Missing the Stress Signals

When you do a simple Google search for “sue for employer stress,” you will quite literally receive over 439,000 results in less than three seconds. These results deliver everything from legal advice and news articles to message boards and online discussions about what actually constitutes “continued job-related stress.” Now, as an employer it’s easy to shake your head and roll your eyes while quipping, “We all have stress—try running a company,” but I encourage you not to do that.

Please hear me out.

While stress is not a disease, it can be a threat to health and safety while at work—and you as an employer have to take care of your employees’ welfare while they are reporting for duty.

The Reality of the Modern Workplace

It’s true that there aren’t very many jobs out there that don’t involve a bit of stress. We all have to deal with upset clients or tight deadlines on a pretty regular basis—and we are all accountable to someone or something. Of course, having a bit of pressure in one’s life can be the motivating force to perform well and propel yourself forward. However, at other times the daily pressures of a position can be more than an individual can handle, especially if they are also in the process of facing turmoil in their own personal life (such as in the case of grief situations, financial problems, or marital separation or divorce). When the ante gets upped, this is where workplace stress can cause physical and mental illness—and this is what an employer must be vigilant about. High stress in the workplace can cause:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Compulsive Behaviors
  • Substance Abuse
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Stomach Disorders
  • Hypertension
  • High Blood Pressure

Can an Employer be sued for a Stressful Work Environment?

Ultimately, as an employer understand that there is no clear determination as it relates to an answer to this question—but legal statistics show that this trend continues to mount in the workplace. And it usually comes down to the court’s assessment over whether an employee was facing normal stress or a hostile work environment. While many of these cases have the tendency to fail because few employees have an employment contract that is keeping them from leaving any job or position, the exception to this theme tends to vary for high performers or executive management team members. As I have spoken about before, this is the group that is most likely to try to chug along at work when facing strife in their personal life—and they are also the group that is most at risk to cost their employer a lot of money if they break under the pressure.

Insurance Companies to the Rescue?

It’s a strange idea to think of an insurance company as the proverbial knight in shining armor, but in all reality it’s companies like MetLife who are stepping up to develop new programs that not only help protect an employer, but also assist employees who are facing high levels of stress due to situations that are occurring in their personal lives. Of course, the idea of grief counseling has been around for a while now. What makes this development interesting is that this is not an ancillary benefit, or additional “add-on” to an insurance policy. Provided by Harris, Rothenberg International (HRI), Inc. via MetLife, the service itself is provided through a basic group life insurance plan, and at no additional cost to the employer or employee. This could possibly be an incredibly important shift in the way that we think about grief in the workplace, and what a truly comprehensive insurance plan should offer. Developments such as this could open up a dialogue about what over-the-top stress and anguish actually does to the minds, hearts, and bodies of employees.

Reducing Worker Stress

As an employer, I understand that you have a company to run. However, I do encourage you to realize that according to the American Institute of Stress, job stress costs U.S. businesses more than $300 billion annually due to increased absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity, and medical expenses. And that’s not all. Think about the following:

  • The journal BMC Public Health notes that employees who work in high-stress jobs visit physicians 26 percent more often than their low-stress counterparts.
  • The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reported that over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the United States from absenteeism are related to stress.
  • Absenteeism is estimated to cost American companies $602/worker/year (also per The European Agency for Safety and Health) and the price tag for large employers approaches $3.5MM annually.

So what can an employer do to help reduce worker stress, both for “under contract” high performers as well as at-will employees? Here are the tips that I recommend:

  • Ask managers to lead by example. Encourage and lead employees in stress relief activities, such as walking, healthy eating, laughing, and even meditating.
  • Establish at-work exercise programs. Remember, even low levels of aerobic exercise, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week can be effective.
  • Program stretch break reminders on employee calendars or in Outlook. These reminders appear throughout the day and provide employees with the opportunity to step away from their desks.
  • Create a space in your office for quiet time or meditation. This provides employees a refuge from technology. Many people find that they are refreshed and reenergized after taking a time to regroup and gather their thoughts.
  • Encourage or create social activities, team building, and a culture that promotes laughter. Remember, your employees spend a lot of time together. The more they enjoy it, the happier the workplace will be.
  • Allow your employees to separate themselves from work when they are done for the day. Develop a “no afterhours email policy” or state that it’s company policy to shut off phones come day’s end. Having this messaging delivered in a top-down approach will set the tone of your office.

I firmly believe that a positive employer/employee relationship is possible, and attainable. Oftentimes, it only takes a bit of introspection and analysis in order to set boundaries that allow employees to be their most productive and engaged while on the job.

For more information about how I can help you retain your best employees during times of stress, turmoil, or grief, visit www.BLTStrategies.com today.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski