Stress Test

By Dennis Boone

According to statistics compiled from various sources by the American Public Health Association, the leading health-related causes lost productivity in the workplace include:

  • Cancer: $135 billion.
  • Heart conditions: Nearly $95 billion.
  • Diabetes: $69 billion.

That comes up to an impressive $299 billion, and none of those figures include costs of treating the underlying illnesses themselves. But there’s another loss factor bigger than any of them: Stress. According to various studies, the impact of stress on employees in the U.S. work force inflicts bottom-line damages of $150 billion on the low end, and on the high end by up to $300 billion, which would top the three leading health factors—combined.

And it’s a growing concern. At the depths of the economic malaise that was the Carter presidency, social scientists digging into the subject found that financial stress was affecting the job performance of 10 percent of U.S. workers. Today, that figure is 25 percent.

The problem facing business stressin terms of stress management is that, even within a single business sector, organizations can vary greatly in the composition of factors that lead to workplace stress. On top of that, stress carried into the building along with someone’s morning latte places a burden on executives and managers that for decades wasn’t sufficiently addressed in management training that tended to focus mainly on safety, production goals, cost drivers and working conditions.

Efforts to infuse stress-management programs have helped companies form strategies to deal with the employee whose wife is in a long-term battle with cancer, or the newly divorced single mother trying to manage a household on a single income. But a new wrinkle in stress management is appearing, and you can find the seeds of it in economic indicators of recent years, like home foreclosure stats, credit-card and college loan aggregate debt, divorce rates rising from their 2009 low, higher costs for health care and insurance, and, for higher-level incomes, greater tax burdens. It’s financial stress, and according to a recent study by New York Life, is at near-epidemic levels.

In its 2014 Financial Stress and Retirement Readiness Report, the company found that:

  • 73 percent of retirement plan participants reported experiencing moderate-to-extreme financial stress within the previous six months.
  • 47 percent faced extraordinarily high medical expenses.
  • 46 percent were fearful of becoming unemployed.
  • Only 50 percent felt that their financial situation was good.
  • And even those who earned more than $100,000 a year were feeling it; 25 percent of that group cited high stress from their financial conditions.

How does all that affect business operations? Figure in the impact of workers unfocused by lack of sleep, debt-collection phone calls coming into the office, workplace relationships frayed by irritability and short tempers, or depression. And employee reactions that often include substance abuse, poor eating habits, smoking—there’s even a risk of workplace violence. Beyond matters of performance, financial stress can contribute to increased absenteeism and claims for workers’ compensation and disability—by some accounts, one employee in five missed a day of work over the past year to address a financial problem.

On the operations side, managers trying to help employees cope with financial issues can be saddled with extra duties, such as handling wage garnishments for back taxes or overdue child-support payments, clearing the paperwork for a 401(k) loan request, or generating documents needed for a bankruptcy filing.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—a much-maligned entity created by the Dodd-Frank banking reform package of 2010—has expanded its mission parameters from financial regulation to financial stress, with its assertion that seven out of 10 Americans are feeling some level of that pressure. By expanding workplace wellness programs to include employees, financial health, the bureau says, businesses could recover up to $3 for every dollar spent on financial wellness.

Good corporate citizenship alone, the bureau said, is not driving changes in wellness programs: “Large and small employers are beginning to think about financial wellness programs at work because it makes sense to do so.”

Hallmark Cards took the initiative to expand its range of informational programs for the staff shortly after the 2007 recession, and the response has been strong, said Sally Luck, director of corporate services.

“We have a good turnout; the ones that are more general, related to credit fraud, ID theft, basic savings—it’s pretty much full houses for those,” she said. “We use a banking partner to provide those sessions for us, but we weren’t doing those five years ago, so there’s nothing to compare with, pre-recession.”

The challenge Hallmark faces isn’t unlike that confronting any other corporation: It’s maximizing the reach of those messages.

“The No. 1 thing we may try to do more of is make sure people are aware of these resources,” Luck said. “We do promote them, but perhaps need to do a better job helping people understand that these resources are availabe to them, and that they’re taking steps to access them.”

The larger the corporation, of course, the greater the resources for addressing the financial well-being of employees. Sprint, for example, takes a holistic approach to its wellness programming that includes a strong segment on financial health.

Smaller companies may lack the resources for sophisticated programming, HR professionals say, but there is still plenty that can be done, with financial stress in particular., a non-profit that focuses on psychological well-being for individuals and in the workplace, offers these tips for managing workplace stress:

1: Recognize the warning signs. Among these are indications that employees are feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed; exhibiting a loss of interest in their work; show signs of fatigue or lack of sleep; demonstrate loss of concentration or complain about physical afflictions like stomach problems, headaches or muscle tension; or show signs of substance abuse. Triggers for those behaviors include the potential for layoffs, increased overtime, and pressures to do more with fewer resources.

2: Help employees take better care of themselves. Workplace wellness programs are a good start. Those that encourage and even reward regular exercise can help lower stress levels. Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase energy and concentration, reduce muscular tension and elevate both mood and outlook. Better eating habits can also help address mood swings and loss of focus.

3: Rethink priorities and organization. Effective time management is both an operational imperative and a potential stress-buster. By rebalancing schedules, setting realistic limits on daily activities, creating flexibility in employee hours (earlier arrivals, later departures), and creating a culture that emphasizes the need for regular work breaks, managers can do more than just demonstrate their concern—they can create conditions to tackle the issue head-on.

4: Break bad habits. Optimism, as Gen. Colin Powell famously said, is a force-multiplier. Managers need to avoid pessimism at all costs. And they can lead by example in demonstrating organizational compromise—understanding that the outputs achieved with a staff of 50 might not be attainable with 25.

File this one under Great Employment Disconnects: A Towers/Watson survey of employers covering 2013-14 found that employees and business leadership may agree on staffing issues as one of the leading causes of workplace stress, but had sharply differing viewpoints on other factors. The leading stressors cited by each:

Addressing the STRESS

For Employers For Employees

  1. Work/life imbalance 1. Inadequate staffing
  2. Inadequate staffing 2. Low pay/small raises
  3. Expanded technology 3. Unclear job expectations

Small wonder, then, that job stress is reaching epidemic proportions, HR professionals say. But the disconnect has practical implications; as the Towers/Watson study noted, it means that employers could be wasting resources by targeting the wrong problems, alienating employees, and failing to address the core issues of absenteeism, under-performance (also known as presenteeism), and unwanted turnover.

Here’s one more disconnect: While 85 percent of large employers offered Employee Assistance Programs to help address stress issues from inside or outside the workplace, only 5 percent of their employees took them up on that offer.

So what do employers see as the biggest work-force risks? Not surprisingly, stress came in at No. 1, cited by 78 percent of survey respondents, followed by:

  1. Obesity, 75 percent
  2. Lack of physical activity, 73 percent
  3. Poor nutrition, 57 percent
  4. Tobacco use, 32 percent