Future Focus: Manage Stress, Improve the Bottom

Stress is the most common cause of long-term workplace absences.

By Jennifer Schramm Feb 1, 2013

0213cover.gifToday, stress can seem like an inescapable feature of modern life. For HR professionals focusing on the rising cost of health care, stress has become a major wellness issue.

In a December 2012 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey on workplace wellness initiatives, commissioned by and conducted in collaboration with the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota, HR professionals nationwide identified stress and mental health issues to be among their top employee health concerns.

That is not surprising given that stress, depression and other mental health conditions are principal causes of employee absences.

Stress is the most common cause of long-term absence for all workers, according to the Absence Management 2012 survey report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Simplyhealth. It causes more long-term absences than physical conditions such as neck pain and repetitive strain injury among manual workers and acute illnesses such as cancer or heart attacks among office workers.

Though much is still unknown about the causes of depression and other mental illnesses, there is strong evidence that work-related stress can play a role. Factors such as low job control, job insecurity, a lack of social support, work-family conflict and high job demands have all been noted by researchers to be potential causes of depression.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a given year 18.8 million American adults, about 9.5 percent of the adult population, will suffer from a depressive illness. In a three-month period, patients with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays and experience 11.5 days of reduced productivity. The federal agency estimates that depression causes 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 billion to $44 billion.

Almost all HR professionals share concerns regarding the impact of stress on employees' wellness and productivity, but researchers provide evidence that some occupations lead to higher levels of stress than others. HR practitioners whose employees are in professions associated with high rates of stress or depression—most notably those in service industries such as personal care, and food service and preparation—have a special interest in helping employees manage stress.

An important part of any organization's wellness program will be helping employees deal with stress and mental health conditions. This effort should provide employees with resources and make the workplace less stressful.

Possible approaches include providing greater workplace flexibility so that employees can manage their own time and schedules, managing productivity and workloads by offering variety and work challenges, and helping employees feel safe in their work environments.

Unfortunately, stress is unlikely to go away. But the 406 HR professionals who responded to SHRM's wellness survey reported an overall positive return on investment for wellness initiatives. Enhancing such initiatives can help employees reduce stress and provide even better returns through fewer absences and happier, more productive employees.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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