Stress management Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

Stress is a fact of the modern work-place. In some cases, employees may require some form of behavioral health treatment, since a healthy work-force includes good behavioral health.

Christopher McGowan, director of Psychiatric Services and of the Partial Hospitalization Program at Akron General Medical Center, says that what’s important is knowing how stress affects you and then relieving it. “Going to the gym, taking a walk or enrolling in an art class is certainly better for you than going to the bar,” he says. “Drinking alcohol does nothing more than zap your mind and body of energy causing you to fatigue and then feel stressed.” He encourages people to look at each situation separately and ask themselves how much mental energy they want to give to a situation.

Smart Business spoke to McGowan about keeping stress from becoming a problem.

What is stress, in layman’s terms?

Stress is apparent when you are ‘not yourself.’ You’re forgetful, moody, or argumentative. You can’t sleep or you want to sleep all the time and you feel you never have enough time. I call stress the seed of depression, because, left to continue without relief, it can grow into depression.

Webster says it best: ‘Stress: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.’

What causes stress?

Stress occurs when we feel we have no control, or we feel out of control. Stress can occur as a result of good events as well as bad. A marriage, a birth, a promotion — all can cause stress, just as we would expect when we experience a death of a loved one, being laid-off from work, or experiencing a divorce. It’s when we can’t or don’t limit our exposure to stress that stress can lead to a serious anxiety disorder or depression.

How do stress-related behavioral health concerns affect business?

According to a July 2005 white paper from the Ohio Department of Mental Health, over the next 10 to 20 years, depression is projected to become the leading source of workdays lost through disability.

The report sites other disorders, including anxiety, which cost the U.S. about $42 billion a year in 1990, with $23 billion of that being spent on non-psychiatric medical treatment. Patients are many times admitted for medical ailments, which are directly related to psychological issues. For example, patients can be admitted for heart attack symptoms, which are later diagnosed as anxiety attack symptoms.

The report says that untreated depression, stress or anxiety makes about two hours out of each workday unproductive. A recent study showed a 6.2 percent increase in productivity and 22.8 percent fewer absences over two years for depressed individuals who received regular phone calls to encourage them to continue with treatment and medication. Employers saved $2,600 annually for each employee.

What should employers look for to recognize a stressed worker?

Look for a worker whose behavior has changed to become more irritable or withdrawn. They may become more compulsive about eating, smoking, drinking, or spending money. Look for psychological signs, such as employees who become defensive, disorganized, depressed or have difficulty making decisions.

Some of your best employees are ticking time bombs for stress. They’re the folks who never say no to a project, or are frequently covering for others. Left to go on, stress creeps up on them. These folks need your help to practice setting limits. They will need encouragement to ask for help on a project or to say no to a request. These are the great workers that suddenly go on medical leave because they’ve ‘had it’ mentally or medically.

What options do employers have to improve their employees' behavioral health?

It’s important to listen to your employees so you know how they are feeling. Try to have fun at work. During the summer, throw a barbeque at lunch; call off work early to play volleyball. Don’t let morale deteriorate in the first place. Take steps to assure your employees are rested and feel valued by encouraging balance between work and play. You’ll get more out of employees if they believe you care for their well-being both physically and mentally.

Lastly, if you’re stressed, chances are your employees will be also, so take care of yourself. Remember our jobs are important, but they are not our lives. It’s the stuff we do afterwards that we need to be attentive to: our friends, our family and ourselves.

Is a stress-free life a reasonable and achievable goal?

I believe having no stress is unrealistic and, quite frankly, boring. One needs some level of stress to achieve even the simplest task of getting up in the morning. Not all stress is bad. Stress can motivate us to accomplish great things. For example, have you ever heard of an athlete who is stress free? Good athletes will admit it’s very stressful to be a winner. However, great athletes will tell you that balance between workouts and relaxation is critical for stationed performance.

CHRISTOPHER MCGOWAN is director of Psychiatric Services and the Partial Hospitalization Program at Akron General Medical Center. He can be reached at cmcgowan@agmc.org.