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Stress mess Featured

6:44am EDT April 30, 2002
Much has changed in the way we look at mental health.

The tacit rule used to be that family problems and emotional problems were things employees were expected to deal with on their own. But a new awareness of the effects these problems have on productivity and health care costs has forced the issue to the forefront of employer-employee relations.

"According to studies, businesses lose approximately 550 million working days a year, and 54 percent of those absences are stress-related," says Laura Darcy, executive business director at the Center for Families and Children (CFC). "The estimated costs attributed to workplace stress in 1990 was $43.7 billion."

The bottom line is that stress and its symptoms, regardless of the cause, cost employers money. Couple absenteeism and lower productivity levels with increased health care costs, and you have a lot of employers looking for affordable mental health services.

The CFC has offered such services -- called Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) -- for two decades, but has recently expanded the scope of the program's mission. The CFC's program, Employee Assistance Services (EASE), includes all the sticky and time-consuming issues employers don't usually want to deal with.

EASE assists businesses in dealing with personal issues, including but not limited to short-term psychiatric evaluation, legal and financial counseling, and elder and child care resource and referral.

One of the goals of EASE is to help manage health care costs by reducing both mental and physical insurance claims. According to a study of 46,000 employees in The Journal of Occupational and Environment Medicine, 18 percent of those who said they were highly stressed had medical claims costs more than 40 percent higher than those who said they were not stressed. The cost of claims by depressed employees -- 2.2 percent -- averaged 70 percent higher than for those without depression.

Programs like EASE, once thought of as a nice employee benefit, have become as big a plus for employers as for employees because they prevent additional, costly insurance claims. Darcy points out that a 1990 Department of Labor study reported that, "For every dollar they invest in an EAP, employers generally save anywhere from $5 to $16." How to reach: Center for Families and Children, (800) 521-3273