Work stress costs $300 billion

  • The Providence Journal
  • Monday, October 29, 2007 10:50pm
  • Business

Stress in the workplace is costing American business $300 billion a year.

That’s the figure the American Psychological Association puts on the loss of productivity, absenteeism, turnover and increased medical costs caused by stress at work.

According to a poll conducted by the association, two-thirds of American employees say work has a significant impact on their stress level, and one in four has called in sick as a result of stress.

Causes of stress, the association said, include job uncertainty, cost-cutting, a relentless demand for higher productivity and the proliferation of communications tools — e-mail, cell phones, Blackberries — that blur the boundaries between work and home.

Joseph Trunzo, an assistant professor of applied psychology at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., said things are unlikely to get any better.

“It’s probably getting worse,” said Trunzo, who also has a private psychological practice. “Job cutbacks mean fewer people are expected to do more. We’re constantly being inundated with more information and expectations.”

Workers under stress, Trunzo said, are less efficient and less healthy than more contented employees, and that’s bad for the bottom line.

He said that while it’s true work is far safer now than it was 150 years ago for many Americans, that doesn’t mean there’s any less stress. “Stress is stress,” he said. “The body responds the same way, whether you’re in an air-conditioned office or working in a mine or on a farm. The wear and tear on your psychological well-being is still there.”

Trunzo said stress is often a matter of perception. If workers believe their workload is too great — whether it is or not — they will develop symptoms of stress. Smart companies, he said, recognize the problem and take measures to fight stress.

The American Psychological Association has developed the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program at the national and state levels to recognize companies that are taking measures to deal with employee stress.

Patricia Raymond, Rhode Island Psychological Association’s representative to the awards program, said stress can result in “presentee-ism,” in which an employee is physically present but mentally absent from the job.

Psychologists had several suggestions for both companies and employees on how to deal with stress.

Sometimes, it can be the small things that makes the difference. Trunzo said he knows of a company that arranges for a mechanic to pick up employee cars that need repair, fix them and bring them back.

“Giving someone a raise doesn’t necessarily alleviate stress, but a more flexible schedule, maybe allowing an employee to work at home, might work better,” he said. “Even if a worker just feels the company is paying attention, it’s helpful. You don’t have to build a gym on site. But maybe you can strike a deal with a local gym to give employees a discount, or distribute coupons for a spa.”

Communication within a company can help alleviate stress, psychologists said, especially if communication is a two-way street.

“There needs to be a flow of communication from management to line staff, but it should go in both directions,” said psychologist Michael Raciti.

Trunzo said it’s important to set boundaries between work and home, even if that means turning off the cell phone. “Stress at work can invade the home life, and then there’s no respite or sanctuary from stress,” he said. “Balance is the key component. We need to tend to our personal lives as well as our work lives.”

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