Note to Employers: Stressed Employees Cost You Money

A new study demonstrates what every employer should already know, but many can forget all too easily: stressed-out workers negatively affect the bottom line. Good workplace morale isn’t just a goal to aspire to and a tool in retention efforts, but significantly affects workplace productivity.

“Stress is increasing dramatically,” says the American Institute of Stress (AIS). While that might be exactly what you would expect an entity like AIS to say, what should really get your attention is the statistic that an estimated 1 million workers are absent each work day due to stress. Workplace stress costs U.S. employers $300 billion a year in absenteeism, health costs and programs to help workers manage stress as unemployment rises and companies cut staff. In a 2000 Gallup Poll, “Attitudes in the American Workplace,” 80 percent of surveyed workers reported feeling stress on the job and nearly half say they need help coping with it. Twenty-five percent have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress, 14 percent felt like striking a co-worker and 10 percent are concerned about a colleague becoming violent. (See Chicago Tribune article.)

What can a stressed-out worker do? Here are some coping tips suggested in a recent Indianapolis Star article:

Make Changes: One doctor recommends making adjustments in your work environments and attitudes. Says Dr. Barry Linden: “You change your job, you change your boss, you change your work hours, you change your commute. The second is, you change something about your personality or your way of reacting that makes the stress higher.”

Get a life: Don’t expect your job to fulfill too many parts of your life, as you are bound to be disappointed. Linden says, “If work is just one of several elements that gives meaning to your life, you have a better chance of weathering bad times at work.” Some suggestions: “Make new friends, take a class, plan a vacation, join a softball league or a reading discussion group, study martial arts or volunteer for a charity or a religious group.”

Unwind before you go home: To leave work at work, decompress before you get home, by visiting a bookstore or the gym, or going for a run or a bike ride.

Watch your diet: Caffeine and sugar can wreak havoc on your energy levels, sending you on a roller coaster of adrenaline bursts and crashes, so limit your intake, or drink water, juice and herbal teas instead.

Relax and have fun: Exercise is a great stress reliever, but you also need relaxation to let your body recover from work stress. “Sitting and talking to friends oftentimes can be both relaxing and recreational. And so can simply sitting and listening to music without doing six other things at the same time,” says Dr. Linden.

Even employees who do their part to reduce stress, however, may be helpless in the face of a workplace bully, who is often their supervisor. Bullying is defined as repeated, health-endangering mistreatment of a person (the target) by a perpetrator (the bully). The effects of bullying are more serious than people just having their feelings hurt, as 41 percent of bullied workers become clinically depressed, and 30 percent suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to workplace bullying expert Gary Namie, Ph.D. (See Bellevue Leader article.) Namie recommends three steps for a bullied employee to take: If a bullied employee follows certain guidelines, he or she may be able to get the bully fired or removed from the workplace. Namie said there are three steps a bully target should take.

The first step is to recognize the problem and call it what it is. By calling it what it is, the person will know it’s real and realize it’s not their fault.

The next step is to recover. This may mean going to a counselor, a lawyer or even taking time off.

Step three is exposing the bully. The bullied employee shouldn’t go to human relations, but rather talk to the highest-ranking person at his or her company they can get a hold of…They shouldn’t tell the story from an emotional perspective, but instead explain how the bully is costing the company money. They should be prepared to offer evidence of the bully making employees uncomfortable, or have statistics about how bullies cause employee turnover.

While employers here in the United States have limited legal remedies, if the bullying is not a result of the employee’s age, sex, race, or other protected category, they can look to recent developments in Great Britain for inspiration. There, a stockbroker subjected to months of “obscenities and verbal abuse,” from his supervisor recovered one million pounds from his employer, Cantor Fitzgerald. (See The Guardian article.)

While such a result is at this time unlikely to happen here, Dr. Namie and the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute are behind a bill currently before the California Legislature, AB 1582, the Healthy Workplace bill. If this law were to pass in California, employers would be forced to rein in the supervisors and employees who are bullying their employees and causing them extreme amounts of stress, or face legal liability for failing to do so. While bullying supervisors and other workplace stress now already hurts the corporate bottom line, perhaps it will ultimately take legislation such as the Healthy Workplace bill for employers to get serious about reducing workplace stress.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.