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How Employers Can Respond to Increasingly Stressed Workers

Labor and Employment Law Update

Author: Susan K. Lessack

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of The HR Specialist. It is reprinted here with permission.

A survey by Northwestern National Life indicates that one-fourth of employees say their job is the number-one stressor in their lives, and 40 percent of workers report their job is “very or extremely stressful.” Employers have cut budgets and workforces, and expect remaining workers to do more with less, and employees are increasingly concerned about their own job security (as they see colleagues laid off and their employers cutting back), and worry about their spouses and family members being able to keep their jobs. All of this has driven stress levels in the workplace to new heights.

The Costs of Workplace Stress

Susan K. Lessack, an employment law partner in Pepper Hamilton LLP, says, “It behooves employers to address stress issues in their workforces now, since increased stress affects not only employees, but employers’ bottom lines.” She notes that stressed employees are more likely to:

  • have physical and mental health problems, often leading to more sick time and disability leaves
  • have poor morale and be less motivated on the job
  • cause co-worker resentment about having to “pick up the slack,” which can lead to interpersonal conflict on the job
  • be less productive and energetic at work
  • in extreme cases, experience or cause incidents of workplace bullying or violence.

In fact, according to a national wellness company, Staywell Health Management, workplace stress is the number one most costly modifiable risk factor to employee health. The fallout from stress-related issues comprises 25 percent of a company’s total health expenditures. Lessack says, "stress increases benefit costs, and leads to staffing and morale challenges when employees request stress-related disability or FMLA leaves. And, while employers and co-workers often don’t perceive stress-related illnesses as ‘real,’ the EEOC and the courts probably will.”

Stress Prevention Is Key

Judith Belmont, M.S., L.P.C., an author and psychotherapist who consults with employers, offers suggestions of things employers can do to promote a healthy workplace:

Promote justice and fairness – Management and HR must convey to employees that they have a place to turn to if they feel like they are not treated fairly, and that information they provide about workplace conditions and situations will be confidential and handled without retaliation. (Fear of retaliation for complaining is a major stressor.)

Recognize that employees benefit from a sense of control in decision-making – Employees who feel they have some “say” in how things are done on the job – some input about schedules and work rules, for example – have a sense of control and feel more valued. Brainstorming sessions, task forces and suggestion boxes can all help.

Institute preventative programs – Training on stress management, communication and conflict resolution by experienced facilitators can help employees boost their “emotional intelligence” and adjustment skills.

Have an Employee Assistance Program – As part of a benefit package, offer and publicize a confidential EAP program to help employees deal with personal stressors.

Provide supervisory coaching – If needed, employers can offer supervisors training or tips on how to mange and lead effectively, or how to improve their communication skills.

Identify employees at risk – In addressing stress-related problems before they escalate, employers should be attentive to signs that employees are at-risk and not ignore problematic or unusual behavior. Employers also should implement and publicize guidelines on workplace conduct, containing clear consequences for violations.

Susan K. Lessack and Judith Belmont

Judith Belmont, M.S., L.P.C. is an author/consultant/psychotherapist and is the founder of Worksite Insights, which offers mental health seminars and consultation to the workplace. She can be reached at jabelmont@worksiteinsights.com

The material in this publication was created as of the date set forth above and is based on laws, court decisions, administrative rulings and congressional materials that existed at that time, and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinions on specific facts. The information in this publication is not intended to create, and the transmission and receipt of it does not constitute, a lawyer-client relationship.