I encountered a very interesting case of a company choosing to go through noticeable changes to help its employees balance their work and life, and I am dying to share this inspirational story with you. Without further ado, let us begin.
Work-Life Balance: The Concept
Personal life is very important for our well-being and, naturally, it can affect our stress levels (Cardoso, Padovani, & Tucci, 2014). To put it simply, our relatives and friends can serve as a safeguard against stress. It has been proven scientifically that the people who can rely on someone close and request emotional support from them tend to have lower levels of stress than the people who claim that they do not receive emotional support (American Psychological Association, 2015). On the other hand, it is entirely possible for a person to be stressed at home and, after coming to work, experience all the negative outcomes of stress, which can eventually affect their performance. In fact, according to the report by the American Psychological Association (2015), family and family responsibilities have been consistently ranked as the third most important source of stress in the United States (after money and work). The same source claims that the people who have children are much more likely to experience stress than those who do not have children.
‘I think that many workers bring their family problems to the workplace. They get stressed at home and come stressed to work, and others get to deal with all the negative outcomes,’ claims one of the maritime industry managers who were interviewed for this book. ‘They might not even have stress at work; they bring it here. It does not matter how well employers and management protect them from stress when the source is not in the workplace environment.’
‘Do you think that occupational stress can cause stressful conditions at home?’ I ask.
‘It probably does,’ agrees the managers without much hesitation. ‘Looks like we have a vicious circle.’
During this research, a lot of accounts were gathered about maritime workers being stressed because of the impact that their job has on their familial relationships. The managers pointed out the fact that the industry is often associated with traveling, which prevents the workers from seeing their families for way too long. Additionally, even the positions that do not require traveling still demand a lot of time, which means that less time can be spent with the family. This problem is also stress-inducing on its own; if it tends to affect familial relationships, any problems in which are stressful as well, the term “vicious circle” covers the situation quite well. Naturally, one’s work life and family life require some form of balance for the successful functioning of every person. However, how do you get to that balance?
Mike, who is a middle-aged middle-level manager in the maritime industry, smiles self-depreciatingly.
‘The main thing that I know about work-life balance is that I do not know how to achieve it,’ he admits. ‘I mean, I studied the thing, sure, but somehow all this literature is not helping. I am not sure that I am comfortable with telling you others’ stories, but I can tell you mine, and you will see that I cannot manage even my work-life balance, not to speak of my co-workers.’
There is much research on work-life balance, and one of the main conclusions that can be made about it is that its lack causes stress (Lyness & Judiesch, 2014). However, there is no universal approach to the task of balancing the two parts, so Mike’s confusion and disappointment generally make sense.
‘Now, I know that the “life” part of the balance is not about your family and nothing else, but my experience tells me that it is the main thing that we usually discuss when talking about this thing. For me, it is the most important one. Maybe it’s just that I do not have that many hobbies.’
Mike is correct: work-and-life balance is an inclusive term, and the “life” element can stand for various aspects like interests, hobbies, and other parts of your personal life. Britt and Jex (2015) note that a very important development in the perception of a work-life balance was connected to expanding this notion. Initially, it was mostly connected to the responsibilities that people have concerning children, especially very young ones, but it is apparent that even within the context of families, people also have responsibilities towards their parents and siblings, and outside of that context – towards friends, peers, and so on. A single childless employee is no less entitled to some out-of-workplace time than an employee who has many children. The family is still a big part of our lives, though, so I am not surprised when Mike shows me a picture: a brown-eyed toddler sitting on the lap of a similarly brown-eyed smiling woman.
‘Tracey is now three years old,’ he explains. ‘I try to spend as much time with her as I can. I feel bad about not being around enough. But then, I can’t sacrifice my job, you know? And it is pretty demanding.’
A lot of reasons for work-life disbalance have been named, and predominantly, they are connected to the excessive attention to work. For example, extra hours are problematic because they further decrease the time available for not-work-related activities. With the spread of technology, working from home became a rather common approach to managing workloads (Britt & Jex, 2015), and this method is also very bad for the work-life balance. In general, excessive workloads, extra hours, and understaffing are the primary factors that prevent employees from spending enough time away from work.
‘You know those kid’s movies with the general idea of “daddy, you need to work less?” I watched a couple, and I have noticed that they focus on the way children get deprived of the attention of their parents, which – don’t get me wrong, it is true, but recently, I feel like what I need to see is a movie that pays some attention to the father’s feelings. Because, sure, my girl does not get to see me too often, but we can catch up at any time, right? She is not losing something. Me, on the other hand? I will not see her grow again. It is me who is missing out. I have this feeling more and more often as she grows up… Well, maybe that’s just my middle-age crisis talking.’
Without meaning to, Mike mentions a very important problem. It is essential to remember that the concept of work-life balance does not exist to make working parents feel bad about not spending enough time with their children. If anything, this kind of pressure is likely to cause stress, not decrease it. The point of work-life balance consists of helping people to find a balance between their work and life, and this outcome can be achieved with the help of a manager.
Deciding to Help
‘So, can you work less?’ I ask Mike.
‘I think I can,’ he responds without much hesitation. ‘I can take more days off; I have not been using them for quite a while. But it is a very difficult choice. I mean, my family does not need anything, it’s not like me working less would make us broke. But I want to make sure that we are financially secure. Also, I am not sure that my superiors would feel good about me suddenly starting to take every day off. You do not usually encourage this kind of behavior.’
‘Does it mean that you do not encourage that kind of behavior?’ I ask. Mike seems to be genuinely taken aback.
‘I mean I am not going to make a person work when they are ill or when they have some emergency at home. Also, I do not discourage them from taking days off. But I do not encourage it either,’ he shrugs. ‘I have not met any manager who would.’
‘I have had some experience with three different companies and, like, at least six managers, and they always encouraged us to work more,’ says Dolores, an IT specialist. ‘It does not have to be direct, you know. But I once did get unofficially reprimanded for taking sick leave at a, particularly inconvenient time. And it’s not like I can time getting sick, but I still was rather worried about my bonuses for a while after that. Good thing nothing came out of it. I guess my boss has stressed himself, so he lashed out at me.’
This position is not surprising. Given the fact that the typically discussed disbalance is concerned with overworking, it is reasonable to ask: does a manager need a worker to have a balanced life? Overworking is not bad for a company, right? Well, this statement is very questionable. The benefits of overworking are apparent, but there is some evidence that also points to negative outcomes. Recent research in the field suggests that the lack of work-life balance is bad for a person’s emotional well-being and promotability, which eventually causes stress and all the related issues. Moreover, people with imbalanced work and life may also be less productive than those who have it figured out (Lyness & Judiesch, 2014). Thus, while it may appear that overworking is helpful for a company, it is likely that the long-term costs will include stressed workers and reduced productivity. Encouraging employees to find a better work-life balance may be a reasonable decision, and to achieve that, it is important to prevent overworking.
Unlike Mike, I have met the managers who decided to encourage “that kind of behavior” – that is, the behavior which involves taking the days off that you need. They believe that they might have discovered an advanced approach to handling the issue of stress. Before we proceed to discuss it, however, we need to make some concluding remarks about work-life balance. First, let us note that some discrepancies are related to work-life balance. For instance, the American Psychological Association (2015) notes that parents tend to report more stress than people without children. In other words, people with children may be under increased duress and, therefore, the establishment of work-life balance for them may be more difficult.
Furthermore, there are some gender-related inequalities. In particular, for women, the establishment of work-life balance can be more difficult than for men, especially in more conservative countries, states, or communities. This tendency can be explained by the fact that women in traditional communities are viewed as the ones who are responsible for the not-work-related parts of our life such as household chores and children. In turn, men in such communities do not contribute much to said chores, which is why it is easier for them to find the time for rest, hobbies, and other important parts of life (Lyness & Judiesch, 2014). According to the American Psychological Association (2015), women also tend to report stress more often than men. While this fact does not necessarily imply that they are more stressed (men, for instance, maybe uncomfortable with reporting stress), this information needs to be taken into account by managers. For some people, work-life balance may be more difficult to achieve; now, that we have decided that they need managerial help, managers also need to acknowledge they will need special, individual approaches.
Finally, it should be mentioned that, as found by Lyness and Judiesch (2014), the perceptions of managers regarding the work-life balance of their employees may be skewed. The authors mostly focus on the way managers (like any other living human) are affected by stereotypes, but in general, their observation can be used to point out the importance of the employees’ perceptions once again. It is necessary to consider the views of the employees to help them with their work-life balance. As for how this outcome can be achieved, the next sections will consider this topic in detail.
A New Approach to Vacation Policies
I talk to Steve, a man with over seventeen years of experience in the maritime industry, seven of them as a manager. Currently, he works in a ship repair company, which went through a major change in its vacation policy in 2014. It is that change which he wants to share because he believes that it demonstrates the cardinal flaw in the policies that many companies have and the really simple solution to it. First, however, we discuss the problems that can cause work-life disbalance.
‘Do people often sacrifice their personal life to earn more money?’ I ask you to start this conversation.
‘Yes, of course,’ Steve responds assuredly. ‘, throughout my experience both as an employee and a manager, I have been working with the people who are very willing to work more and earn more.’
‘Is it a good thing? For the company and themselves?’
‘That depends. Sure, a dedicated worker is a great worker, but it is not only about meeting a deadline or managing a critical stage in your work. It’s not good for the worker.’
‘Because of stress?’
‘Yes, yes. We know for sure that working without resting is very, very stressful.’
‘And resting helps with stress?’
‘Yes, resting is the best remedy I think.’
Steve is likely to be correct: the recent research allows making similar conclusions. Things like rest and good sleep (especially during the night) are known to reduce stress (Dias, Santos, Abelha, & Lovisi, 2016). On the other hand, the lack of rest is one of the major factors for its development. Therefore, by ensuring that the worker’s rest, a manager can both prevent stress and help to reduce the tension that has already accumulated.
‘It’s a problem because it is a common practice to encourage people to give up their rest for the sake of work,’ Steve points out. ‘And I think that it is our problem, the managers’ problem. We do that.’
‘How do you encourage a person to restless?’
‘Well, there are many ways, but in my experience, it is mostly implicit. You do not go and deprive your employees of their days off or vacations; that would get you into trouble. But there are other, subtler ways, you know?’
It turns out that I do know. The examples that Steve uses ring a bell and seem to be very common; they are connected to the organizational practices, promoted values, and unspoken rules. For instance, a manager can communicate it rather clear that a person who does not take too many days off may be more likely to get promoted. Also, a manager can lead by example – a bad example in this case – by not taking days off and working him- or herself into the ground. The organizational culture may implicitly stigmatize the people who take days off or sick leaves while promoting extra hours and working from home. All these examples are something that many of us have encountered in our personal life.
‘Changing the organizational culture is hard,’ I note to Steve. He nods eagerly, ready to explain the reasoning that he and his co-workers chose.
‘Yes, and culture is also very difficult to, you know, measure. We wanted to do some changes, but we also recognized that to change something this complex, we would need to start small. So, we focused on a less covert and more tangible encouragement: our vacation policy.’
As stated by Steve, their old vacation policy was nothing special; I encountered that kind of thing in every company that I have ever worked with. The primary features of the policy were the loss of unused sick days and the purchasing of unused days off at the end of the year; none of them could be carried forward into the next one.
‘In other words, days off were optional?’
‘Worse than that. It was not just that we did not encourage the employees to take days off, you know? We encouraged them not to do so!’
‘But people should know that they need to rest, right?’
‘They do, but they can be very self-sacrificing. In my experience, people would think that they can work without rest, or they would need money, or they would want it… and they would agree to give up their much-needed days off for the sake of the money. I do not think that it was good for them. I know I would rather have my workers well-rested because ship-repair does not go well with stress, you know. I would rather encourage my workers to have some rest and then come to work to do their work right.’
‘Why do you think this sort of policy existed in the first place?’
‘I do not think that it was made to keep people from rest. I think that it was done to compensate the workers who are ready to give up their rest for the benefits of the company. Also, to be honest, I think that it is a pretty common practice. I worked at three places, and it was in two of them. And my son, he is an IT specialist, and his company does the same, which means that it’s not just the maritime industry. Maybe we just never gave it enough thought before our little experiment.’
The practice of buying days off does seem to be common in different fields and companies of different sizes. Steve is also right in noting that it does not have to be a practice that is flawed to the core; it is reported to have positive outcomes for companies, which get the chance to have more work done, and the employees who accumulate too many vacation days to be able to use them. However, Steve has a point: if the policy results in people having less rest and more stress, both these benefits are likely to be overshadowed by the issues that stem from stress.
‘That is how we decided that buying days off was a bad idea,’ says Steve. ‘And we gave it up. We rewrote the whole policy while keeping in mind our new objective: we needed to encourage our people to have some rest. And – most importantly – we needed to make sure that we would not encourage them to sacrifice it.’
First of all, that meant that days off could not be bought anymore; that part of the policy simply got removed. Furthermore, specific types of vacations were now supposed to expire slower than before: 50% of the unused days off could be carried into the next year and expire six months into it.
‘Now, people can get more days off, even if they can’t do it within one year for whatever reason.’
‘Are they paid days off?’
‘Yes, of course! That is the point: if a person gets extra money for missing a day off, they may choose the money. But when they are getting as much money for a day’s rest as for a day’s work, more people will gravitate towards rest. As a result, we decrease the chances of workers giving up on rest.’
However, Steve and his co-workers did not stop there; apart from encouraging people to take days off, the new policy also introduced the practice of mandatory days off. In the final version of the policy, five consecutive days between anniversary dates became obligatory.
‘Workers must necessarily take five days off, right?’
‘That is the point,’ notes Steve.
‘Is it not somewhat radical? It means that you force people to have some rest.’
‘Yes, sure, but I do not think that it is radical. Organizational force, as you say, people do a lot of things. There are rules, ethical codes, dress codes… Making people dress in a particular way is not much better than making people rest, I think. I consider it just another rule, a stipulation in our contracts with the workers. If they do not like it, they can always not work with us.’
‘Were there any people who did not like the change? Were there those who did not want to be forced to rest?’
To both of us, it sounds almost like a joke, and one that Steve laughs at. Then, he considers it more seriously.
‘You know, I suppose that there could be some discontent because the previous policy had some extra opportunities to earn some money. But my department did not have such attitudes. I would know. All the formal and semi-formal feedback that I got was positive. People liked the change; a few told me that they felt like it was a major step forward, and two said that they felt like the company was caring about them.’
Here, it should be mentioned that by helping the employees achieve work-life balance, managers are likely to foster dedication and engagement, which, in turn, tend to result in increased productivity (Roelofsen, 2002). That is why a company needs to show that it understands and respects the need and rights of its employees to achieve the balance. Eventually, this human-oriented approach is good for a company’s image and brand. The employees who are respected by an organization are more likely to respect it in turn, which is a necessary condition for their loyalty and dedication to the company’s vision, mission, and objectives. Thus, by demonstrating that it cares, Steve’s company improved its image in the eyes of its employees, which is the most important outcome.
Steve with his co-workers, however, wanted to see more specific and tangible results, and they devised a way of measuring the impact of the new policy. Here, it should be noted again that a person with a good work-life balance is healthier, happier, and less stressed, which is why they can perform better (Chen et al., 2014; Roelofsen, 2002). However, these factors are not very easily assessed, which is why the managers did not attempt to involve them in the evaluation process. Instead, they focused on absenteeism and turnover rates. According to the company’s reports, after the introduction of this new policy in 2014, the employee turnover rate was reduced by about 12%. The absenteeism rates also decreased with the unpaid days off falling from 3.28% in 2013 to 0 in 2016.
‘Does that mean that the employees started to rest more or get stressed less?’ I ask just to make sure.
‘I would think so, yes. Absenteeism is connected to stress, and so is turnover. It is reasonable to assume that our approach worked. Also, we did not have any other major policy changes during that time, and you cannot explain the twelve-percent reduction in turnover by mere chance, especially since previous years did not show anything similar.’
Again, Steve is correct: as we have mentioned, turnover and absenteeism are proven to be the common outcomes of occupational stress (Banerjee & Mehta, 2016), which are also easily measurable. While the company did not manage to assess the levels of stress in its employees or the specifics of the changes in their performance, it has found an appropriate substitute and made the only logical conclusion: unsurprisingly, the policy which encourages employees to rest, makes them rest and lowers their stress levels, which gets reflected in the reduction of common stress outcomes.
Changing the Organizational Culture
When discussing the policy, Steve wanted to make it clear that he is not the only one to be blamed for the new policy’s success.
‘It was not just my idea; I do not think that it could work other than through a collaborative effort. We shared opinions and experience, we brainstormed, we drafted the policy, and wrote and rewrote it. We were convincing the skeptical people; we had to fight some of the higher-ups, explaining and explaining the concept all over again. But after the experiment, it got easier: we now have solid proof that our policy is better in the long run. What I mean is that changes are not simple, and they need a collaborative effort. If you want to do something similar in your organization, the first thing that you need to do is engage your people. They are going to be a tremendous help.’
‘It looks like you are encouraging our readers to undertake something similar to your experiment,’ I tease.
‘That is precisely what I do,’ Steve responds seriously. ‘I think that by now we should view those other policies as old-fashioned. They are not just about ineffective policies; they represent a specific mindset – mostly in managers, but eventually, in the organizational culture itself. This mindset tells you that a good employee is an employee who works as much as they can and rest as little as they can. This mindset just does not work. It breeds stress, and I think that it is the core of the problem. If we introduce new policies, we will make people reflect on that mindset. Eventually, I think that we will cause a shift in the mindset.’
‘Do you observe this shift in your company?’
‘I do. This whole experiment was only possible because a few of us started to reflect on this old-fashioned perspective. Now, there are many more people – among employees too – who recognize that you cannot work your human resources into the ground.’
The process of changing organizational culture is exceptionally complicated, but Steve’s approach to it has its merits.
Organizational culture can be identified as common and normative patterns of behaviors, beliefs, values, and attitudes that are present within an organization. My interviewees often refer to different “unspoken rules” – for instance, those that prevent people from taking days off. Such rules are an example of an element of an organizational culture, which can be connected to different values and beliefs. For instance, the idea that an employee needs to devote as much time as possible to their work could be one of them. As you can see, organizational culture is a powerful force; it can affect the behaviors of employees and managers.
According to Alvesson and Sveningsson (2015), despite the rather frequent coverage in literature, in practice, organizational culture is more often neglected than not. This issue is especially problematic because, as noted by the authors, it is very difficult to find an organization without a culture. Organizational culture is created through the interactions between employees; therefore, if the members of an organization interact, they are likely to eventually develop a form of culture with unified beliefs and norms (Gover, Halinski, & Duxbury, 2015). Even if a company’s management does not expend efforts to develop one, most definitely, culture is still present in an organization. Quite often this culture can be detrimental too; take, for instance, the above-discussed issue of the unspoken rules that prevent people from taking a few days off, and you will get a vivid example.
Organizational culture is often mentioned when considering organizational change. Depending on whether the culture supports the change or not, it may become a facilitator or an obstacle to the point where it can ensure the failure of change efforts. Just like an organization is extremely unlikely to be without a culture, any change is extremely unlikely not to be affected by the said culture in any way. As a result, it would be helpful to consider and take into account a company’s culture when a change is being planned and executed.
On top of that, organizational culture can be altered and, in fact, sometimes needs to be altered (Gover et al., 2015). Take, for instance, Steve’s illustration: while he (together with his coworkers) introduced an approach to vacations that would encourage employees to have some rest, the change would not be particularly effective if the managers had proceeded to stick to the previous methods and informally discourage resting in employees. However, when conducting their change, Steve took this factor into account and undertook the actions that would help to reduce this barrier – in other words, the actions that would eventually remove the norm of disrespecting the employees’ rights and need to rest. As a result, his company succeeded in modifying the organizational culture to the point where it could support the new approach to vacations.
‘As I said, we fought tooth and nail,’ says Steve. ‘There were a lot of arguments, especially from the higher-ups. But at the core of the dilemma was this failure to understand that people don’t work that way – humans need rest.’
‘Humans are not machines,’ I agree.
‘See,’ he says, ‘I am fine with the notion that humans are a resource or a form of equipment because it can help us to explain what is wrong with this mindset. You can’t expect, say, a computer to work without some source of energy; you won’t be mad at your computer if it does not work without energy. But with humans? We are constantly mad that they won’t work in insecure environments or for a small fee or under immense stress. The point is that a secure environment, decent salary, rest, basic respect – those are the conditions necessary to keep this particular piece of equipment running. But, boy, does it take some effort to make some people recognize this fact.’
As shown by the research on the topic, it does take some effort to change the culture (Gover et al., 2015). However, in certain instances it is necessary. Come to think of it, how often do you encounter harmful beliefs at your workplace? The first things that come to my mind are bigotry, disrespect toward low-ranking employees, and, yes, expecting people to work like machines until they break. Bringing such perspectives down would do wonders to our stress levels I think, and Steve’s example will always serve as inspiration for me.
Parental Leave: The US Perspective
‘If we are talking about a work-and-life balance, we need to discuss paternity leave,’ Monica tells me using a very strict tone. I am quick to agree; it seems to be a critical topic, especially for the US, as far as I know. Monica is a 37-year-old HR manager who has been working for the same company in the maritime industry for the past eleven years, and she claims that she has many stories to tell.
Monica proceeds somewhat patronizingly to explain that the US is the only developed country that has no paid maternity leaves. ‘There is no OECD country that would not have a paid parental leave of at least 12 weeks. But the US does not offer the same option.’
Monica is correct; I checked it on the website of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which unites developed countries and reports important information about its members. According to the OECD (2016), the US is the only member of this organization that does not provide paid parental leaves (the days off that a mother or father can take to care for their newborn).
The approach to parental leaves is very different across nations; for instance, while every other OECD country offers maternal leaves, not all of them have paternal ones. In other words, fathers might not be eligible for staying at home with their children for some of the OECD members. Furthermore, some states, including Estonia, Poland, and Mexico pay 100% of the parents’ salaries throughout parental leaves, but other ones offer a part of that sum or pay different sums during different periods of leaves. The length of parental leave also varies; some countries offer several years of paid leave while others make a few weeks available. An average paid maternity leave in the OECD consists of 37 weeks. However, for the US mothers and fathers, none of that is possible.
‘You have to understand that it is very important,’ explains Monica. ‘Mothers need time off not only to get better after childbirth – although that is crucial as well – but also to take care of newborns who are particularly vulnerable and in need of attention. As it is, though, if a mother cannot afford to stay at home, she has to leave her child and get back to work. It can cause significant stress, especially if this woman is not yet recovered after giving birth.’
Monica highlights the fact that the poorer women are the ones to take the brunt of this inefficient system, pointing out that socioeconomic inequalities make the situation even more unpleasant. A relatively wealthy mother can afford to stay with a baby for longer, but for a poorer one, to do the same would be a luxury that she cannot pay for. Furthermore, according to Monica, many women have to get to work sooner even though – or because – their children have health problems.
‘Children who are weaker and more prone to sickness need their mothers to be with them. Logically, a woman would rather stay at home and care for children. But poorer women may simply not have the option to claim that luxury. I know several women who had their babies born prematurely but could not afford to stay at the hospital … even though they were extremely worried about their child’s well-being. Can you imagine how stressful that is?’
All the descriptions of maternal leaves in the OECD countries refer to the requirements that are mandated by the law. In other words, an individual organization might offer improved benefits for mothers and fathers in different countries, and the same is true for the US: particular states or organizations may be more considerate with their working mothers. However, since the government does not mandate any benefits in the US, parents who work in the country are not guaranteed to have any paid leaves. That aspect puts parents at a disadvantage. As Monica insists, American parents typically do not get those benefits and have to use unpaid leaves instead.
In addition to her discussion of socioeconomic differences between various groups of parents, Monica notes the lack of fathers’ engagement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018), women in the US are still underpaid when compared to men; for instance, in 2016, the weekly earnings of women amounted to only 82% of those of men. Annual earnings came even shorter at 80.5% and were greater for women with children (Sheth et al., 2018). One of the potential causes for that, as I have mentioned, is the increased demand for women to focus on the family part of their work-life balance. In the case of unpaid maternity leaves, the situation is very similar. In the US, women have to spend money on unpaid leaves to get some rest after childbirth and take care of their newborn while men are not expected to and sometimes cannot afford to do the same.
‘We talk about the way women’s reduced pay is often affected by them being loaded with housework and with caring for children. We talk about the way this issue perpetuates gender inequality. But what do we do to change that?’ Monica inquires. ‘Paid paternity leave could help.’
In the US, many fathers cannot contribute because both parents might not be able to take unpaid leaves and days off simultaneously without getting into some serious financial trouble. The problem is present in many OECD countries as well: maternity leaves are typically longer than paternity ones, and in general, many nations do not even consider offering the latter at all. OECD (2016) specifically points out that, even in the countries that offer paternity leaves, they are not commonly used. The popular misconception that children are the responsibility of women prevents men from actively engaging with their newly born children. Either way, the imbalance is prominent, and it results in increased concerns and the unshared responsibility for women, which means additional stressors for them.
‘On the other hand,’ proceeds Monica, ‘fathers might want to help. We had a fair share of stories here when fathers wanted or even needed to help – say, because their wives had complications after birth, which is not that uncommon, you know, unfortunately – but we could offer them only a few workable options. A lot of people cannot afford a nanny. A lot of people cannot ask a grandma or someone else to help. A lot of people need to be paid parental leaves,’ she adds with an air of finality.
Monica has many personal stories to discuss, but in general, her argument boils down to one simple statement: without paid parental leaves, stress levels in the maritime industry can become a problem. Some of the issues that she connected to the lack of paid leaves for new parents included the lack of life-work balance, the need to return to work soon after giving birth, the lack of fathers’ support, and the fact that some parents are forced to use up all their days off after childbirth.
‘They do not get much rest then – if you have ever spent any time with a newborn, you know that it is not exactly a vacation,’ she highlights. ‘And afterward, they cannot afford to get some. If rest is required for a stress-free employee, the first thing to consider is parental leaves in addition to normal days off. Parental leave is not an opportunity to rest – mostly, it is an opportunity to be a good parent, to do your duties as a parent.’
As the literature on the topic has already established, the supposed failure of being a parent is one of the most problematic stressors experienced by employees; it is even more prominent than perceived or actual failures in doing one’s job (Britt & Jex, 2015). Consequently, the discussion loops back to role conflicts and responsibilities that cause occupational stress: the lack of paid parental leave is connected to at least a couple of them, which shows just how essential it is for many American workers.
The position of the US is not truly unique: it is not the only country in the world that has not introduced paid leaves for its new parents. However, it is the only developed country to have such a shortcoming, which opens a unique opportunity for it: the US can use the experience of other developed countries to change this situation and introduce a piece of legislation that would support employees in their attempt to be good parents. President Trump’s budget of 2018 made use of this opportunity, and they proposed some provisions that would establish state-supported parental leaves with the rationale that this change would help to support families and children (Office of Management and Budget, 2017). Unfortunately, the proposition was criticized because of the inefficiencies of the developed system and worries about the ability of states to support it (National Employment Law Project, 2018). In the meantime, individual organizations can make their propositions for their employees, but according to Monica, it is not a very common plan.
‘I have been fighting tooth and nail for mothers here, and we do have somewhat sympathetic management, but that is not a solution. The more I look at our situation, the more I think that we need to make businesses accept a simple fact that parental leaves are necessary. And that can only be achieved by the government.’
This book is not here to start any revolutions in the field of US parental leaves policies. I just thought that it could be a remarkable thing to consider for employees and, especially, employers. Meanwhile, let us take a look at the other country that I had experience with and discuss the approach to parental leaves that Singapore has.
Singapore and parental leaves
Singapore is not a part of the OECD, but the country has both maternal and paternal leaves. There are a few simple rules on who is eligible for those, which make up a relatively complex system. I will not tire you with all the details, but general principles seem to be interesting and of importance for our topic. Firstly, a parent who wants a parental leave must have worked at least three months before taking one. Secondly, an employer needs to be aware of an employee’s decision to take parental leave at least one week before the event. These conditions make perfect sense since parental leave is paid by an employer (although the government provides partial reimbursements).
However, more factors are also significant: the coverage, the citizenship of a child, and the number of children that you have. The government only pays maternity leaves for mothers with children who are citizens of Singapore. Employers do not have to pay for maternity leaves after the second child, although they still can offer such benefits if they choose to. Also, a mother of a child who is a Singapore citizen can have up to 16 weeks of paid leave while that of a child who is not a citizen can have 8 weeks of paid leave and additional 4 weeks of unpaid leave. As for unpaid infant care leaves, shared parental leaves, and paternal leaves, they are only available for the children who are citizens, and they are generally shorter than maternal ones. A father of a Singapore citizen, for example, can take up to two paid weeks of paternity leave. Overall, the system is not very simple, and there are a lot of factors to be considered, but the website of the government of Singapore is there to help a confused mother or father to determine if they are eligible.
To sum up, there are a few conditions that can be especially important for the non-native workforce, which, as you probably remember, is very widely employed in the maritime industry of Singapore. I was interested in checking how the system works in practice. A few of my interviewees were hopeful about parental leaves, pointing out that it is a recent development.
‘I find that it is still a work in progress,’ Rebecca, a finance consultant, states. ‘We’ve recently introduced it, and we are still learning. Did you know, the mother’s entitlement to paid leave is no longer connected to being lawfully married to anyone? I think it’s awesome! We are getting the hang of it.’
According to Rebecca, as gender equality progresses all over the world, the attitudes toward women change for the best. Before 2017, women who were not married to the father of their child received reduced support (only 8 paid weeks at best – if a baby qualified as a citizen) and were entitled to only 12 weeks of total leave (4 of them unpaid). Today, the Ministry of Manpower (2018) points out that marriage does not matter anymore; even unmarried mothers can have up to 16 weeks of paid leave.
‘I think that it was a perfect example of double standards and was, well, discriminatory,’ Rebecca points out. ‘Discrimination is stress-inducing, right?’
Indeed, discrimination, for example, when it is associated with moral judgments against women’s sexuality, can be stress-inducing. On top of that, unmarried women are not any less likely to experience stress and issues related to childbirth. The new approach to maternity leaves promotes equality and gives women in Singapore an improved opportunity for taking care of their children.
However, despite enthusiasm about having parental leaves (and the concern for their American counterparts), my Singapore interviewees also had a lot of complaints.
‘I am grateful for the time that we are given,’ says Rebecca, ‘But a couple of months is not that much. Three or four months are better, of course, but I’d love to have more because it is so scary to leave a four-month-old baby to another’s care. Stressful, yes, using your words – it is stressful. A year would have been so much better – I think some countries offer you a year, right?’
‘I disagree that it is just about leaving your child,’ another mother notes. ‘I think that there is a much more important problem: young children need regular visits to doctors and a lot of care. I believe being absent during the first year of your child’s life is problematic because you cannot fulfill your obligations as a parent. This kind of failure is especially damning.’
‘I think that the leave for fathers is rather short,’ Khim points out, although she is a little hesitant to admit it. ‘I understand the reasoning, I suppose, but it seems restrictive to me because we can’t have my husband stay at home, even though both of us want that. Mostly, I worry about my position, and I think that the attitudes of my boss are not going to get better if I leave work for a couple of months. That is one of the main reasons why I hesitate to have children: I think that my career might be damaged as a result.’
As we have noted before, the maritime industry is a male-dominated one. This fact suggests that parental leaves may be of greater interest to this book, but on the other hand, it also has a great impact on the job security of young mothers, which is a major stress-related concern. Women in the maritime industry can encounter sexism and hostility from employers, and as suggested by Khim, the possibility of female workers to have paid parental leaves – disappearing from the workplace for a few weeks while being financially supported by their company – makes them less desirable as employees. Khim believes that she has to make a greater effort to keep her job as compared to her male coworkers, which can be partially attributed to the fact that her employer might be incredibly unwilling to pay for her maternity leave. According to Khim, the reimbursements do not necessarily cover all employers’ expenses (which is true), and, accordingly, employers have an incentive not to promote this practice. Khim’s opinion is that, even though Singapore parents are entitled to parental leaves, they might still not get one because of a variety of concerns.
‘I know for a fact that there are cases when employers find the means of discouraging people from taking parental leaves,’ reports Gemi, who is a financial manager, supporting Khim’s suspicions. ‘Note, it is illegal, but it is difficult to prove, especially when the prohibition is implicit. I also think that it is stressful. A woman might know that she has the right to maternity leave, but if her employer is bent on not letting it happen, she can only get one through the court. Do you think that a pregnant woman or a woman with a recently born baby is going to have the time and strength to go to courts?’
In both the US and Singapore, parental leaves are a source of stress, even though the reasons for this stress are different. While in the US, parents are mostly concerned about money and time, in Singapore, parents are worried about their ability to get their legally-protected leave without causing much damage to their career. Multiple sources of stress are observed: the interviewees report worrying about their spouses (mostly wives) and children and feeling that they need to perform their parental and spousal duties. Moreover, they are also concerned about job opportunities and relationships with their superiors. Either way, work-life balance crises appear to be most prominent when newborns are concerned.
Reasons for and against parental leaves
My interviewees noted a few reasons for and against parental leaves. I was fortunate to ask Steve about this topic, wondering if his organization was also advanced enough to offer this type of paid leaves to its employees. When explaining the situation, Steve made a very good point:
‘From what I know, businesses, especially small ones, are very hesitant when maternity leaves are considered. A governmental mandate could resolve the issue, sure, but we need to pass such a bill first. And many people would be against it, you know?’
Despite their very modern approach to paid leaves, Steve’s company does not offer paid maternity leaves – at least, not directly and not in this phrasing.
‘We find solutions, and we do support the mothers who work for us,’ he insists. ‘But officially… no, we do not have maternity leaves and not paternity ones.’
As pointed out by Steve, parental leaves are not cheap, especially if they are paid by employers. In Singapore, for example, the government reimburses the payments, yes, but there is a lot of fine print to this stipulation: for instance, there are maximum reimbursements, even though employers are still obligated to pay full wages to the mothers who take their leave (Ministry of Manpower, 2018).
If maternity leave is considered from the perspective of the immediate financial gain or loss, it can be daunting indeed, especially for businesses. Additionally, even if the government is the one to pay the bills, its funds are formed by taxes, that is, by taxpayers. Thus, a government that is used not to provide parental leaves will need to balance its budget very carefully. That is what one of the objections to President Trump’s proposals related to parental leaves consists of: American citizens do not consider the proposed budget to be capable of supporting parental leaves and anticipate an increase in taxes. Thus, financial concerns are not just those of employers; average taxpayers might also be worried, even though they can also be interested in the idea of parental leaves. However, the US might not be the best setting in which to consider the actual effects that parental leaves are likely to have. Instead, the real-life experience of Singapore can be revised.
‘Do parental leaves endanger your business?’ I ask Wong, a middle manager in a shipbuilding company in Singapore. He is quick to assure me that it is not too big of a problem.
‘Not really, no. I understand what you mean – there are more than a few ways in which it can be problematic.’
‘First, the payments,’ I suggest, mindful of Steve’s comments.
‘Yes, although we do not pay all of it. It’s not my field of expertise, actually, but I know for sure that we do not pay all of it, and there are reimbursement practices, so it is not that big of a problem.’
Wong cannot speak for all of Singapore, but according to him, parental leaves do not differ from any other leaves from the perspective of immediate financial losses. The manager also admits that employees need their rest to achieve a work-life balance. However, there is another feature of parental leaves that sets it apart from other types of days off the duration.
‘Personally,’ Wong states, ‘I am always more worried about losing my workers for some time – as well as finding some kind of replacement for them while they are gone. It can be a real problem in some cases.’
According to the legislation of Singapore, expecting and new mothers cannot be fired (Ministry of Manpower, 2018). This article was introduced to prevent employers from avoiding the problems and financial losses of maternity leaves by simply finding a permanent replacement while leaving the fired woman in a vulnerable state without financial protection. However, as pointed out by Wong, finding a replacement for a relatively short duration is more difficult than finding a permanent one: after all, most employees prefer some kind of permanence and stability when looking for a job.
‘There are solutions like dividing the workload between the remaining employees or outsourcing, but these are not always applicable,’ Wong notes. ‘However… well, it is worth it. I would rather want a woman who had her rest and got to spend some time with the baby. I think we owe our mothers that much.’
Wong appears to be a passionate supporter of parental leaves, even though he focuses on maternity ones. This perspective reminds me of another issue that has been mentioned by some of my Singaporean interviewees. As the previous arguments have shown, maternity leaves can be problematic. Does that sound like a reason to avoid hiring women?
‘I worry that with maternal leaves, businesses might start finding ways not to employ American women. The maritime industry is already not the most… women-friendly one. At least in my experience,’ Steve adds. ‘It is a very complex topic indeed.’
Wong is not happy to admit it, but he also finds that the maritime industry does not need another reason not to employ women.
‘It’s not the only reason, I suppose. We do not have that many women anyway, it’s cultural, I think. But I would not be surprised if someone looking for the ways not to… employs a woman, among other things, to avoid paying maternity leaves.’
Singapore has been promoting women’s rights, but analysts acknowledge the fact that female representation in certain industries and, especially in leadership positions, remains lacking, which is reflected in a wage gap (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). The fact that, in Singapore, as well as all over the world, women in the maritime industry remain underrepresented is important for the topic of maternity leaves. After all, at least in the countries where they are offered, they might contribute to the problem, right? Well, Rebecca disagrees.
‘The reason why women are underemployed is discrimination, plain and simple. And if anyone says that maternity leaves may cause women’s underemployment, they are wrong. Discrimination is a stressful cause. Parenting being delegated to women is the cause. Not a measure meant to provide mothers – and fathers – with the opportunity to take care of newborns.’
She does acknowledge that the outcome is the same: if maternity leave is introduced in the US, increased exclusion of women from the workforce is not out of the question.
‘Still, know that not hiring a woman just because she is a woman is illegal in Singapore. We frown upon discrimination,’ Wong insists. ‘Also, you cannot fire a pregnant woman, and in general, we have laws in place to protect them.’
‘Do they work?’
‘I think they do. But I can also imagine a situation in which they would not.’
Now, this discussion paints a bleak picture, and I feel compelled to point out that not every employer tries to prevent a mother from getting her state-guaranteed leaves. After all, they are people; they may also have kids, and, as Michael has told us, they might also be hard-pressed to find the time to spend with their family. They can be very understanding. Reports have been made about the situations in which organizations offer extended maternity leaves. According to Kok Xing Hui (2017), PrimeStaff, which is a recruitment company in Singapore, saw a decrease of 50% in the turnover rate among the mothers who it employed after an increase of maternity leave to 18 weeks. Another company chose to extend the paternal leave to three weeks, and the practice proved to be of interest to young fathers. The company did not disclose the costs and tangible benefits of the practice, but its spokeswoman pointed it out that the organization wanted intangible benefits: it tried to allow its employees to spend time with their families, which, from her perspective, makes them “very motivated.”
‘I think that social policies – like maternity leave – are a good way to distinguish your organization from other ones,’ Rebecca points out. ‘Organizations also need to be competitive! I guess that it is not true for all positions, but in those that rely on highly educated, highly experienced human resources, being competitive is the key to attracting the best specialists.’
Wong agrees with this idea and points out that maternity leaves are an excellent strategy in attracting and retaining female workers while reducing levels of stress for them:
‘Women want children, as a rule. If I am not going to provide them with maternity leaves, they might find another company. Alternatively, they will have a very stressful first year with their baby, which will cause troubles one way or another.’
However, the interviewees who I have managed to recruit for this book did not experience extended parental leaves themselves. They admit that the maritime industry in Singapore does not rely on female workers, which might explain the lack of such practice in their workplaces.
When concluding my interview with Steve, we came to an interesting conclusion: the situation with parental leaves is identical to that with any other stress-reducing approach. Parental leaves are an investment without direct, visible returns which are motivated by certain moral arguments as much as they are motivated by potential positive outcomes for a company. They are also in place to avoid negative outcomes, including those related to employee stress. As a result, unless a company is interested in supporting its employees and improving their quality of life, parental leaves can seem daunting and cause some employers and other taxpayers to avoid passing relevant legislation or employ the people who might want to demand a parental leave. However, this approach to employees is outdated. It might work for an employer who is fine with having stressed-out and low-performing employees and high turnover rates. It might work for a quick cash-in, but the maritime industry is not made for quick cash-ins. Apart from being morally problematic, this approach is not sustainable, especially in the maritime industry which relies on highly experienced and stress-free workers. Thus, parental leaves – just like any other stress-reducing method – are the point where the moral obligations of an employer meet the bottom line.
The role of the manager
When discussing the role of a manager in handling the problem of parental leaves, it is necessary to keep in mind that the government provides the general guidelines (if any) on the issue. As a result, while it is important to keep the practices legal, the particular solution to the question of how much time off should new parents be provided can be customized depending on a company or even its specific departments. Some areas that employ young people who are likely to get a child may indeed benefit greatly from implementing a liberal paternal leave policy, but other ones that mostly employ older people might not experience a similar need. Additionally, it is necessary to take into account the fact that parental leaves, especially when not supported by the government, are expensive. As a result, when making decisions about parental leaves, customized solutions are the only way to succeed.
However, certain general factors can still be considered. First of all, parental leaves are important; this fact is supported by the very limited number of countries that do not support parental leaves. The practice may be expensive, but it is a crucial aspect of ensuring the ability of employees to balance their work and life. The reports of the employees prove that they are very interested in having appropriate options and that their absence is a source of concern and stress. In turn, the managers support the notion due to its ability to appease employees and reduce their stress. Thus, overlooking this opportunity to assist employees in managing work-and-life balance and, as a result, reduce workplace stress is not wise.
Second, it is not a good idea to refuse to acknowledge the value of paternal leaves, that is, the options for fathers. The experience of the OECD (2016), as well as Singapore, shows that the need for fathers to spend time with their newborns is often considered to be less significant than that of a mother even by governments: paid paternal leaves are often shorter than maternal ones. Also, OECD (2016) reports that fathers can be reluctant to take parental leaves, which may be attributed to several cultural and economic reasons. The general outcome of this tendency that OECD (2016) warns about is the damage to women’s careers, but it should be acknowledged that fathers may still have a need or wish to take care of their baby. As a result, to promote equality and reduce workplace stress, a manager needs to pay attention to the development of paternal leaves options.
Also, it should be noted that despite the official presence of parental leaves, parents may still feel uncertain about using them. Going back to the Singapore experience of using advanced maternal and paternal leaves, an important issue reported by Hui (2017) is that employees might feel penalized for using them, which can prevent both the employees and employers from enjoying the benefits of those policies. As pointed out by a CEO from Singapore, managers are instrumental in avoiding this, in particular, due to their part in ensuring the working communication between employees and employers. Managers would be expected to acknowledge and support the right of parents to parental leave, communicate the accurate information about their company’s policies to both employees and other managers, and enable feedback options that will ensure the protection of this right. Thus, the role of managers in supporting the work-life balance of their employees through parental leaves is crucial.
Other Methods of Managing Work-Life Balance
There are some relatively common perspectives on how work-life balance should be managed. A very typical method can be termed as “family-friendly benefits,” which is typically concerned with empowering employees to perform their family duties or ensuring that their job does not have too noticeable detrimental effects on their personal life. Parental leaves are among them, but other options can also be considered. A common example is a flexible schedule; it can be employed, for instance, by a person who needs to combine studies and work. On the other hand, a solution that has been designed specifically for parents is daycare. It can be especially helpful for single parents. Thus, family-friendly benefits are a set of rather diverse interventions that are tailored to the specific needs of employees; they are particularly employee-friendly.
Another approach that is highlighted by Britt and Jex (2015) as the major achievement in the field is the idea of viewing a work-life balance in a more positive light. Indeed, do the two parts of this balance have to conflict? Britt and Jex (2015) describe the notion of work-family facilitation, in which the two parts of our life can become beneficial for each other rather than pernicious. A good example is an emotional boost that a person can have from some quality time with the family: it can result in a person’s good mood, which, in turn, can be favorable for performance.
‘I do like Fridays because I have more time to spend with my family this day, it is a kind of refreshing for me,’ explains Sonia while discussing her vision of work-life balance. ‘My life is full of stress, but I need some time to relax and think about something else.’
Similarly, gaining a promotion or generally securing an appropriate salary is a good way of ensuring the well-being of one’s family. Britt and Jex (2015) report that not very extensive research on the topic can still be used to illustrate the idea that people who perceive their family and work life as mutually beneficial and not conflicting are more likely to report improved well-being, which makes this type of work-life balance a safeguard against stress. However, the approach is still new and in need of more detailed research, especially with a focus on achieving this positive balance.
The role of the manager
While the above-presented solutions all hinge on the intervention of a manager, it should be noted that some general principles are not connected to specific strategies, but which can help a manager to carry them out successfully. First, a manager must respect the fact that their employees have a life outside of the workplace. While this statement seems apparent and simple, many managers fail to do so, implicitly or explicitly demanding that their employees dedicate more time and effort than reasonable to their workplace responsibilities. Apart from that, Mike’s example also shows that they do not necessarily do it consciously; if a company does not incorporate the respect towards employees’ time in its culture, the idea might not even come to their minds. Therefore, making the conscious effort to acknowledge this simple truth is important. However, Britt and Jex (2015) note that this rule does not imply that a manager cannot make demands and cannot occasionally intrude during non-working hours (for example, by contacting an employee with an urgent message while they are already at home). They only emphasize the fact that this kind of behavior can be a justifiable exclusion, not the rule.
Additionally, since Britt and Jex (2015) appear to be very interested in leading by example, they also recommend doing precisely that: striving to find a balance between work and life for oneself. As Mike confessed, even managers can experience difficulties in this regard, and the example of a workaholic manager who does not dedicate much time to their family may cause their employees to assume that they are expected to demonstrate similar dedication. On the other hand, a manager who respects the boundaries between their own life and work can set the correct example (at least, in terms of stress and well-being) and promote healthy attitudes to work. Also, while learning to respect themselves and balance their work and life, a manager is likely to gain a better understanding of this process. As a result of being intimately familiar with the situation, they will be better equipped to help others achieve the same.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Congratulations, you made it to the end of this section! Now, it can do us some good to recap. As you have probably noticed, to make suggestions for the maritime industry, I did have to pick pretty diverse sources, and most of them, unfortunately, were not focused on the maritime industry. I think that it is a shame; my workplace is unique in more ways than one, and some of them are stress-inducing. However, I have to admit that the existing literature can provide advice, which can be applied to the maritime industry.
What are the main conclusions we can come to? First, there is a general guideline on how to manage stress: you can prevent it, you can empower employees (or just yourself) to deal with it, and you can deal with the outcomes. If you want more specific solutions, you may need to do some research both into your company and what is commonly done to resolve your problem; tailored solutions are better than generic ones and are more feasible. Also, you need to make sure that the solution works: track it, check its outcomes, and decide if it is worth keeping.
Managers are the ones who are going to be held accountable for stress levels at work; they are also the ones who have the resources and authority to make changes happen. However, it is also apparent that an individual employee can contribute; to name just a few options, they can report issues, propose ideas, or combat the negative elements of a particularly toxic organizational culture. Workplace stress levels are like workplace security (which is also connected to stress): everybody can have an impact, and we can make sure that it is a positive one.
Stress is complex, and resolving it is a similarly complex endeavor, which is why it is probably good that it can intersect with things like safety concerns or effective management. Indeed, you can simultaneously review your safety policy and make your workplace less stress-prone. However, occupational stress is also a fact of our life, and we cannot help but search for the means of dealing with it. Hopefully, this book has provided you with some helpful advice and inspirational stories on the matter, and if not, you know the drill: identify the problem and start your research! And do not be afraid to improvise; there is nothing better than a creative solution made specifically for your workplace.
The discussion of stress is, well, a stressful one. When writing this book, I would often find the topics that it covered rather difficult to handle, and I think that a few of my interviewees felt the same. This theme forced me to describe so many problems that even I felt upset by them. I hoped that the second section of the book would be more positive, but as you can see, it required delving deeper into the problems I had mentioned at the beginning. Occupational stress is a problem, or, at least, it is likely to be a problem if it is not managed well. This inherent nature of this topic must have affected what I had to say. However, I want to finish with a more positive outlook on stress, and I can do that by presenting you with a few thoughts that my interviewees wanted me to tell you about.
Remember Steve, the one who knows how to force and manage change in an organization? He is probably one of the most optimistic people I have interviewed (possibly, because he had amazing experiment results to report), and he is not going to stop now.
‘I think life is about change, and change is about improvement. Not naturally, I guess, but that is the beauty of it – in my workplace, I get to control the change, and I am going to make sure that it improves the well-being of my followers. Although my new change project is not related to stress, we are working to improve workplace communication, actually.’
I was happy to tell him all I learned about good and bad management and how miscommunication can cause stressful situations, though, and he wholeheartedly agreed. After all, if there is a lesson I took out of this research, it is that stress is incredibly complex. Is there even a thing in the workplace that is not a potential stressor? At this point, it looks like virtually any improvement might reduce stress, and that is the silver lining to stress being widespread, is it not?
‘I understand that any type of work is associated with the stress of this or that kind, we just cannot avoid it in our lives, but I believe that it is possible to learn how to handle it. My manager works hard to improve our working conditions, and it helps in more ways than one. On the one hand, it just makes my workplace better, and on the other hand, guess how happy I am to have such an awesome boss,’ states one of the respondents.
I am also happy for her because that boss is, of course, Steve, and Steve is awesome. I am so grateful to him for allowing me to tell you a true story of success. I am glad that I was able to report some positive changes in the workplace but to be fair, that was not the only positive story I have heard.
‘Oh, I had some training in coping with stress. The coach explained stuff about different types of stressors, and I think that helps to understand why it happens and how to deal with it. We also got a lot of info about coping strategies. I did not try all of them, but it turns out that jogging is great. That was the most helpful training I ever got, I think,’ told me another very empowered interviewee. And it is stories like these that make me believe that we really can make a difference.
One of the most inspiring things I heard was a few words that my anonymous Singaporean seafarer wanted me to hear. We were talking about the hardships of seafaring: being torn away from your family for extended periods, having to deal with the dangers of the sea, hard work and sleep issues, and so on. He agreed with some of my points, but when I tried to discuss the problems that many people experience because of the sea – like its noises or the instability brought by it – he told me that for him, it was not that much of a problem.
‘I love the sea,’ he told me with a smile, ‘I love my job.’
My interviewee wanted to work as a seafarer since he was a child and long before he knew what the job was about.
‘I honestly thought I would be able to go anywhere I want,’ he laughs, ‘but it was not too big a disappointment to learn that I’d be going where I am told to go. The sea is the same.’
He believes that another job is not “his” and, therefore, would be much less satisfying.
‘I would not want another job, safer or quieter perhaps …,’ he claims, ‘say, being cooped up in an office all the time – I would not manage that. Being cooped up but in the sea is so much better.’
He believes that another job, especially one where he would be “cooped up,” would be significantly more stress-inducing specifically for him. Some people might find the sea daunting or unpleasant, but for him, it offers an opportunity to do precisely what he wants.
Now, I did not manage to find research on the way doing your favorite job affects your stress levels. I guess, nobody came up with the idea of researching the impact of dream jobs on stress, and that is a shame; probably, “dream job” is too elusive as a concept and too unscientific as a term. However, what is researched rather extensively is the impact of job satisfaction on several things, and that factor does matter. The more satisfied you are with your job, the less likely you are to be stressed. The opposite is also apparently accurate: if you are doing something that you do not want to do, you might get stressed. It is not too much of a stretch to assume that choosing a job you like can become another level of protection from stress. And I met a lot of people who are happy to be where they are.
‘I think I have been dreaming about the sea since my childhood, although my first ship experience was less than ideal. Yes, I got seasick and everything,’ I was told. ‘But it was thrilling anyway, the sea, and so, so beautiful. I am not sick anymore, and I am stressed by my work sometimes, sure, but I chose this job, and I do not think I regret my choice.’
Also, if you like your organization, that is a good factor as well.
‘I am sure that all performance assessments and supervisors’ questionnaires, you know, indicate a high level of my commitment to my organization, and it’s true,’ told me one of the interviewees with a grin. ‘My company treats us all with respect, so it deserves some respect back. The only problem we have is that sometimes the workload is too much, but that is because we don’t have enough workforce right now; I’m certain that will change soon. Maybe, my work is stressful, yeah, but I can manage this stress to receive real satisfaction from what I am doing here.’
‘I love me some challenge,’ grins another interviewee unapologetically. ‘And that is precisely what I get here, so it’s all perfectly fine in my book.’
I noticed that a lot of people I talked to have a love for their job which helps them in overcoming struggles. Khim, who fights a mostly winning battle against her boss, who is not particularly happy to have her there, does not leave because she loves her job. She has chosen a field of work that she loves and a company she thinks is good for her, and she wants to become successful in it. Steve adores his company, his department, his successful experiment, and all of his employees (followers, he calls them) who made it possible. It is apparent that Monica is ridiculously protective of her department; at the very least, she loves the people she works with, and she is willing to fight battles for them if needed. Together with my humble self, we are in the place where we want to be, and that must make our lives way easier.
That said, we are not oblivious to the issues that our organizations face. Our investment in our work just might be the reason why we want to see some changes, and a few of us do that: we promote change. We can attempt to make this place more welcoming for newcomers and more comfortable for ourselves. And one way of achieving it is making sure that the problem of workplace stress in the maritime industry is recognized and addressed.
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