Increased Stress in the ABA Workplace Calls for Reform

Huffington Post’s article The American Workplace Is Broken. Here’s How We Can Start Fixing It, states that the levels of stress in the workplace are higher now than they were 30 years ago. According to the article, stress levels are 18 percent higher for women and 24 percent higher for men. Potential reasons for these increases include blurred lines in reference to an employee’s personal and work life, as well as unreasonable workloads.


The Clinical World of Applied Behavior Analysis and Workplace Stressors

Although it may seem logical from an organization’s perspective to add to the caseload of its Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBAs), while limiting the time they spend on non-billable activities, this practice comes at a price: Research indicates that burnout, stress and management practices directly relate to employee turnover, which can be costly.

The article, Why people quit your company and how behavior analysis can slow the revolving door at ABA service providers, discusses the costs associated with employee turnover. The costs associated with the loss of an employee at the behavior technician level were approximately $5,000. For an employee at the Board Certified Behavioral Analyst level, those costs increase substantially from 30 percent to as high as 100 percent of the individual’s annual salary.


Stress is More Than Just an Employee’s Problem

While some organizations may perceive workplace stress as an employee problem, in reality, stress is a management and leadership matter. Although advice on issues related to diet, exercise and time management is valuable to staff members, applied behavior analysis organizations should work toward preventing stress in the first place. Stress that goes unchecked could cause a decline in an employee’s performance and productivity, thus negatively affecting the persons being served.


Study: Workplace Stressors and Health

Using meta-analysis, a group of researchers examined how workplace stressors effect an employee’s physical and psychological health. It is typically easier for employers to address a single workplace stressor; therefore, the researchers analyzed single stressors as opposed to composites. Furthermore, addressing the single stressors naturally lessens the impact of broader composites that include the individual stressors being addressed.

The researchers examined a group of workplace conditions that are presumed to undermine an individual’s health.

These conditions include:

  • Job Control
  • Long Working Hours
  • Work/Family Conflict
  • Shift Work
  • Job Demands

The combination of job control and job demand are referred to as job strain.


Mitigating Negative Effects Related to Job Stressors

Workplace conditions that may alleviate the negative consequences of job stressors were also examined.

These conditions included:

  • Social Networking Opportunities
  • Social Support
  • Health Insurance Benefits
  • Organizational Justice (an employee’s perceived level of fairness)
  • Employment Security (layoffs and job loss)


Health Outcome Identification

This study focuses on four outcomes that are commonly used in the study of health effects of work environments.

These outcomes include:

  • An individual’s perception of poor mental health
  • An individual’s perception of poor physical health
  • The presence of a medical condition (diagnosed)
  • Mortality

No matter how outcomes are measured, they are generally classified in an ‘either/or’ way. For instance, an individual’s health is either ‘good’ or ‘poor.’

Study after study has indicated that an individual’s perception of his or her own health status significantly predicts the probability of subsequent illness and mortality risk. This remains true even after taking into account other predictors that are relevant to health, such as age and marital status. Furthermore, these predictive values hold true across various age groups and ethnicities.


Poor Health Outcomes Related to Secondhand Smoke Comparable to Outcomes Related to Work Stressors

The negative health effects of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke is widely recognized and significant enough to warrant regulatory intervention. The results of this study indicate that, in general, work stressors increase the odds of poor health outcomes by approximately the same amount that exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke does.

Assessing 228 studies, the researchers find that:

  • The social and psychological aspects of the workplace environment, including low social support, lack of perceived fairness, work/family conflict and limited job control affect an individual’s health in much the same way that exposure to shift work, overtime and long work hours do. Study results indicate that long work hours increase an employee’s mortality by nearly 20 percent.
  • Limited job control and unemployment have substantial associations with all health outcomes, just as absence of health insurance does for the outcomes for which a sufficient number of studies were available for review. Except for the work/family conflict stressor, all the work stressors examined increase the probability of an employee developing a physician diagnosed medical condition. Furthermore, job insecurity raises the odds of an employee reporting poor health by about 50 percent.
  • Low organizational justice increases an employee’s odds of a physician-diagnosed condition by approximately 50 percent; whereas, work/family conflict increases an employee’s odds of self-reporting poor physical health by around 90 percent. In addition, high job demands increase the odds of an employee having a physician-diagnosed illness by 35 percent.


Preventing Stress and Burnout

Many organizations do enact policies designed to prevent stress and burnout, policy changes must be supported by cultural shifts; otherwise, employees will not feel comfortable following these policies. Therefore, these new behavioral norms must be reinforced by managers and leaders through example.

Organizations can support cultural changes through policies that:

  1. Allow staff members to participate in preferred, non-billable activities including continuing education, research and professional events.
  2. Recognize that individual management strategies for stress do not address its root cause.
  3. Support practical supervision limits.

As the field of behavior analysis continues to grow, the organizations that are dedicated to creating a work environment with a culture supporting BCBAs and embracing the values associated with the field, while working to reduce the stress related to everyday challenges are likely to be the organizations that succeed.


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Trina McMillin

Trina brings to Relias a wealth of knowledge and personal experience related to the medical field, dental issues, mental health, and physical therapy techniques. She has worked in various positions over her career which includes being a phlebotomist, laboratory assistant and medical transcriptionist.

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