Employers Take Steps to Relieve Workers Stress

Proactive companies do more than merely help stressed-out employees develop coping skills. They attack the causes of stress, experts say.

Such employers try to simplify people’s lives at work and at home, says Michael J. Thompson, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York.

“Even in our own firm, we’ve taken a conscious effort to help people unplug from work,” Thompson says.

When PwC employees check their work e-mail over the weekend, a note pops up reminding them that it’s the weekend. “We encourage them to kind of hold off until the next week,” Thompson says. The company also monitors vacation days taken and encourages employees who have reached the limit of carry-over days to use their time off.

Research has shown stress to be a significant driver of health care costs. Employees who say they are under uncontrolled stress have medical expenditures that are 46 percent higher than those who were not stressed, according to a study by Health Enhancement Research Organization, a not-for-profit research coalition based in Birmingham, Alabama. Its focus is on health promotion and individual productivity. The study, first published in 1998, is cited widely because of its size and scope: It involved six large employers and more than 46,000 employees who completed a common health risk appraisal and were followed as long as three years.

Research also has found that stress fuels absenteeism, hampers on-the-job productivity and contributes to costly employee turnover. A 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 52 percent of employees considered looking for a new job, quit their job, declined a promotion or didn’t seek advancement because of stress. Some 55 percent admitted they are less productive because of stress.

According to Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s 2007/2008 Staying@Work report, 48 percent of employers recognize that stress caused by working long hours affects business performance, but only 5 percent are taking steps to address it.

“The reality is, in many, many workplaces there’s a big disconnect between what employees are going through and the levels of stress they’re experiencing and employers even picking up on the fact that that’s an issue,” says Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, a Scottsdale, Arizona, unit of human resources association WorldatWork.

Even when companies are concerned about stress, they’ll typically address employees’ susceptibility to stress, says Lyle H. Miller, co-founder of Boston-based consulting firm Stress Directions Inc. Companies may launch a wellness or stress management program, but “really what they need to do is to focus on the causes of the stress and then they can go in and do something systemic,” he says.

One reason many employers respond slowly is they “don’t want to just slap a Band-Aid on the problem,” says Peter G. Burki, CEO of LifeCare Inc., a provider of work/life services based in Shelton, Connecticut. “They would prefer to address the root causes, because that’s what pays real dividends,” he says.

But dealing with stress caused by workload demands and lack of resources can affect the company’s bottom line. “Implementing stress management initiatives is more effective and less expensive than dealing with the fallout of the stress once it hits,” Burki says.

GlaxoSmithKline is one employer that has made stress management a priority. In 2003, the pharmaceutical giant began offering a “personal resilience” seminar to equip employees with skills to ward off stress and thrive in a challenging work environment.

That same year, it rolled out its Team Resilience program to empower employee groups to identify and mitigate pressures that affect job performance, including workload, management practices and teamwork. Some 25,500 employees globally have participated in the team effort and about 2,000 have completed the personal program. Both are voluntary.

More recently, the company’s resilience initiatives have spawned a new program, Energy for Performance. The intent is to develop organization leaders who are healthy, energetic, and fully engaged at work and at home.

“We don’t make this big distinction around home and work. It really is about life, because if you’re satisfied in one side or another, it’s going to spill over,” says Kay N. Campbell, GlaxoSmithKline global health and productivity manager in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

From 2001, the year GSK piloted Team Resilience, to 2005, it saw a 60 percent global reduction in work-related behavioral health issues and a 29 percent drop in days lost because of mental health issues related to work.

GSK’s Team Resilience program has picked up several honors, including the Alliance for Work Life Progress’ Work-Life Innovative Excellence Award in 2006.

“I think that’s the most proactive model I’m aware of in the country today of a company and its employees working together to actively identify and eradicate stressors in the workplace,” says the alliance’s Lingle.

Accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young also is weaving stress management into its employee assistance program, EY/Assist, which it launched in 1975.

The program’s goal is to make employees’ busy lives easier and, in turn, less stressful, through a variety of employee assistance and life management services. Employees traveling for business can take their children along and hire a baby sitter at the hotel or use the concierge service for business and personal errands. By this fall, EY/Assist plans to launch a college consultation service to help parents and students choose the right college and navigate scholarship information.

Periodic surveys of EY/Assist’s users suggest that these offerings reduce employee stress levels. In one survey this year, 75.7 percent said they were moderately or greatly stressed when they contacted the program. But after using the service, only 26 percent felt the same level of stress. As a result of these services, 61.4 percent said they were more productive at work, according to officials.

In March, the program also launched the EY/Assist Stress Buster Blog, where employees can share stories and tips on managing stress, says Sandra P. Turner, EY Assist’s Cleveland-based director. It’s a good way for employees to communicate and promotes the program, she says.

Dennis Derr, director of the EAP at Aetna Inc.’s Aetna Behavioral Health unit in Hartford, Connecticut, tries to help employers develop a more holistic approach to stress—one that integrates medical benefits, wellness services and EAPs—to build resilient employees.

“Going in and doing a group stress management workshop and maybe doing some relaxation things or having people take a stress test or whatever is not going to address the overall issue,” Derr says. An effective stress management program must integrate health benefits, wellness and EAPs since all affect how people handle stress, he says.

Three employee suicides in late 2006 and early 2007 prompted French automaker Renault to take steps to alleviate workplace stress. The company reportedly committed $10 million to hire more workers and train senior executives to communicate more effectively and in a more positive way, says Lorrie Lykins, managing editor in the St. Petersburg, Florida, office of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a network of corporations focused on improving workforce productivity.

The institute recently began surveying employees of the multinational companies to assess how workers try to relieve stress. Companies want to know the causes and implications of stress, Lykins says. Results of the survey to be completed this summer may be useful in developing employer strategies to deal with stress, she adds.

While Lykins says she hopes more companies will take steps to allay workplace stress, she suspects paternalistic organizations will lag on this issue because their leaders are out of touch with frontline workers’ concerns.

“Companies that encourage across-the-board communication with equity, where everyone has a voice, are a lot more likely, I think, to identify these problems and address them proactively,” Lykins says.

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