Business awakes to

the cost of stress

20% of the payroll. Firms are taking measures to promote well-being

 

 ANDY RIGA, The Gazette

Published: Monday, February 27, 2006

 

The 27-year-old woman was in the examining room after defecating blood.Cancer, the doctor feared. The woman's left eyeball protruded slightly. Maybe a brain tumor. A battery of tests was ordered. The results turned up no medical condition.Then the doctor asked about stress, and the cause of the health crisis emerged - the workplace.

 

The woman reported she had a nightmare boss. The owner of a TV-production company, he often would schedule his young employees to work 16 straight days for below minimum wage.When he sensed staff dissension, she said, he would distribute unemployment statistics and newspaper clippings describing the plight of the jobless.

 

She said he repeatedly told his employees they could never get jobs elsewhere and even claimed that the office was bugged."He played mind games," the woman, who did not want her name to appear in print, told The Gazette. "He was a vampire - he would hire young people fresh out of university and suck the energy out of them and leave people depressed or sick."On her doctor's advice, the woman quit her job of three years. Within months, her health returned.

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Surveys consistently peg work as one of the top sources of stress for Canadians. Workers complain about bad relationships with bosses, doubts over job security, the unreasonable demands thrust upon them and their lack of decision-making power.

 

The workplace also is where the biggest costs related to stress are incurred in the form of health-care expenses, absenteeism and "presenteeism" - employees showing up for work in body but not in spirit.In the not-too-distant past, terms like workplace stress and work-life conflict got little reaction from business and political leaders.

 

But recent studies that show these problems cost billions are now helping to focus minds:About 20 per cent of the payroll of a typical company goes toward dealing with stress-related problems like absenteeism, employee turnover, disability leaves, counselling, medicine and accidents, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.Work-life conflict - stress that arises when work and family clash - costs Canadian business $4.5 billion to $10 billion a year, Health Canada says.

 

Those costs are either direct (paying absent workers) or indirect (training replacements).Mental-health problems - stress, depression and addiction - are a $33-billion-a-year drain on Canada's economy, says the corporate-sponsored Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.And work stress is a key factor in the onset of mental illness, now the leading cause of worker disability, the Toronto-based roundtable warns. One-third of disability insurance claims relate to mental-health problems, it says.

 

Sometimes, even when Canadians go to work, they don't. It's called presenteeism: Office employees at desks, factory workers on assembly lines and nurses in emergency rooms too sick, distracted or stressed to be productive."Imagine: this is a knowledge-based workforce. That means your brain has to really be working at 100 per cent to get the numerous tasks accomplished," said Estelle Morrison of Ceridian Canada, which provides employee-assistance programs to workers in 5,000 Canadian companies."With presenteeism, you have someone who's not functioning, who's not concentrating well, who's not committed to what they're doing, who's distracted, who may not be able to remember things - they're not going to be a highly productive worker.

 

"The main sources of work-life conflicts are "workload, working in a non-supportive organizational culture and working for a jerk," said Linda Duxbury, who has been studying the matter for 17 years.At the same time, stress unrelated to the workplace - like having to take care of an elderly parent - is exacerbated by bosses who don't recognize the importance of "having a life," she said.

 

Duxbury, a business professor at Ottawa's Carleton University and a leading researcher on work-life conflict, co-wrote a Health Canada study in 1991 involving more than 30,000 Canadians in which she found that workers already were feeling increasingly stressed. At the time, even as employers spoke in glowing terms about the value of their workers, "they cut people, they downsized, restructured, they talked about efficiencies, they expected those left to do more," Duxbury said in a recent interview.

 

In 2001, she again asked Canadians about their jobs and found that they had bigger workloads, worked longer hours, were twice as likely to complain about stress, visited the doctor more often and were less satisfied with and less committed to their employers.

 

Meanwhile, myths persist about work-life conflict, Duxbury said.One holds that work and life are separate domains to be managed as such - and yet, in many firms, "the person who gets promoted, gets rewarded, is the person who has no life, who puts work ahead of everything else," she said."A large part of why people are delaying having children and having fewer children or no children at all is because both men and women who want to be promoted and treated well within the workplace can't say no (to unreasonable work demands). If they do, it's the kiss of death in terms of their ability to advance."

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Experts describe healthy workplaces as those that promote the physical and mental well-being of the employees. Often, this can be accomplished by implementing measures that cost employers little or nothing, like allowing workers to take part in decision-making and recognizing their accomplishments.

 

We used to think those things were just to make people feel better," said Ceridian's Morrison, a psychotherapist who creates programs to help workers avoid mental-health problems."Now we realize the more we do them, the less likely employees are to experience stress and strain and the more likely they are to be in a healthier situation - and to be more productive.

 

"For example, the Desjardins financial co-operative saw absenteeism drop, job satisfaction jump and fewer benefits paid out for psychological problems after it launched a major health and well-being program in 2000, including organizing conferences on stress and offering massages at the office.

 

Other employers also are taking note. In Alberta, an unemployment rate that is less than half of Quebec's is forcing employers in the booming oil industry to address the issue of work-life conflict. "What they discovered in Alberta is that if they don't deal with work environment and workplace well-being and job stress, they get into a game of escalating salary costs," Carleton's Duxbury said. "You could treat people badly and pay them badly in the '90s; because of the baby boom, we had way more good people. But I keep saying to employers: 'This is stopping. We haven't maintained our birth rate since the 1960s' " - and baby boomers are retiring.

 

Some employers use traditional methods to help workers, like organizing training sessions to help them identify and deal with stress.Others, Morrison said, try to create a "culture that doesn't say the longer the hours you put in here, the more you will be advanced or promoted or well thought of.

 

"Quebec is seen as a leader in this regard. In 2004, it became the first province to outlaw bullying and psychological harassment in the workplace, and as of Jan. 1 new parents became eligible for Canada's most generous and flexible parental-leave program.It's no accident that Quebec is at the forefront.

 

 Duxbury noted that the challenge for this province is two-fold: first, its birth rate is extremely low, and second, it "wants to attract talent who are bilingual or French-speaking - and that pool is much smaller.

 

"For some - particularly new mothers returning to their jobs - cutting stress means trying to cut back on the number of hours they work.McGill management professor Mary Dean Lee studies the impact of shorter workweeks among professionals - the segment that works the longest hours and reports the highest levels of stress.After interviewing such employees and their bosses in Canada and the United States over several years, she found that companies that respond creatively to the growing demand for fewer hours are rewarded.These companies see an increase in productivity, creativity and worker retention, as well as improved employee relations, Lee said.

 

Those who work less (and get paid accordingly) talk about "gaining greater peace of mind, greater sanity, they have a life now instead of being on a treadmill where they're just barely keeping their breath," Lee said."People who work a reduced load - yes, their load gets reduced, but they're also probably more efficient."

 

Yet she still sees a resistance to alternative working arrangements, though it might be more pronounced in the United States, where researchers refer to an "opt-out revolt" - highly educated women leaving the workforce when they have children because bosses aren't flexible enough. That is not an issue in Canada, probably because of its more liberal parental-leave policies, Lee said.Aside from helping the parents, she added, those policies offer the added benefit of forcing employers to learn to adapt to workforce changes.

 

For her part, Duxbury said companies should be more flexible onwork hours, allow more employees to work from home, increase their sense of control over work, boost the number of supportive managers and focus on creating more family-friendly environments.Some employers with an eye onthe bottom line and facing pressure to do more with less might wonder how they can run a viable businessif they're expected to allow employees to work fewer hours, on flexible terms, and offer company-paid massagesto boot.

 

But Duxbury insists the alternative costs more. By not instituting more human-friendly cultures and policies, she said, they risk more absenteeism and "mental health" days, higher benefit costs, lower levels of commitment and job satisfaction, and severe recruitment and retention issues.

 

- - -The woman who blamed her bullying boss for her bloody bowels and bulging eyeball never went back to being an employee.Eleven years after quitting her painfully stressful job, she's a healthy mother of two and the owner of a thriving small business."I didn't want to work for another jerk," she said. "I'd rather work for me. I have control over my hours, I make sure I don't bring the work home with me, I'm accountable to myself." 

 

Here's a list of what not to do if you expect to get the most from your workers:

  • Impose unreasonable demands.

  • Refuse to give employees reasonable discretion over work.

  • Fail to credit or acknowledge contributions and achievements.

  • Create a treadmill - too much to do, all at once, all the time.

  • Create perpetual doubt, leaving workers unsure about future.

  • Allow office politics to disrupt positive behavior.

  • Tolerate or foster unclear direction and job ambiguity.

  • Reject, out of hand, employee workload concerns.

  • Remember - performance reviews (even positive ones) don't establish workers' role in the company's future.

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© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006