Workplace Stress Hits Three-Year High

By Beth Mirza Feb 22, 2012
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Employees are experiencing so much workplace stress, they are having mental breakdowns and requiring interventional help at higher rates than professionals have seen in years.

Management referrals and fitness-for-duty evaluations—typically conducted after a worker shows signs of an extreme mental breakdown—have increased 120 percent since 2008, according to Harris, Rothenberg International (HRI), a provider of employee assistance program (EAP) services.

In 2008, HRI averaged 23.3 return-to-work and fitness-for-duty referrals a month. In 2011, HRI averaged 51.2 requests without a significant increase in the number of employees covered by EAP services, according to an HRI news release.

“Return-to-work and fitness-for-duty evaluations are a by-product of workplace stress,” said Dr. Randy Martin, HRI’s director of clinical services, in the news release. “It signifies that an employee has crossed a threshold and that their mental and emotional well-being must be carefully considered before allowing them to return back to the workplace. This is yet another clinical marker of the tremendous stress that the economic downturn has placed on employees.”

A Different Kind of Stress

Employees’ stresses have changed not only in severity but also in cause, said Julie LeBlanc, HRI’s associate director of clinical services. LeBlanc told SHRM Online that before the economic downturn, employees felt more able to take time off to deal with family pressures or financial concerns, or to just take a break from the workplace.

“Now they are scared of losing their jobs and they can’t take time off. Maybe they are the single [financial] supporter in their family, or they are doing the jobs of two or three people at work” because of layoffs, LeBlanc said. “They are not taking vacations, they are always in the office, they are not taking lunch. People try to ‘white knuckle’ it through, then one stressor too many happens and they fall apart.”

Counselors at HRI have noticed three types of behavior being reported recently in workplaces, LeBlanc said: suicidal comments, violence and hallucinations.

Employees “come to work and tell a manager or colleague that they are thinking of harming themselves,” she said. “They are texting, calling, instant-messaging. Or they’ll disclose they’ve made an attempt. Some have even tried to kill themselves at work.”

Other employees are lashing out in response to their stress. They might “threaten to poison the [office] coffee, make vague threats or actually assault someone,” LeBlanc said. “They get into arguments and can’t calm down. We didn’t see that with regularity before; now we see it all the time. It’s very intense.”

Finally, employers are reporting that workers are experiencing psychotic episodes at work. Formerly good performers are suddenly delusional or hallucinating, LeBlanc said. Managers don’t know how to handle the odd behavior. “It’s upsetting to others and it’s causing stress—not just to the managers but to other colleagues, too. We’re getting one or two calls a week about this.”

How to Talk About It

LeBlanc acknowledged that “it’s uncomfortable to talk about this.” LeBlanc encouraged HR leaders to give managers the tools they need to react accordingly to keep their employees safe and support workers in need. She listed some pointers for managers to follow when approaching an employee whose behavior is worrisome:

  • Don’t ask about what may be wrong or try to offer advice. Stick to behavioral observations and say that you’ve seen a difference in their usual demeanor. “You don’t seem like yourself. I’m concerned about you.”
  • Make the conversation center around performance issues, if there are some. “You were very thorough before, and now you’re missing things.” “You’re not doing your work the way you used to. Is there something going on that we can support you with?”
  • Remind them of the resources available for help, such as health insurance, the EAP phone number and the availability of short-term disability leave to seek help.
  • Have the conversation right away. Don’t ignore the problem. “Once a manager is aware [of a problem], it’s a workplace safety issue,” LeBlanc said.

Long-Term Effects

When employees are suffering from stress, they forget to take care of themselves, LeBlanc said. They are so concerned about caring for their families, doing well on the job and keeping up with their commitments that they become exhausted.

“When you are depressed and not being treated, your body will stop eventually,” she said.

HRI’s clients have seen employees need to take varying amounts of leave in order to get healthy, LeBlanc said. Typically, workers need about two to four weeks of leave if they are not significantly disabled. More difficult cases can take three to four months to resolve.

“Quite a few have never returned to work, because their symptoms were so severe,” she said.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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