“Stress! Stress! STRESS! Deal With It in Workplace Before It Is Too Late” By Barbara Bowes

May 26, 2011 | Corporate Member News

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.

Barbara Bowes

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search Group. She can be reached at [email protected].

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