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HR professionals share their advice for minimizing worker stress and boosting retention.
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Restructuring policies and workloads, along with providing training and support services, can help reduce employee stress.
Alan Logan leaves for work at 5:30 a.m. daily to arrive at his 7 a.m. shift as a locksmith at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. He lives 40 miles away, and heavy traffic forces him to leave early. Often, when his workday ends, “I just want to go home and rest,” Logan says. “I don’t feel like jumping back into the truck to run errands.”
Now, he doesn’t have to. In 2005, Huntington Hospital introduced an on-site, full-service concierge service to help its employees alleviate nonwork-related stress and be more productive.
Logan has used the concierge service to mail bills, wrap gifts, make vacation plans, buy movie tickets, and order flowers for his wife and four daughters. “I’m able to act on my intentions spontaneously. It empowers me and makes me feel like a better person. It improved the quality of my life,” Logan says.
Debra Ortega, vice president of HR at Huntington, says the 525-bed hospital introduced its concierge service out of recognition that many of its 3,000 employees were stressed-out and stretched thin juggling demands on their time.
“In southern California, commutes are a major issue,” says Ortega. “You can live 10 miles from the hospital and have a 45-minute commute. If you are a nurse working 12-hour shifts, how do you fit in picking up the dry cleaning between time with the kids? We thought we could help make time with family be quality time.”
The struggle to balance work and family is merely one of the many stressors that employees face—and that companies are trying to help them manage. The upside for employers of such stress reduction efforts is employees who are healthier, more creative and more productive. (For more on the negative effects of stress on the workplace, see “ How Stress Affects Us”.)
As a result, many employers are taking the time to identify the chief workplace stressors in employees’ lives, reduce or eliminate such work-related stress, and help employees develop the tools to manage and cope with any kind of stress, whether it originates in the workplace or not.
Finding Workplace Causes
It’s crucial to determine at the outset what your employees perceive as the root causes of their stress before jumping in with a stress management program.
“You need to assess the level and consequences of that stress,” says Ronald G. Downey, who holds a doctorate in quantitative psychology and is a professor of psychology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. He recommends conducting employee surveys and exit interviews.
Dr. Paul J. Rosch, president of The American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit organization in Yonkers, N.Y., also recommends getting feedback from employees. “Ask workers to submit statements about what bothers them most at work. Most job stress has to do with the workers’ impressions that they have little control over their work.”
Once you’ve gathered feedback from employees and determined the chief causes of their stress, give this issue the full attention it deserves—especially with regard to preventing future stress.
“Some HR managers do a 45-minute brown-bag lunch seminar on stress management, have six people attend, and check off ‘deal with employee stress’ on their to-do list. That’s like trying to bail out a leaky boat with a teacup,” says David Lee, principal of HumanNature@Work, a consultancy in Bar Mills, Maine. “It’s more effective to plug the leaks.”
One company that has adopted a comprehensive strategy for dealing with employee stress is PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), an assurance, tax and advisory firm headquartered in New York. “We think about employee stress on three levels,” explains Michael Fenlon, HR strategy leader. “First, we look at how we manage our work that will promote work/life quality. A second dimension is how we can equip individuals to promote their own health. This includes training designed to strengthen their individual approaches to managing stress. Third are specific services we offer to help individuals alleviate stress. It’s important to approach it holistically and not fall into a trap that it is just about a service or training course.”
Attack the Causes of Stress
Not all stress is bad; good stress can motivate workers to stretch themselves and meet a new challenge, for example. And not all stress comes from the workplace. Financial difficulties, marital problems and other stressors originate in employees’ personal lives—and there’s not much that well-intentioned HR professionals can do to change those issues.
HR can, however, attack and try to reduce the causes of negative workplace stress. Possible steps include:
Research by one client “showed poor teamwork and ineffective supervision were the two most important factors leading to employee stress,” says Lee. “It’s stressful trying to manage people, even if you have received training. It’s stressful being managed by someone who doesn’t know how to manage, and perhaps compensates for their insecurity by being controlling.”
If a PwC employee sends an e-mail on a weekend, a pop-up screen reminds the individual, “It is the weekend and important to disconnect and allow others to do the same. Please send your e-mail at the beginning of the workweek.”
Another option is to give employees more personal time. For example, HomeBanc Mortgage Corp. in Atlanta gives employees an extra 24 hours, in addition to holidays and vacation time, that it calls “being there” time. Employees can use the time “whenever they need a couple of hours during the year to attend a school play or go to a teacher conference without using up vacation time,” says Barbara Aiken, vice president of associate satisfaction.
Help Workers Cope Reducing the causes of stress is important, but many workers also may need a hand learning how to better cope with stress, even positive stress, in the workplace. To that end, HR professionals may consider these steps:
Some programs take a unique approach to giving employees someone to talk to. HomeBanc contracts with Corporate Chaplains of America to provide counseling services to its employees. “The chaplains visit each office once a week and are available 24/7 via pager and cell phone for employees in need,” says Aiken. “It is appreciated by associates of every faith, and even those who have no religious affiliations.” (For more on chaplains as workplace counselors, see “
Workplace Chaplains” in the August 2000 issue of
The company also includes stress management modules in other training courses, such as supervisory training, which reach more employees than stand-alone courses.
Keep ’Em Coping
Once you’ve addressed the workplace causes of your employees’ stress and taken steps to minimize them, help employees cope with the stressors you cannot alter. Some potential services you can offer are:
Employees pay for the services they need, such as car washing, but not for the concierge service itself, which costs the hospital about $50 per employee per year. In addition, employees pay less for services than if they obtained the services themselves.
“The concierge negotiates prices—about 15 percent cheaper—with local vendors,” says Ortega. On-site concierge services include, but aren’t limited to, dry cleaning, oil changes, film developing, watch repair, eyeglass care, mailing services, restaurant food delivery and travel arrangements.
“During tax season, we work six or seven days a week. If you’re a single parent, it’s difficult to find day care on a Saturday,” says Kristen Cifolelli, HR manager at Plante & Moran. (For more information about on-site child care, read “
Gone Camping” in the January 2006 issue of
HR Magazine and “
Do Your Family-Friendly Programs Make Cents?” in the January 2004 issue of
ARUP Laboratories has a company-subsidized on-site massage therapist. “Employees pay $5 for a 15-minute massage. We pick up the rest,” explains Madsen.
Huntington Hospital holds health screenings for cholesterol and blood pressure. Of the employees who participated in the screenings last year, 67 percent enrolled in a program to improve an identified health risk.
ARUP Laboratories regularly presents health-related lectures on topics such as acupuncture, and offers financial incentives to employees who quit smoking or lose weight through on-site Weight Watchers meetings. A free, on-site health clinic offers employees, spouses and dependents immediate medical assistance.
Two years ago, ARUP expanded its free on-site wellness center. It is now open all day, every day to employees and spouses and offers workout equipment and 23 group exercise classes, including three 15-minute classes.
“Employees get two paid 15-minute breaks when they can exercise,” says Rebecca Fietkau, director of the wellness center at ARUP and owner of InTone Wellness, a corporate wellness consulting company. “The classes are designed to be done in work clothes, and we teach them in our work clothes. Employees who normally wouldn’t be getting any exercise are getting 30 minutes a day.”
Debbie Baker, a programmer/analyst at ARUP, says she has seen dramatic changes in her stress levels since she began participating in the wellness program at work. “The aerobics class gave me a jump start on a life filled with activity. I went from no exercise to doing the classes. Now, I play racquetball and ride bikes; I even ran a marathon. I feel better, so I’m sure I’m more productive. I no longer get the 3 o’clock blues.
“I also don’t have nearly as many problems with depression,” says Baker. “My job hasn’t changed, so the amount of stress I’m under is the same. I just don’t feel like it’s overwhelming.”
And that is the goal after all—to help employees feel capable of dealing with all of their stress in life.
Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich. She has been writing business articles for 12 years.
SHRM report: 2006 Benefits Survey
Report: Stress at Work(National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Article: Employee Stress and Performance(HumanNature@Work)
Web site: The American Institute of Stress
Article series: How We Work: Punching the Clock in the New Economy(MSNBC)
How Stress Affects Us
“Stress affects us both negatively and positively. On the positive side, stress motivates us to get more done—as in working toward a deadline. On the negative side, stress causes us to feel overwhelmed and procrastinate. Too much stress depresses our immune system and can cause us to get sick,” says Susan Neri-Friedwald, founder of the New Behavior Institute, a counseling firm in New York.
“Stress doesn’t occur to just a few people who ‘aren’t tough enough.’ Stress occurs to a large number of people,” says Ronald G. Downey, who holds a doctorate in quantitative psychology and is a professor of psychology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. “The consequences of [excessive] stress are straightforward: physical illness, increase in health care costs, heightened turnover, loss of productive employees and loss of collegiality.”
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