Don’t stress! Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

If it’s true that stress is a part of everyone’s life, then it would figure that dealing with stress would be part of everyone’s life, too. Stress is often work-related, but it is not restricted to the workplace. However, even when the causes of stress are not work-related, the impact of stress can show up on the job. That is why stress management has to be addressed by business owners.

“Statistics show that health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for employees who report high levels of stress,” says Rose Gantner, Ed.D., NCC, senior director of health promotion at UPMC Health Plan. “And workers who need to take stress-related absences from work tend to average 20 or more days away from work.”

Smart Business talked with Gantner about the importance and benefit of stress management programs in the workplace.

Why should business owners be interested in or concerned with employee stress?

One reason may be that employers are realizing that policies that benefit employee health can also benefit the bottom line. Some studies cite that stress-related illnesses are accountable for 60 percent of all absences from work. Absenteeism and an increasing number of workers who quit their jobs obviously impact the bottom line. Stress may also have hidden costs, such as increases in workers’ compensation claims, an increase in employee errors and a decrease in customer service.

Today, many employers are taking steps to reduce workplace stress. There is evidence that 50 percent of all large companies provide some sort of stress management training for their work force. Frequently, smaller companies employ the services of employee assistance programs (EAPs) to educate employees about stress management. The World Health Organization has predicted that by 2020, stress will be the major cause of workplace illness.

Can stress management programs be effective in reducing stress?

There is evidence that such programs can work. If implemented correctly, stress management programs can teach employees about the nature and sources of stress and the differences between situational stress, acute stress and chronic stress. The effects of stress on health can be demonstrated, and the personal skills needed to reduce stress can be taught. These include coping skills, such as positive thoughts, time management and relaxation exercises. It has been shown that medical costs can potentially be averted through behavior change.

What can employers do to reduce workplace stress?

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) identified organizational characteristics associated with both healthy, low-stress work and high levels of productivity. These characteristics include recognition of employees for good work performance, opportunities for career development, an organizational culture that values the individual worker and management actions that are consistent with organizational values.

Stress levels will be lower when the workload is in line with workers’ capabilities and resources. Workers feel less stress when their jobs enable them to utilize their skills.

Clearly defining workers’ roles and responsibilities is as important as giving workers the opportunity to participate in decisions and actions that affect their jobs.

Is all stress a bad thing?

No. There are instances in which some stress or pressure at work can serve to stimulate employees and help them achieve goals they may not have otherwise achieved. But for an employee to succeed in pressure situations, that employee has to be able to cope with the stress. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming.

How are wellness programs effective in reducing stress in the workplace?

Wellness programs are built on the premise that unhealthy lifestyles — such as those that increase stress or keep someone from dealing effectively with stress — contribute to rising costs in the workplace. Those costs can drop when employees can be encouraged to pursue healthy lifestyles. Wellness programs are designed to treat medical conditions before they occur. They are designed to be preventive. But, to be truly effective at reducing workplace stress, a business needs both an organizational commitment to the concept and stress management programs in the workplace.

How can employees prevent their own stress?

Certain psychological techniques have been shown to reduce stress. For example, visual imagery or imagining peaceful places can help some people calm down. Others may prefer to use the memory cue S-P-T-A, a reminder to stop, pause, think and then act, rather than simply react to a situation.

There are also life changes you can make to help reduce stress, including eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, managing your time, staying organized, developing a support system of family, friends and colleagues, and giving yourself time to unwind and regroup.

ROSE GANTNER, Ed.D., NCC, is the senior director of health promotion at UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at gantnerrk@upmc.edu or (412) 454-8571.