Work-related factors play a significant role in employees’ stress levels and a growing number of employers are taking steps to help employees reduce their stress, according to a study by Aon Hewitt. But most programs are not being utilized to their full advantage.
According to Aon Hewitt’s 2013 Consumer Health Mindset report, which surveyed more than 2,800 employees and their dependents in the United States, almost one-half said their stress level was high or overwhelming. When asked the reasons for their stress, the top four out of five reasons cited were work-related:
• financial situation (46 per cent)
• work changes (37 per cent)
• work schedule (34 per cent)
• work relationships (32 per cent)
• influence or control over how I do my work (32 per cent).
To help mitigate employee stress levels, the number of employers offering stress management programs has grown in recent years. Aon Hewitt’s recent Health Care Survey of 800 large and mid-size U.S. employers covering more than seven million employees found that 35 per cent of employers offered stress reduction programs in 2013, up from 22 per cent in 2010. However, just three per cent of employees said they participated in an employer-sponsored stress management program in 2013. Nearly one-fourth said they did not believe their employer offers any programs or services to deal with stress.
“Employees are increasingly feeling stressed by work-related pressures, and this can often be destructive to health, productivity and performance,” said Kathleen Mahieu, leader of behavioural health consulting at Aon Hewitt. “Employers recognize the impact that high stress levels are having on their workforces and are implementing programs to help employees recognize stress, reframe it in more positive ways and focus on what they can control. Unfortunately, most stress management programs in the workplace today aren’t being implemented in a way that’s effective.”
The business impact of workplace stress has been well documented in various research reports. Fifty-one per cent of employees said they were less productive at work as a result of stress. Health care expenses were nearly 50 per cent higher for workers who reported high levels of stress. More than one-half of the 550 million working days lost each year because of absenteeism were stress-related.
“In our experience, it is not unusual to have co-morbid situations with stress and other behaviour health issues occurring subsequent to the initial absence diagnosis,” noted Cindy Keaveney head of Aon Hewitt’s absence management practice. “This situation can negatively affect an employee’s timely return to work. In addition, workforce productivity can be impacted by employees who are not absent from work, yet are not fully productive due to stress or other behavioural health conditions.”
High stress levels also lead to employees’ inability to achieve their health goals which can negate employers’ efforts to improve the overall health and well-being of their workforce. Recent industry research shows that highly stressed people are 30 per cent less likely to eat healthily, 25 per cent less likely to exercise and 200 per cent more likely to fail weight loss programs. These employees also get one-half as much sleep as people reporting low levels of stress.
Aon Hewitt suggests employers concentrate on three areas to improve the emotional well-being and mental health within the workforce:
Investigate the causes of stress and potential solutions
Employers need to consider both internal and external elements in analyzing stress. Factors outside the workplace such as family strains and factors in the workplace such as long work hours can also contribute to high stress levels in the workplace. By gathering feedback through focus groups and employee surveys, employers can gain a better understanding of the triggers within their employee populations and develop new strategies for reducing workplace stress.
Encourage employees to take advantage of stress reduction resources
Employers should make a deliberate effort to show support for stress management initiatives in the workplace by encouraging employees to participate in stress management training programs and physical activity during the workday. This may include scheduling a work space clean-up day, “bring your pet to work” day or relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation to help employees better manage stress in the work environment and beyond. Employers should also encourage employees to use existing resources such as employee assistance program (EAP) and engage on-site wellness coaches to assist in relieving the stress associated with daily challenges and life events.
Promote emotional well-being
Employers should encourage employees to take vacation time and offer flexible work schedules in as many roles as possible. Aon Hewitt’s data shows only 35 per cent of employees say their employer encourages them to take vacation time, and only one-fourth say their employer encourages flexible work arrangements. Organizations can also sponsor and support activities that promote camaraderie among employees and get people moving. These activities may include community walk and run events, company sports teams, volunteering within the community and encouraging healthy group lunch get-togethers. Employers should also develop approaches that build and promote resiliency as a way to encourage healthy coping skills in the face of life’s challenges, such as communication and problem-solving skills.