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Are Wellness Programs Stressing the Wrong Things

August 24, 2012

With the help of improved statistics on return on investment, Human Resources departments have succeeded in making wellness programs a permanent fixture in their organizations. And to keep their CEOs on board, the primary focus is to consistently show the effectiveness of these programs at decreasing healthcare costs.
A secondary focal point for HR is to keep employees on track in meeting company wide wellness goals. To do this, HR continues to add new wellness program features and incentives.

To HR’s credit, employees have benefitted tremendously from initiatives designed to help them quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier and control chronic diseases. On the other hand, HR has all but neglected one of the biggest healthcare cost drivers affecting many of their employees. Stress.

Costs of Stress

According to a WebMD.com article, stress contributes to serious health conditions that cost “more than $300 billion” a year. An American Psychology Association Fact Sheet points to the association of stress with high blood pressure, depression, heart disease and diabetes. In addition, research suggests a link between physical and psychological stress and a chemical reaction in the body that promotes weight gain.

So, if stress is the cause of or a major contributing factor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, are wellness programs that focus on these conditions separately missing the mark? And where does HR stand on the issue of providing stress management wellness programs?

Most HR departments do address stress management as part of their wellness efforts. Employee assistance programs (EAPs), yoga and meditation classes, motivational posters, and general stress management classes make up the bulk of these efforts. However, these “programs” barely scratch the surface of addressing this important and potentially very costly issue. Could it be that HR is reluctant to seriously address stress as a wellness issue because it strikes too close to home?

Studies show that next to money, work is the biggest source of stress for American workers. Interpersonal conflicts with coworkers, including workplace bullying, are a primary source of workplace stress for most office workers. Unfortunately, for these workers, HR departments have a reputation of either ignoring or making situations of workplace bullying worse.

But if HR departments want to keep their wellness programs relevant and obtain long- term healthcare costs savings, they will have to help employees reduce their stress levels, no matter what the cause. And if employees want to reap the benefits of workplace wellness programs, including incentives that reduce health insurance premiums, they need to speak up about stress.

Dealing With Stress

If your job is causing you stress and stress reduction techniques like yoga and meditation are not working…

  1. Document when stress symptoms occur. Write a detailed description of what is stressing you at work. If you are feeling stressed because of an individual or individuals, document the behavior causing the stress. Include the date, time, and location of any incidents, the individuals involved, and what the person said or did.
  2. Contact your EAP. If your company offers an employee assistance program (EAP), contact a counselor to discuss your situation. An EAP counselor may be able to tell you if you are being overly sensitive or if there is a legitimate reason for your stress. The counselor may also provide suggestions on how to deal with the situation.
  3. Visit your doctor. If you think stress is affecting your health, talk to your doctor. She can diagnose and treat your condition and provide advice on how to reduce or eliminate stress.
  4. Talk about it. Trusted friends and family members can provide support and advice, or just serve as a sounding board.
  5. Confront the person or issue. Take action to stop the stress by telling the person they are causing you stress and to stop it. Be specific (refer to your documentation in item #1).
  6. Talk to your supervisor. If the stress continues, talk to your supervisor about what you are experiencing and ask for help in reducing or eliminating the stress. Also, let her know what steps you took to reduce the stress on your own.
  7. Contact an appropriate HR representative. HR may or may not help you resolve your workplace stress issues, but it is important to make them aware of your situation when all else fails. Review your employee handbook to make sure you follow the right procedures in reporting your workplace stress issues.
  8. Leave the organization or get outside help. Nothing is worth your health and peace of mind. Find another job or seek legal counsel, if appropriate, to relieve workplace stress.
High levels of prolonged stress cause most of the conditions and illnesses that workplace wellness programs attempt to address separately. However, until wellness programs really address workplace stress, including workplace bullying, efforts to reduce employees’ waistlines and change their eating habits may produce only short-term benefits.
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