Employers Missing the Point of Rising Employee Stress

By Rita Pyrillis

Mar. 14, 2017

stressed out employees at conference table
“HR departments aren’t equipped to deal with complex social and psychological issues, so they start with solutions and hope that the problem fits,” said Tom Davenport of Willis Towers Watson.

While most employers and employees would agree that stress in the workplace is a persistent problem, they often differ dramatically on the causes — a disconnect that can undermine the success of any mental wellness program.

In a recent survey of workplace health and productivity, employers identified big-picture challenges like technology, which makes it harder to separate work and home, and organizational change as top stressors while employees were focused on more immediate and personal concerns like low pay, unclear job expectations and company culture. The stressor that employers ranked last — company culture — was the third choice of employees, according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2015-16 “Staying@Work” survey.

This disconnect underscores the fact that most employers don’t understand what causes stress for their employees and often leads them to the wrong solutions, according to Tom Davenport, a senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson.

“Everyone experiences stress differently and organizations have a hard time dealing with individualized solutions,” he said. “HR departments aren’t equipped to deal with complex social and psychological issues, so they start with solutions and hope that the problem fits. They look for EAPs (employee assistance providers) and vendors who provide mindfulness classes, yoga, resiliency programs — they check the box and say problem solved.”

The problem is that an emotional wellness program is likely to fail if employers don’t fully grasp how employees experience stress, he said.

Tom Davenport, a senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson
“Organizations have a hard time dealing with individualized solutions,” said Willis Towers Watson’s Tom Davenport.

Understanding the causes and nuances of workplace stress is the biggest obstacle that employers face in dealing with the problem, according to Davenport.

In fact, nearly half of all working adults rate the efforts of their workplace to reduce stress as only fair or poor, according to a 2016 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Notably, the vast majority of workers — 85 percent — who say they’ve experienced a great deal of stress at work in the past 12 months rate the efforts of their workplace as fair or poor.

It is a pricey problem for employers. According to the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit that aims to educate the public on the issue, job stress costs U.S. industry more than $300 billion annually in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance costs. And Americans are more stressed out than ever, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 “Stress in America” survey.

While the numbers show a slight increase in overall stress levels between 2014-15, the number of adults reporting “extreme stress” has spiked. Twenty-four percent of adults report these levels, compared to 18 percent in 2014, representing the highest percentage since 2010.

While there is little hard data showing that mental wellness programs can increase productivity and engagement, and lower rates of absenteeism and health care costs, one recent survey suggests that it can.

According to MediKeeper, a San Diego-based technology firm, between 2014 and 2016 the number of employees reporting a stress level of 1 — the lowest on a numerical scale — increased by 58 percent while the number of respondents rating their stress level at 5 decreased by nearly 40 percent.

“It was a bit of shock to us,” said David Ashworth, CEO of MediKeeper, which develops employee wellness platforms. “Intuitively, we were thinking that the stress was more. You think about it in your own life and it’s certainly going up.”

MediKeeper, whose clients represent a variety of industries, surveyed 3 million employees who took an anonymous online survey over a span of three years.

Ashworth said that the results suggest that a well-designed wellness program can reduce stress.

Which brings the conversation back to Davenport, who cautions employers to examine and understand the fundamental causes of stress among their employees.

“Ask yourself, ‘What are our biggest problems, what’s causing them and what can we do about them,’ ” he said. “The answer lies in some combination of an individual’s response to stress and the organizational culture.”

He advises monitoring sick days and turnover rates, but also talking with employees and collecting anecdotes through surveys and exit interviews.

“How an individual experiences stress changes as they move up the ladder,” he said. “You move further away from average employee experience because you’re not the average employee, you are a CEO. So there is a built-in disconnect, which is why many executives don’t seem to get it when it comes to addressing the causes of employee stress.”

Rita Pyrillis is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Comment below or email

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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