Healthy, wealthy and wise Featured

10:14am EDT August 20, 2004
According to Linda Rosenstock, M.D., director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, "American workers are working harder and longer than they have in the past two decades just to maintain their standard of living. The predictable result is a work force more at risk than ever for psychological, physical and behavioral health problems."

Work stress may be the No. 1 health problem in the United States. In addition to its impact on employee health, it also has a profound effect on absenteeism, productivity, turnover, safety and injuries, as well as medical and workers' compensation claims. When surveyed, five out of six employees complained that job stress was a major factor in anxiety, poor self-esteem, depression, asthma, colds, flu, chest pain and breathing problems.

Many factors contribute to employee stress levels -- roles in organizations, relationships with others, work and personal environment, and the balance of personal and professional life. Many studies support that physical work and social and psychological work environments are the main sources of worker illnesses. Other contributing factors include work overload, machine pacing, supervisory roles, role ambiguity and deadline pressure.

Today, employees are working harder and working longer hours, with fewer resources than ever. American workers will give up an estimated 415 million vacation days this year. Fewer employees take consecutive days off, so they rarely take the time to truly unwind and regenerate.

Burnout and insufficient time away from work compounds an employee's ability to effectively manage stress.


Critical components of stress management programs

Organizations have been providing stress management programs since the 1970s. There are many different models for effective stress management; however, they consistently include these components:


* Identifying sources of stress


* Selecting a target


* Looking for barriers and planning for success


* Developing a stress management program


* Evaluating the plan


Resources for reducing employee stress

Many techniques have been used to help reduce employee stress. Organizations have found that encouraging employees to seek counseling before stress has reached damaging proportions can result in reduced claims utilization.

Employers can play an important role in bringing resources to the workplace through:


* Employee Assistance Programs, designed to help identify and facilitate the resolution of behavioral, health and productivity products that may adversely affect employee's well-being or job performance.


* Wellness programs, which assess how well employees are feeling and functioning and evaluate their level of stress and their support systems to provide appropriate interventions.


* Encouraging employees to take vacations.


* Personal health coaching programs, in which employees work one-on-one with a health educator to assist them in improving the management of their stress.


* Onsite fitness equipment or classes offer valuable stress-relieving experiences during the work hours.


* Discounts for fitness memberships.


Return on investment

Stress management programs realize an estimated $3 return for every $1 invested. These programs can also save in lost productivity, absenteeism, job dissatisfaction, job termination and litigation for stress-related disabilities. Johnson & Johnson reported that its Live For Life programs saved approximately $1.50 per dollar invested per employee per year.

Approximately 75 percent to 90 percent of all primary care physician (PCP) visits have stress as a contributing factor. Consequently, stress is arguably the single most cogent contributor to ongoing costs associated with the dynamic health care delivery systems. Reducing PCP visits alone can generate significant savings to the bottom line through reduced claims costs and absenteeism.

Many of the benefits -- such as increased satisfaction with work and personal life -- are not easily measured. Wellness and stress management programs help employees feel supported by their employer. Those with access to comprehensive wellness programs have reported dramatic reductions in their stress levels, and they report that they feel their employer is concerned about their health and well-being. Sally L. Stephens, R.N., is president of Spectrum Health Systems. Stephens and her husband, Mark, founded Spectrum Health Systems, an independent health management company, in 1997 to provide Fortune 100 quality health risk management programs to middle-market employers. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or