Workers more stressed than ever

By Cindy Krischer Goodman for The Miami Herald
Like most of us, Nancy Topolski found herself with more work piled on after her law firm laid off 11 legal secretaries. Topolski soon began stressing over work, losing sleep and making mistakes. One day, the stress turned into a full blown panic attack in the office.

Trying to keep your cool in workplaces these days has become more difficult. The recession has brought a new set of issues, driving stress to a new level, with three out of every four American workers on the brink of a meltdown, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University report.

“Workers are being pushed and pushed and they lack the energy to deal with it,” says Joyce Gioia of The Herman Group, whose specialty is employee retention. She believes that high workloads, fear of job loss, and 24/7 connectivity has created the recipe for the highest levels of stress in history.

Companies could end up paying the cost through more workers calling in sick, more job-related mistakes and higher turnover.

For years, experts have said a little bit of stress is good, referring to the short-term jolt that comes before making a presentation, not the extreme kind prevalent in workplaces today. “We’re way beyond the level of it being motivating,” says Helen Darling, president of the Washington-based National Business group on Health. “It will be hard to recover economically if we don’t find better ways to help employees address stress.”

Walid Wahab, owner of Wahab Construction, a high-end Miami homebuilder, comes to work each day and confronts the stress from keeping his staff employed and luring new business.

“As a business owner my responsibility is not to panic or panic privately. I have to put on a positive face in front of my employees.”

Surprisingly, while his type of stress is echoed by most corporate executives, studies show head honchos are less at risk for health issues than one would expect. It turns out, it’s not really the high-powered fast-paced executives succumbing to stress, but rather those in lower-level jobs with little control over their schedules or their work culture and those with unsupportive bosses who suffer most, according to studies by the famed neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky.

Sure, staying late at the office night after night can be exhausting, but it’s not going to kill you. The person most at risk for stress-induced heart disease isn’t the executive with an endless to-do list — it’s the frustrated janitor, legal secretary or single mother who has no flexibility in her work hours, worries about job security and is fraught with hopelessness.

At Wahab Construction, project manager Meg Florian finds her stressors are completely different from those of her boss, Walid. “I deal with a lot of subcontractors, and I find people just don’t pay attention. You have to repeat yourself. There’s a lack of care and focus.”

Trying to fix mistakes, she says, causes her stress. Florian says she hasn’t found a release — yet. She is considering yoga.

Wahab sets the example for his employees, fitting yoga into his routine for 20 years.

He says it makes him a better boss and person. “I leave the company after a day with anxiety, about maybe something that went wrong. Yoga is a filter I go through before I get home — all the negative energy, I leave it there.”

By now, most employers know they have a stressed-out workforce, not all of it business related. “On top of the stress in the workplace, they are stressed about their finances, their kids, their parents. There is so much to worry about right now,” Darling says.

“That won’t change until the economy turns around.”

Still, most employers haven’t figured out what to do about it, and some have no interest in trying. In Topolski’s case, she was fired the day after her panic attack. She has since sued her former law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, for $1 million.

Those employers who are attempting to address stress mostly are encouraging workers to use employee assistance programs, which provide mental health counselors.

Employee-assistance programs and HR consultants report a notable uptick in calls about job stress in the past two years.

Darling says any size business with a health plan should be able to make counseling available to workers. Any additional cost to the employer, she says, is worth it.

Meanwhile, there are many different opinions regarding what a stress management programs should include. Some stressed-out workers have turned to medication; others have gone the route of meditation.

“I don’t see evidence that a majority of the small and mid-sized businesses are in a position to help stressed workers, even if they want to,” says Joel H. Neuman, associate professor of management at State University of New York at New Paltz. “Most are struggling just to get by.”

Which is why, he feels, employers are seeing stress manifesting as workplace conflict and short tempers.

Regardless, consultant Barry Hall, who analyzed workplace stress in a report published in July, insists businesses do realize they need to address the rising tide of employee stress.

“Those who ignore stress will take a hit to their bottom line in higher costs and lower productivity,” he says.