Stress in the Workplace: A Growing and Costly Epidemic

A costly and growing epidemic is creeping up in workplaces. The culprit is stress. In fact, stress management may be businesses’ most important challenge of the 21st century.  The United Nation’s International Labor Organization has labeled occupational stress a “global epidemic.”

One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives, according to a study from Northwestern National Life. Three-fourths of employees believe today’s workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago, according to Princeton Survey Research Associates. And, St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. reports problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor—more so than even financial or family problems.

But financial repercussions from stress are substantial.  Workplace stress costs U.S. employers some $300 billion a year in absenteeism, lower productivity, staff turnover, workers’ compensation, medical insurance and other stress related expenses.

Managed health care company Aetna has found that workers reporting the highest stress level are among those who have the highest medical claims. “There is a positive correlation between high stress levels and medical costs,” Julie-Ann Poll, a Senior Business Project Manager at Aetna’s Health and Wellness Program told The Suit.
Indeed, stressed individuals are at greater risk for many different health conditions, such as coronary heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, depression, anxiety and obesity.

What is Job Stress?

Job stress is defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job don’t match the capabilities, resources, or need of the worker.
The American Institute of Stress is often asked to compile a list of the “most” and “least” stressful occupations. But the Institute maintains such ranking have little importance. That’s because it’s not the job, but the person-environment fit that matters. Some individuals thrive in time urgent, pressure cooker, life in the fast line, multi-tasking workplace environments.  Others find even the most subdued jobs taxing.

Studies find the level of occupational stress is determined by three dimensions: life situations, work and self. While some jobs are more stressful than others, occupational stress is not only related to what goes on at work. Conflicts between the demands of the workplace and home-life are increasingly common. The U.S. Department of Labor reports 10% of individuals living with children under 18 say they experience severe work-family conflict, while another 25% report moderate levels of conflict. Fortunately, research on job stress has expanded greatly of late and employers are taking action.

Stress Does Not Discriminate

Found in all professions, stress is especially pronounced among health care professionals. “One-third to one-half of physicians meet burnout criteria, leading to very real suffering among physicians and their families,” according to Family Practice Management’s report Physician Resilience and Burnout: Can You Make the Switch.

“There is such pressure to perform flawless work under time constraints,” Annie Nedrow, MD MBA, co-author of the report and assistant director of Duke Integrated Medicine told The Suit. “Women are especially susceptible, with women physicians 1.6 times as likely as men to report burnout. Lack of control is a strong predictor of burnout in women. Females suffer from Super Woman syndrome. We fix everything. That’s a very stressful burden to carry.”

Undeniably, stress is a widespread theme in today’s hectic world. For some, high or chronic stress can take a major toll on the mind and body. To help employers reduce the effects of stress in their workplaces, Aetna launched two mind-body stress reduction workplace programs: Mindfulness at Work (meditation) and Viniyoga Stress Reduction (therapeutic yoga). Developed and studied in collaboration with Aetna, Duke Integrative Medicine, eMindful and the American Viniyoga Institute, these two programs have helped a plethora of participants considerably reduce their stress levels, as well as their ability to respond to stress.

“Stress can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, so there is a strong need for programs that help people reduce stress as part of achieving their best health, Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark T. Bertolini said in a statement following the programs’ debuts in February 2012. “The results from the mind-body study provide evidence that these mind-body approaches can be an effective complement to conventional medicine and may help people improve their health, something that I have experienced personally.”

In a 12 week bi-coastal study of Aetna employees who took part in the two stress reduction programs, significant improvement was reported. “Thirty-six percent of employees in the Mindful program reported a decrease in stress, while 33% of those in Viniyoga program reported a reduction,” Poll said. “We also found marked improvement in those suffering with sleep difficulties; 29% in the Mindful program reported improved sleep, while 32% in the Viniyoga program did.” Notable was a substantial improvement in pain among employees involved in the Viniyoga program.

Tips For Dealing With Stress

Knowing how to handle stress is a crucial tool for executives. Stress can damage business in several ways. It impacts workers at a mental, physical and emotional level leading to illness and low self-esteem. Stress also can have a damaging effect on personal and professional relationships often resulting in poor team work and clashes. Over the long-run, workers suffering from stress are less productive. Moreover legal claims against employers for stress related cases are on the rise.

Executive coaching is an effective one-to-one approach to tackling stress. Executives who effectively deal with stress avoid a cache of financial costs and costs related to staff turnover.
Dr. Nedrow says keeping an open mind and being adaptable is key in combating stress. Among the techniques she advises to help people become “unstuck” from a day-to-day downward spiral are asking yourself the following questions:

•    What did I learn today?
•    Would I do anything differently?
•    What three things am I grateful for?
•    What inspired me?
•    How did I talk to myself today?
•    Did I take myself too seriously?
•    Did anything surprise me?

In addition, Dr. Nedrow suggests finding ways to add humor and laughter into your day and work; choose to live less affluently; and plan a self-care activity such as exercise, a family meal, a massage or spiritual practice “In short, don’t sweat the small stuff and go with the flow,” she shared.

To be sure, a change in attitude can provide sweet rewards. Consider, stressed is simply desserts spelled backwards.

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