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Why employers need to pay more attention to stressed-out employees


Over the past few years, awareness has grown significantly about stress in the workplace. Ask any employee – at any company – and at any position if they have ever felt stressed on the job and they will tell you unequivocally, "yes."

In fact, it's such a prevalent complaint among employees, at all levels, that it's become easy to dismiss. After all, isn't stress just a normal part of the job – something employees should "get over?"

No, it's not normal; and here are some sobering truths about what stress in the workplace truly costs:

  • Costs associated with occupational injury and mental health disorders exceed the costs to treat cancer, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease combined
  • Healthcare costs are nearly 50% greater for workers reporting high levels of stress
  • Approximately 40 million Americans, or about 18% of adults, have one or more anxiety disorder like stress in any given year
  • The American Psychological Association reports that approximately 36% of workers typically feel stressed out during the workday
  • Stress, depression, and anxiety are repeatedly ranked as three of the top five causes of absenteeism in the workplace

So what is stress – how is it defined and what creates stressed out employees? The American Psychiatric Association notes that stress is, "the pattern of specific and nonspecific responses…that disturb equilibrium and tax or exceed one's ability to cope." In the workplace, this can manifest itself as anything from an employee who becomes less productive to one who lashes out at colleagues to in extreme cases (but also ones sadly familiar of late), workplace violence.

It should also be noted that stress could involve other overlapping conditions, including depression, anxiety and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially for returning veterans. In terms of what causes workplace stress, research notes factors such as a feeling there is a lack of opportunity, too heavy a workload, unrealistic job expectations, and long hours.

And here's the real kicker for employers, psychological distress has been shown to increase the risk of occupational injury by 34%. Imagine the ability to reduce your risk by more than one-third. But where to start? It's certainly not an easy issue to address, or one that can be solved overnight, but there are several concrete steps employers can take. For example:

  1. Take an honest look at your culture. Do you promote fairness and opportunity? Do you make employees feel valued? Look especially at ways to develop managers who support their employees; maximize employee autonomy; promote engagement in the value of employees' work and find ways to improve the overall work environment.
  2. Provide better screening and outreach especially for high-risk individuals and particularly following a major traumatic event or cumulative exposure. Promote screening by educating employees on the value of identifying, preventing and treating stress.
  3. Take a look at your prescription drug policies. First, take note that employees on anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications are at a much higher risk for accidents – we've all seen the "do not operate heavy machinery" label – apply that to workers in transportation or manufacturing. Consider developing alternative work situations for a short period for employees who self-identify as using or initiating prescription medications of certain classes. But most importantly, make sure that medications, as well as other stress management programs (everything from yoga in the workplace to walking trails) are available.

This is a complicated topic, requiring considerable reflection and discussion.

Researchers with the Center for Employee Health Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) recently published a fascinating study on stress in the workplace. It contains specific information on causes, implications, costs and more. We urge employers to read this study and consider how stress affects your workforce.

Because of significant research projects such as this study and a commitment to sharing knowledge and information about emerging trends facing employers, Sedgwick is proud to provide financial support to the Center for Employee Health Studies at UIC.

Once you have explored this research, talk with us further. We too are concerned about stress in the workplace. Together we can develop programs and policies that will help you to address this important issue that affects you, your employees and your bottom line.






Darrell Brown, Chief Performance Officer

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