The Impact of Stress on a Utility Worker, and How to Manage the Stress



Man in yellow vest drilling the pavement in a London StreetThe utility industry has unique stressors, but utility workers are also subject to common, everyday workplace stress. Methods of coping with that stress can also be common and everyday but there’s at least one unique approach, too.

Let’s start with what’s unique about stress for utility workers. There are several categories of stress; here are the five main ones.

1. Emergency response. While much utility work is installation and maintenance, which are stressful in their own right, emergency response is a big part of the job. Natural disasters and infrastructure failure are common causes of emergency response. Natural disasters are especially damaging to electrical service, as shown in this report on outages from 2013 to 2021 done by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Outages not related to major events remained steady through the period while those resulting from such events more than doubled. The demand to restore services quickly weighs on workers. Utilities often send workers to areas hit by natural disaster to assist in restoration of services, adding the stress of travel and unfamiliar surroundings to the mix.

2. Physical demands. Climbing, lifting and carrying are among the common physical exertions that must be performed by utility workers, often in extreme weather conditions. As lineman Aaron LeBlanc noted in our interview with him, the physical demands of the industry are decreasing but are not zero and the reduction is not universal to all jobs in all markets.

3. Safety concerns. The cost of failure is high in utility work. Proper use of PPE and consistent use of utility locates reduce the likelihood of failure, but as with physical demands the safety risks are not zero and the awareness of this fact can amplify stress.

4. Regulatory compliance. Utilities are essential to the functioning of the country and reliability must be ensured, so there are multiple agencies whose directives must be satisfied in performing utility work. These include safety, environmental and property rights factors.

5. Technological advances. Also in our interview with LeBlanc, he mentions that new tools have made the lineman’s job much easier. Ergonomics and haptics are essential considerations in this development. That’s good, but it must be remembered that mastering new technology is another source of stress. Older designs had shortcomings, to be sure, but they were at least familiar. These new technologies show up in everything from hot sticks to bucket trucks.


Work-related stress factors can be found in virtually all work settings, including utility work, and can be roughly broken into two groups.

The first group is the work environment. The workload may be very high or may have added stress from tight deadlines, resource shortages (tools, materials, personnel, etc.). Management style may not make employees feel appreciated or that they have control (the sense of powerlessness is a big contributor to stress). The organizational structure may have poor communication, inflexible demands or hierarchies of preferential treatment of workers. Murky job descriptions create unclear responsibilities and reporting procedures and other vagaries, collectively known as role ambiguity. Lack of job security is a huge stressor. The key for management is to understand that whether these circumstances exist is not the issue. The issue is whether they are perceived to exist by employees. The real presence of such issues can create such perceptions, but so can poor communication and other organizational weaknesses.

The other group of common work stress factors are the personal ones. These include interpersonal conflicts with coworkers, members of management and the general public. Poor work-life balance is another factor. An effective management style will help employees identify and manage these and similar personal issues.

Effective stress management strategies

Whether at the corporate or individual level, mitigating stress requires three steps: acknowledge that stress exists, identify the specific sources and types of stress and develop a plan for minimizing stress.

The National Institute of Mental Health has a list of publications about stress. Each is available in both English and Spanish. There are two under the heading of “I’m So Stressed Out!” One is a fact sheet and the other is an infographic that can be downloaded and printed for workplace display. They’re both intended for a youth audience but the information they provide, including differentiating between stress and anxiety, is valuable for persons of any age. The coping mechanisms cited are standard fare but have been proven effective.

NIMH also has an abstract of a paper by Alia J. Crum, Jeremy P. Jamieson and Modupe Akinola in which the authors assert that stress can be optimized: "…we explain how altering second-level valuation systems—shifting the valuation of stress from “is bad for me” to “can be good for me”—fundamentally changes the overarching goal of stress regulation from reducing stress to optimizing stress responses to achieve valued goals."

Subscribe to The Utility Expo monthly newsletter to receive more industry insights like this.  


Read Next

Improve Your Mental Health at Work

Why the Next Generation of the Workforce Should Consider Working in the Utilities Industry

Top Tech Trends for Utilities in 2024