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Stress and The Barbadian Worker

Stress has become the “buzz word” of the last two decades, and stress and related illnesses, like burnout, depression, anxiety and heart disease are among the leading causes of ill health and death across the industrialised world. It’s fitting for us to deal with the issue for the following reason. Some people seem to believe that stress is something people imagine, perhaps, because stress and other mental health problems do not present in the same way as physical injuries, for example, a broken leg or a cut (the things we can see).

But stress is real. Regrettably, most Barbadians still only speak to safety and disregard or minimize the health component in the occupational safety and health equation. Moreover, little regard is paid to mental health issues, which present some of the major problems in today’s workplaces.

It is important to link mental health and physical health, because research conducted in the field of mental health informs that mental health inherently affects physical health and physical health affects mental health. The two are inseparable in terms of achieving a more complete state of wellness.

The monstrous traffic problem is among those things causing considerable stress to Barbadian workers. It is a concern, which the Government and the Social Partners must tackle with urgency. We go to bed thinking about the stress and the time-wasting we will suffer on the streets the next morning, if we dare to leave home after 7 o’clock. Moreover, the stress from the jam-packed streets seems to be causing some motorists to take risks, which may be detrimental to other road users and themselves. We are swift to blame the lack of productivity on poor performance by so-called indolent and shifty workers, but we want those who pass judgment on workers to tell us how much production and productivity workers can give after having been forced to inch and fume through two hours of traffic every morning, in temperatures in the 80s and 90s.

When once we have been able to reach work after suffering the effects of high humidity, carbon monoxide fumes, the honking of horns, the mini-bus syndrome, and other stress-related issues, we are ready for a hospital stretcher. Add the stress that results from the traffic snarl to the every-day stressors, which stem from factors like poor pay, poor relationships in the workplace – and we are candidates for a stroke or heart attack. And if you are employed in the services sector, you have to whip up every ounce of discipline to deal with your publics, particularly in this era where the customer is king.

Let’s address some of the other social and workplace issues that affect Barbadian workers. While we have great ambitions for our country, we don’t have all of the required social services to meet the demands that a modern Barbados imposes.

Sue Springer of the BHTA, in speaking about absenteeism, was bold enough to address the absence of social services, particularly as they affect working-women in Barbados.  When a working woman, who has children of school age, is unable to obtain adequate support for the care of her children like family, friends, or baby crèches, what do you want her to do? Leave her children in the streets? What about workers, who earn a weekly wage, who can’t afford a car, who work after the scheduled bus hours and have to contend with the wiles of the streets? What about those young women, who are victimised by fellow workers, supervisors or bosses, because they don’t stoop to their sexual advances? What about workers whose jobs are threatened because of mergers and take-overs, as happened in Barbados, in the recent past year or so in the telecommunications industry, banking, insurance and retail sectors? What about workers who are placed on week-on, week-off, or two days out of a five-day workweek, do you think they can plan properly? Are you not creating a climate of stress?

The new workplace culture in Barbados proclaims that jobs for life are gone forever and short-term contracts are becoming more commonplace. But people on short-term contracts cannot chart their future. That is stress.

Some local employers have sought to follow the trend in the North Atlantic to down-size and reorganize themselves into a state of what one writer calls “a state of corporate anorexia”. But stress, due to rightsizing, redundancies or whatever we call it, place existing staff under more pressure. The invasion of information technology (IT) is part of the development. The pressure of mastering the IT revolution fuels workplace stress. Moreover, new technology and computer science are imposing their tempo on daily life and make the borderline between work and private life more and more unclear. The advent of the cell phone and the lap top, and e-mail keeps you on constant call and reduces leisure and family time. You see how some people are hooked on the cell-phone, which rings even in church.

Thousands upon thousands of studies and surveys, carried out in the Industrialised world show that work stress is a serious health problem. We know of no similar studies in Barbados to which we can point, and that is, perhaps, what prevents people in Barbados from accepting that the workplace can – and does – lead to stress. The high tempo of life and its pressures are putting tremendous stress on people, even our leaders. Reflect on the fact that Dominica lost two leaders – all gone to heart disease. Think of the experiences of President Clinton, Tony Blair, and Prime Minister Errol Barrow of Barbados. That should tell us something.

We have therefore to seriously look at the mental and physical health of our people. How do we build that culture? In order to have a sound system that governs occupational safety and health, we need in Barbados to do a number of things. First, we have to make occupational safety and health a core organisational value, along with customer service, financial performance and productivity. Second, we must ensure that chief executive officers and senior management personally set the standard for safety and health performance. Legislation and all the trappings that accompany it – regulations and compliance - are important; but you can’t legislate attitudes. A safety culture is positive, only when workers honestly believe that safety is a key value of the organization and can perceive that it is high on the list of the organisation’s priorities. You can’t – as some people think - force people to work in objectionable conditions and demand optimum productivity; it won’t work. Additional to the foregoing, we need to put in place a workable system of record-keeping that permits us to know what’s happening regarding accidents and illnesses in the workplace.

Proper statistical information can guide research on workplace issues, by researchers, organizational psychologists as well University and related institutions.

In the United Kingdom, where there is a more accepted system of record keeping and where studies are done more regularly, the ILO estimates that more than 40 million working days are lost each year due to stress-related disorders. According to one estimate, stress costs British industry 2 to 3 percent of gross domestic product a year, in the form of sickness absence, high turnover, lost productive value, increased recruitment and selection costs and medical expenses.