A Look at Workplace Stress

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Lifestyle Risk Factors That Influence Workforce Stress

Stress, obesity, and lack of physical activity among workers are the top three challenges identified by employers. Source: Towers Watson 2013/2014 Staying@Work Report.

By Cora Nucci for HealthLeaders Media, November 18, 2013

Workplace stress causes absenteeism, productivity losses, and increases in healthcare costs. Employers that help workers manage stress factors see significant financial benefits. But wellness programs alone don't get the job done.

With hospital and health system job losses ratcheting up, healthcare can no longer be thought of as a rock-solid source of jobs growth. Those fortunate enough to have healthcare jobs are eyeing the brisk pace of consolidation and paying more for health insurance as employers shift some of those costs onto workers.

Is it any wonder that U.S. employers rank stress as the top workforce risk issue they are facing?

That was the finding of the recent Staying@Work Survey, conducted jointly by professional services provider Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health. The survey, which set out to examine corporate health and productivity programs, was completed by 892 employers in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia between May and July 2013. There were 199 U.S participants: 59% are public companies, 22% are private, and 19% nonprofit or government agencies.

What Causes Stress in the Workplace?
The study finds that 78% of companies put stress at the top of the list of workforce challenges. But employers and employees don't agree on the causes, not by a long shot. According to employee data from a different Towers Watson survey with 5,070 U.S. respondents, there is a glaring difference of opinion between employers and employees.

Employers cite "lack of work/life balance (excessive workloads or long hours)" as the number-one cause of stress. Employees cite "inadequate staffing (lack of support, uneven workload or performance in group)."

Note that these issues are mirror images. Both boil down to too much work and not enough time to do it in?a classic recipe for stress. By labeling this cause as "work/life balance," employers, intentionally or not, thrust some of the onus onto employees to rebalance themselves. Employees citing "inadequate staffing" place the blame on management, who often have limited or no control over hiring budgets.

The solution to this endless conflict is for employers to gain a better understanding of the stressors that impede employee health and align benefits programs accordingly.

Why Employee Stress Levels Matter
The Towers Watson report spells out clearly what HR professionals already know: "Employers are recognizing that health is a total business issue and a lack of it affects workforce performance." A few statistics compiled by the American Psychological Association [PDF] reinforce the point:

  • 74% of employees say work is a significant source of stress, and one in five has missed work as a result of stress.
  • 52% of employees say they have considered or made a significant career decision because of workplace stress, such as looking for a new job, declining a promotion, or leaving a job.
  • Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs.

It's strategically important for employers to help workers manage the stress factors that cause absenteeism, productivity losses, and increases in healthcare costs.

Wellness Programs Aren't Helping
One tactic many employers have been trying is wellness programs that incent workers to make lifestyle changes such as weight loss and smoking cessation. The idea is that as the health of a workforce improves, the employer's costs for health insurance and lost productivity go down. There's just one hitch: wellness programs aren't really working. A few reasons:

  • Lack of a clear strategy
  • Lack of alignment between employer goals and employee goals
  • Poor data tracking
  • Lack of employee accountability

Organizations where wellness is valued by senior leaders and line workers alike don't rely on wellness programs alone. These companies and groups, which Towers Watson terms "high-effectiveness organizations" (HEOs), embrace a holistic view of health and productivity.

Build a Culture of Health
Work environments in which work-related causes of stress are well understood and mitigated exhibit one of the building blocks of a culture of health, Towers Watson says. HEOs also provide easy access to high-quality health care and measure health and productivity outcomes.

These investments in employee healthcare translate to direct financial benefits, Towers Watson says. HEOs "are 40% more likely to report financial performance above their peers over the last year than low-effectiveness companies (63% vs. 45%). In fact, high-effectiveness companies are nearly 80% more likely to report their financial performance as significantly higher than their peers (20% vs. 11%)," the report says.

Towers Watson finds that among HEOs in the U.S., "there is a differential in annual healthcare costs of more than $1,600 per employee, giving a company with 20,000 employees a $32 million cost advantage over low-performing organizations."

That alone should be reason enough to work toward reducing stress levels among your organization's staff.