Workplace Culture

Most Employers Arent Combating Workplace Stress

By Joanne Wojcik

Dec. 1, 2009

Companies that maintain health and productivity management programs despite the recession are experiencing lower health care and disability costs and less absenteeism than their counterparts that cut back, according to a joint survey by Watson Wyatt Worldwide and the National Business Group on Health.

But most employers are doing little or nothing to relieve the stress many employees experience because of long hours at work, a lack of work/life balance and fear they may lose their jobs, the 2009/2010 Staying@Work report found.

“Investments in health and productivity management paid off for employers that stayed the course despite the recession, while employers that cut back on these programs saw the return on that investment shrink,” according to Shelly Wolff, national leader of health and productivity consulting for Watson Wyatt.

In particular, companies with the most effective health and productivity management programs had medical cost trends averaging 1.2 percentage points lower than employers that dropped or cut back their programs.

In addition, companies with the most effective health and productivity management programs had average lost days due to unplanned absence of three days per employee, compared with 4.8 days for companies with less effective programs. Companies with effective health and productivity management programs also reported losing one day fewer per employee due to disabilities compared with firms with less effective programs.

Finally, organizations with the most effective health and productivity programs had average returns to shareholders during the past five years of 14.8 percent versus a decline in average shareholder return of 10.1 percent for companies with less effective programs.

The survey also found that although excessive work hours, lack of work/life balance and fears about job loss are beginning to take their toll on the American workforce in terms of higher utilization of health care and disability benefits and employee assistance programs, most employers are not directly addressing these stress factors, according to Wolff.

Forty percent of employers reported higher use of health care benefits because of increased employee stress, 35 percent cited a higher incidence of disability claims, and nearly half indicated a marked increase in the use of employee assistance programs.

Although 78 percent of employers responding to the survey cited excessive work hours as a leading cause of stress among their employees, just 21 percent of them said they are taking steps to address stress.

Moreover, although 68 percent of employers cited lack of work/life balance as a leading employee stress producer, only 38 percent said they are taking action to combat this stress factor.

Meanwhile, only 41 percent of employers said they are addressing employees’ fear of job loss, which was cited by 67 percent of employers as a leading cause of employee stress.

If employers do not address these stress factors, the productivity gains they’ve been experiencing could be lost, warns Helen Darling, president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health, which co-sponsored the survey.

“It’s clear that stress has been growing for several years, but it’s hit a new high exacerbated by the financial meltdown,” Darling notes. “A little bit of stress is actually good, but we’re way beyond the level of it being motivating. It will be very hard to recover economically if we don’t find better ways to help employees address stress.”

Fortunately, many employers continue to invest in health-risk assessments, biometric testing and lifestyle behavior change programs, which may address some stressors, according to Wolff.

“The whole issue of how to manage stress is definitely a tough one,” she says.

The survey included 352 responses from employers with 1,000 or more employees who were polled during June, July and August. For more on the 2009/2010 Staying@Work report, visit

Joanne Wojcik writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with