A Healthy Workplace: Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Amy Beaulieu

A healthy workplace is a shared responsibility between the employer and the employee. Not only are the physical, emotional and mental health of individual employees at risk in a stress-filled workplace, but the organization also faces risks when stress levels stay elevated. According to a 2006 study by HR.com, a website devoted to human resources concerns, stress costs United States businesses more than $300 billion annually. These days, more and more employers recognize the need to directly support their employees’ well-being by offering benefits such as an employee/member assistance program (for example, LifeResources–Member Assistance Program) and wellness programs (for example, Slice of Life). Yet these are just the start of what an employer can do. On the micro-level, human resources staff, supervisors and managers owe it to themselves, the organization and their employees to frequently and openly encourage—and actively model— utilization of and participation in such programs to improve overall workplace functionality.

The dangers of working in a stress-filled environment go far beyond people feeling “stressed out.” In an effort to get ahead, employees often work longer hours and even bring work home, trying not to let their boss or colleagues know they are having a difficult time. Men are just as likely to be stressed as women, but they are less likely to talk about it or seek help. Clues that your employees may be overloaded with stress include staying late, working through or skipping lunch, excessive irritability, conflicts with others, turning projects in late or with mistakes, having a hard time concentrating or remembering, and having trouble prioritizing tasks or grasping what they’re supposed to do.

To make matters worse, people who endure stress and who do not find healthy ways to cope with it may demonstrate problematic behaviors at work; they may also develop physical and mental health problems that ultimately affect the workplace. Behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, excessive sleeping or sleeplessness, over-eating or under-eating, disconnecting from others socially, and spending money in excess of their budget all potentially exacerbate stress levels both at home and in the workplace. Imagine you have an employee who has difficulty sleeping at night, lives a sedentary lifestyle and frequently displays a bad mood. As his supervisor, how much time do you spend intervening in his workplace conflicts? Closely supervising him? Correcting his mistakes? Fielding complaints about him from his coworkers? Covering staff shortages caused by his absences?

If those time-consuming and morale-defeating behaviors don’t catch your attention, perhaps money is what calls you to action. You’ll likely see a stressed-out employee, like the one described above, visit his doctor for physical symptoms, where he’s likely to receive—and fill—a prescription for sleep aid(s) and perhaps an anti-depressant medication. Since these treatments aren’t likely to relieve the ailments entirely, the employee may become a frequent visitor to his physician and receive multiple diagnostic tests, medication prescriptions, and even surgical procedures. Americans commonly seek medical treatment for symptoms rather than pursuing appropriate mental health or other health-related services to improve stress-management strategies, resulting in unnecessary expenses. Unless individuals make lifestyle changes to manage their stress, medical services likely will be ineffective and medical expenses will continue to climb for all.

Let’s also consider, if your employee’s dependents are impacted by his or her untreated or improperly treated stress, you may see those individuals pursue those same services. It is likely that there will be a negative impact on the employee’s home life if he or she is coming home from work late and doing more work once at home. Eventually, the physician may recommend mental health treatment, which may include therapy and/or psychiatric care for medication management. All of these services result in the employer paying increases in health insurance costs over time. Additionally, what expenses do you have to pay if this employee is frequently absent: Leave time? Overtime to cover the shift? Cross-training other employees? Total these dollar amounts—spent solely on this employee—then multiply those dollars by the number of your employees to discover the excessive and often unnecessary costs of stress on an organization.

With anxiety, depression and substance abuse as common problems affecting the U.S. workforce, employers need to take a look at how existing management styles and workplace conditions contribute to those problems. For example, studies have shown that conflicting work demands, unclear job expectations and responsibilities, having little control over the workload as well as a lack of rewards and negative consequences are all linked to the onset of depressive episodes in employees. If you’re curious about the costs of depression in your workplace, visit this website: www.depressioncalculator.com.

Those in leadership positions may demonstrate their stress in ways that exacerbate the stress levels of those they supervise—talking more than listening, thinking narrow-mindedly rather than encouraging creativity and innovation, being judgmental and critical rather than open-minded and encouraging. When leading under stress, authoritarian management styles often surface, which curb employees’ ability to perform at their best.

Some people choose to cope with stress by using legal (for example, alcohol, prescription medications) or illegal (for example, marijuana, cocaine) substances. In comparison to non-substance abusing employees, substance abusers in the workforce are more likely to frequently change jobs, be less productive while at work, be involved in a workplace accident, file a workers’ compensation claim, be late and use more sick days. How much does this cost your organization annually? 

What Can You Do?

Manage your stress.

  • Between tasks or conversations, pause to take several deep breaths. You’ll be that much more composed to handle the next item on your agenda … or better yet, the unexpected.
  • Move! Get out of your office periodically throughout the day; the change of scenery can change your mood for the better. Participate in workplace health and wellness programs offered on-site.
  • Take a lunch break … away from your desk.
  • Outside of work, find a regular outlet for your stress—listen to music, talk, garden, build, paint, bike, walk, dance, play with the dog—do any activity that makes you say “ahhhhh.”
  • Socially, surround yourself with people that fulfill the need to belong and to have fun.
  • Drink water. Eat well to counteract stress—avoid fried and fatty foods which can exacerbate anxiety.
  • Sleep well.

Manage your time. For starters, don’t book your day with back-to-back obligations. It’s physically impossible to end a meeting at 10 a.m., get a drink, use the restroom and walk to the next meeting that begins at 10 a.m. Instead, allow a 15-30 minute cushion between meetings and appointments to allow sufficient time to be on time. With less rushing, you’ll find yourself calmer and more attentive to people and projects, which will lead to higher productivity and efficiency. Schedule at least one stress-relieving activity per day; book your calendar for “you” time.

Manage your employees. Sometimes taking the path of least resistance ends up in a long, hard road later. Initially, it may seem like it’s easiest to sit back and hope an employee’s problematic behaviors will go away without you saying anything. Stress will cost you or the employee something at some point, so why not keep costs down by addressing it early? Clearly expressing your expectations, outlining a plan for improved performance, or identifying the areas for improvement allows the employee the chance to do something about it. Setting this precedent, which shows that you won’t tolerate unacceptable behaviors in the workplace and that you’ll address them with support and professionalism, will benefit you, your employee and his or her coworkers.

Manage a healthy workplace. If you allowed and encouraged employees to take legitimate “health breaks” to ease stress throughout their work day, how much more productive would they be when they return from a break re-energized and with a clear mind? How far would morale soar? What if trust and respect increased due to fewer conflicts?

Remove the stigma associated with getting help. Why struggle with problems that could be simplified and resolved with proper treatment and professional support?

Human resources personnel, supervisors and managers can rely on LifeResources to strengthen their managerial skills, especially when it comes to addressing a sensitive area such as concern for an employee’s mental health as it manifests itself in the employee’s work performance. Furthermore, you can learn how to effectively recommend to an employee to take advantage of all the free LifeResources benefits offered. Any level employee—frontline or executive—can access LifeResources’ services to improve his or her individual stress-management practices in the effort to improve their workplace.

Amy Beaulieu, LICSW, is a LifeResources—Member Assistance Program consultant with AllOne Health Resources, LGC HealthTrust’s member assistance program partner. Visit the program website at www.allonehealtheap.com or call 800.759.8122 to learn more.