Stress! Stress! STRESS!

Deal with it in work­place be­fore it is too late

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA BOWES

TAKE a mo­ment and imag­ine play­ing a video show­ing peo­ple in to­day’s mod­ern work­place. What will you see? Speed up the video a bit. No mat­ter what job is por­trayed, as the video clips move quickly by, you’ll see an em­ployee at their work­sta­tion, head bob­bing up and down, talk­ing to peo­ple, an­swer­ing the phone, or lift­ing, mov­ing and shift­ing parts on the shop floor. Man­agers come and go at light­ning speed. Em­ploy­ees don’t seem to get a break.

Next, as the video clip fol­lows the em­ployee home, you’ll see a rushed din­ner, dishes left aside for the time be­ing, chil­dren com­ing in and out of the pic­ture, and a rush out the door as fam­ily mem­bers are shep­herded out to their var­i­ous evening ac­tiv­i­ties.

Later on as the video fol­lows the em­ployee back home that evening, you might see the in­di­vid­ual sitting with their head in their hands. They seem wor­ried about their job. Ques­tions flood their minds. Are lay­offs com­ing? What will my new boss be like? Do I have the abil­ity to learn that new com­puter sys­tem in such a short time? How will I tell my spouse my va­ca­tion days are can­celled? In fact, when will I have time to even see my spouse or part­ner?

Such is the life in to­day’s fast lane. Stress! Stress! Stress! Too many de­mands, not enough time!

Not only that, this per­sonal stress spills over and com­bines with stress in the work­place, some­times re­sult­ing in burnout. In fact, stress in to­day’s work­place is be­ing re­ferred to as an epi­demic with up to 75 per cent of all em­ployee ab­sences be­ing due to stress-re­lated ill­ness.

As a re­sult, work­place stress has also be­come an eco­nomic prob­lem not only for our health sys­tem and cor­po­rate in­surance pro­grams, but also for the bot­tom line prof­its of a com­pany. One re­port, for in­stance, sug­gests that stress-re­lated men­tal health is­sues in the work­place may be cost­ing $35 bil­lion an­nu­ally. This in­cludes dis­abil­ity costs, work­ers com­pen­sa­tion claims, re­duced pro­duc­tiv­ity and ab­sen­teeism.

Part of the chal­lenge, of course, is the fact that each per­son rec­og­nizes and deals with stress dif­fer­ently. In­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences such as per­son­al­ity, age or other char­ac­ter­is­tics will in­flu­ence how some­one per­ceives a sit­u­a­tion as well as how they at­tempt to deal with it. Un­for­tu­nately, by the time stress be­comes ev­i­dent and the symp­toms ap­pear, the in­di­vid­ual may al­ready be phys­i­cally and men­tally im­paired. The re­sult? An in­crease in work ac­ci­dents and stress leave.

Yet, it has taken many years for the busi­ness com­mu­nity to ac­cept some level of re­spon­si­bil­ity for this stress epi­demic. Up un­til the last 10 years or so, the busi­ness phi­los­o­phy fol­lowed the old mantra that “the state had no busi­ness in the bed­rooms of the nation.” How­ever, now that the costs of stress in the work­place have been de­fined and demon­strated, or­ga­ni­za­tions are pay­ing much more at­ten­tion. Af­ter all, what or­ga­ni­za­tion in their right mind would want to con­tinue ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a drain on their fi­nances re­sult­ing from high turnover, un­wanted sev­er­ance pack­ages and the high cost of new em­ployee train­ing and overtime to cover va­cant po­si­tions? What or­ga­ni­za­tion can pros­per when low morale causes de­creased em­ployee pro­duc­tiv­ity?

It is these bot­tom line is­sues that have driven or­ga­ni­za­tions to put far more em­pha­sis on work­place well­ness and a con­certed ef­fort to re­duce stress in the work­place. And yes, it’s about time. How­ever, what do these ef­forts look like?

Our own Man­i­toba Lot­ter­ies Corp., for in­stance, has a pro­gram called the em­ployee and fam­ily as­sis­tance pro­gram that is an ex­cel­lent re­source not only for as­sist­ing em­ploy­ees who may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing stress, but also pro­vid­ing tools for pre­vent­ing stress from build­ing up. While many pro­grams such as this of­fer 24/7 tele­phone avail­abil­ity to ac­com­mo­date shift work­ers, the Lot­ter­ies Corp.’s pro­gram also of­fers face-to-face coun­selling in the ar­eas of legal, fi­nan­cial and health.

Now that in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy is play­ing such a large role in the lives of work­ers, its pro­gram also of­fers a health li­brary and a well­ness as­sess­ment and health pro­file. As well, em­ploy­ees can ac­cess e-cour­ses on var­i­ous top­ics in­clud­ing men­tal health. Whereas child care and el­der care re­sources are a fre­quent need for em­ploy­ees, they can even search for child and el­der care re­sources in their area, as well as other com­mu­nity re­sources.

While Man­i­toba Lot­ter­ies has of­fered a lead­ing-edge em­ployee well­ness pro­gram for some time, other or­ga­ni­za­tions are just be­gin­ning to re­ject the no­tion that the “state had no busi­ness in the bed­rooms of the nation.” Rec­og­niz­ing that a pro­gram of this na­ture re­quires a good deal of plan­ning, here are some ba­sic guide­lines for those first timers to help to cre­ate suc­cess with their well­ness pro­gram.

Check out your sta­tis­tics — Take time to ex­am­ine your sta­tis­tics for ab­sen­teeism, ill­ness, and turnover. Once you have your data, you can as­sess which de­part­ments and/ or in­di­vid­u­als are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing more ab­sen­teeism than oth­ers.

In­volve a stress man­age­ment team — Form an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary team and di­rect them to iden­tify and con­firm the stres­sors em­ploy­ees are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing both on and off the job. Con­duct an em­ployee sur­vey. Hold fo­cus groups and dis­cus­sions. Of­fer free par­tic­i­pa­tion in a health risk as­sess­ment tool.

Con­duct a job anal­y­sis — Once stress ar­eas are iden­ti­fied, con­duct an anal­y­sis of the var­i­ous jobs ex­hibit­ing stress. Look at job struc­ture, work flow, roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Look for work­flow bot­tle­necks and other bar­ri­ers caus­ing stress. Check out en­vi­ron­men­tal and er­gonomic is­sues.

De­velop a pro­gram of ser­vices — Ap­ply the stan­dard em­ployee as­sis­tance pro­gram el­e­ments, but also get cre­ative. Bring in art and ex­er­cise pro­grams and lunch and learn ses­sions. Pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate sup­port groups.

Re­align jobs — Look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­struc­ture job roles to ac­com­mo­date job shar­ing, part-time work or flex time. Can work tasks be re­aligned or re­dis­tributed? Can an em­ployee work from home?

Com­mu­ni­cate, com­mu­ni­cate, com­mu­ni­cate — De­velop a com­mu­ni­ca­tion plan. Of­fer break­fast meet­ings, per­haps a “stress fair,” pre­pare and dis­trib­ute posters. Start a news­let­ter and use that com­pany in­tranet to spur aware­ness. De­velop stress re­duc­ing tip sheets,

Track your progress — Once a pro­gram has been im­ple­mented, you not only need to keep track of par­tic­i­pa­tion, but also you need to con­tinue to mon­i­tor your ab­sen­teeism rates. As well, de­ter­mine if your pro­gram is in­deed af­fect­ing your fi­nan­cials? What is the re­turn on in­vest­ment for the pro­gram?

April has been des­ig­nated stress aware­ness month. Thank­fully, the mes­sage seems to be mak­ing its mark. Or­ga­ni­za­tions now ap­pear to be more will­ing to take their share of re­spon­si­bil­ity for em­ployee stress man­age­ment. In other words, em­ployee stress is no longer sim­ply a per­sonal and pri­vate is­sue, it’s a dual re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Source: Set­ting up a Stress Man­age­ment Pro­gram, A Checklist for Suc­cess, Health Ad­vo­cate, As­sess­ing the Cost of Work Stress; Re­search Re­port, Jan­uary 2006, Health Canada; in­ter­view with Man­i­toba Lot­ter­ies Corp.

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