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Stressed Out Workers

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Feeling stressed out right now? If so, you’re not alone. In a recent survey by the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, about a third of the people questioned said they felt depressed by the war with Iraq. War is just the latest stressor, however: according to Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice at the American Psychological Association, said the war was affecting the vast majority of the group’s patients, based on a survey conducted last month, but that “[o]ver the years, the stress people feel just continues to increase.”

One of the primary reasons, besides the war, that workers are stressed, is the fear of losing their jobs in this weak economy. Not only have many people been forced to work more hours, to do the work formerly performed by now-laid-off workers, but the lack of mobility means many people are staying in jobs they might otherwise leave. This creates a climate where bad bosses flourish. (See Knight Ridder article.) According to this article,

When labor markets are lousy, as they are now, bad bosses tend to flourish. People are desperate to get new jobs and let themselves be abused in their present ones. Brutal bosses are only too happy to oblige. Consequently, it is in times like these that bad bosses and complaints against them rise. By all accounts, more and more people now have to struggle and suffer under a bad boss. There is a new tolerance, even admiration, for these types in much of corporate America, given today’s investor-driven emphasis on the bottom line — profits at almost any price. If the boss can make his numbers and hit those oppressive quarterly targets, who cares if he leaves a little blood on the office floor?

So increasingly in the workplace, you have a situation where workers, stressed out by the war, the economy, and their bosses may need mental health care. What happens then? According to one article, workers are increasingly less likely to have the mental health benefits they now need more than ever. (See NY Times article.) The share of employers offering mental health benefits, however, dropped to 76 percent last year from 84 percent in 1998, according to the 2002 benefits survey of the Society for Human Resource Management. Because health care costs are estimated to rise 15 percent this year, “employers are looking for areas where they can cut costs, and mental health is one of the areas that’s easier to cut. People are less likely to protest because of the stigma around it.” Even employers who aren’t cutting benefits outright are increasing co-payments and deductibles and/or reducing out-of-network coverage, which especially affects mental health benefits because many psychologists and specialists do not participate in large health care networks.

Reducing mental health benefits may in fact be penny-wise and pound-foolish. In a study released in February by Mercer Human Resource Consulting and Marsh Inc., 70 percent of 723 employers reported that stress or depression had increased in cost or frequency as a disability condition during 2001. That was a higher figure than for any other health problem, including cancer, lower-back pain or repetitive trauma like carpal tunnel syndrome. “Many industries have been cutting back on staff because of the economy, but the work still has to be done,” said Mercer’s George Faulkner. “That exacerbates the stress.”

What’s an employer with stressed-out workers to do, that doesn’t dramatically increase the cost of health-care benefits? Here are some suggestions that occurred to us:

• Carefully analyze whether cutting mental-health benefits really makes financial sense. As pointed out above, limiting access to mental health care may not pay off in the long run, if the consequences are merely to increase the number of work-related absences and use of short-term and long-term disability leave benefits. If you have made changes in coverage in the past, analyze whether a decrease in mental health benefits actually saved the company money.

• Who is stressed out? Without violating the individual privacy of employees, it still may be possible to discern a pattern of problems in a particular department or among those workers supervised by the same individual. If so, perhaps the problem is primarily the result of a “bad boss” or impossible-to-meet production standards caused by layoffs. While some workers may have conditions that in no way relate to any workplace stressor, others may have new or exascerbated conditions caused by the work environment, over which the employer can exert some control.

• Being more flexible. One way to eliminate some stress that workers may be under is to increase flexibility. For example, an employee working additional hours or taking on more responsibilities may be having increasing difficulty juggling family responsibilities. Flex time, unpaid leave, and the ability to occasionally conduct personal business at work may help make life less stressful without a significant decline in productivity. Many employers, especially small business owners, have recognized that to some workers, flexibility may be more important than a higher salary. (See Cincinnati Enquirer article.)

• What about cafeteria plans? Some workers may need mental health benefits more than other benefits which are often provided to all employees. For example, the employer may offer a vision plan to all employees, but not all employees have vision problems, or dependent health care coverage, even though many employees don’t have children. Instead of offering a standard benefit package to all employees which may not meet the needs of some workers, companies are increasingly turning to cafeteria plans, which allow workers to pick and choose among offered benefits to select those they care most about. This would allow workers who are most in need of mental health coverage to obtain what they need, while perhaps forgoing other benefits currently offered and paid for by the company on their behalf.

While the war may soon go away, there will always be stressed-out workers who will need mental health coverage. By considering creative solutions rather than blindly cutting costs, employers and employees alike may end up less stressed out.


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