By Norbert “Bert” Alicea, MA, CEAP, Executive Vice President of EAP+Work/Life Services, Health Advocate
Employee stress, dubbed the “nation’s fastest growing occupational disease,” has become a major problem for organizations of all sizes.
According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, nearly one third of American workers reported feeling stressed or tense on a regular basis while at work. The causes of stress are widespread and include a lack of work/life balance from juggling household and family responsibilities; everyday challenges from student debt to retirement concerns to information overload; and workplace stressors such as feeling undervalued, under-compensated and overworked.
Whatever the cause, stressed workers tend to be fatigued, prone to mistakes and injuries, and are more likely to be absent. Most significantly, they incur healthcare costs two times the average of other employees. In total, the consequences of stress-related illnesses, from depression to heart disease, costs businesses an estimated $200 to $300 billion a year in lost productivity.
However, with a proactive dual strategy of organizational change and individual stress management, businesses can take steps to promote healthier, more productive employees while reducing healthcare costs.
The True Toll of Stress
The American Institute of Stress estimates that one million employees miss work each day because of stress. But even when employees come to work, emotional distress can reduce a worker’s capacity to perform by up to 50 percent.
If the stress is not addressed, a variety of potential issues may result including absenteeism, job resignations, and an increased risk of developing chronic and costly diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and/or mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, as a means to cope with stress, many employees turn to the risky use of alcohol, prescription pain medications and other substances. Left untreated, substance abuse can cost an employer upwards of $13,000 per employee per year, according to a recent National Institutes of Health study.
How Employers Can Be Proactive
The first step is to evaluate the scope of stress in the organization by looking at absenteeism, illness and turnover rates as well as performance problems. Employee surveys, Health Risk Assessments and internal committees can pinpoint specific stressors and identify if they are company-wide or concentrated in a particular department. It’s also crucial to work directly with employees, including through exit interviews, to get their input about strategies that could help reduce stress.
While some changes to the corporate culture may need to be instituted, such as flexible work hours, workload redistribution, and better employee recognition, the following are some key ways to address and reduce employee stress:
- Provide access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs, which often include in-person and/or telephonic counseling benefits, help assess and provide support for personal/emotional issues that affect performance and productivity as well as those that create stress. Issues may range from substance abuse to family problems and financial issues. EAPs that help address substance abuse issues, for example, can reduce workers’ compensation claims, employer healthcare costs, and absenteeism. These programs can also help employees with related work/life issues that may impact their stress levels, such as locating resources for eldercare support for those who may be caring for older loved ones.
- Incorporate health advocacy into employee benefits. Offering an expert who can personally address healthcare issues, such as helping to resolve medical bills and interacting with insurance companies and providers, can help employees reduce worry and stay focused on their job.
- Offer an accessible, well-rounded wellness program. A multichannel program that addresses the overall well-being of employees–including physical, emotional and financial health–through web-based workshops alongside traditional coaching components can help reduce stress while increasing productivity.
As an integral part of these efforts, engagement strategies can include built-in incentives to reward enrollment and sustained involvement as well as for making healthy lifestyle changes. Additionally, providing consistent employee communications can help drive them to take action.
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Beyond lowering healthcare costs, a continued commitment to reducing stress and providing support to improve the well-being of all workers, no matter what they are going though, produces many benefits. Workers who are less stressed, for example, are more resilient and inclined to stay with their companies.
Learn how Health Advocate can help you create a customized, comprehensive program to promote total well-being, leading to a stronger, healthier, and more productive and satisfied workforce and reduced healthcare costs.