Managed change: how employers can develop a healthy approach to stress by Lauve Metcalfe, M.S.

CHANGE IN LIFE, whether personal or professional, usually causes anxiety to the individuals affected whether the change was a conscious choice or a decision made outside of one’s control.  While at times change is difficult to adjust to, it is a necessary part of living.

 CHANGE IN LIFE, whether personal or professional, usually causes anxiety to the individuals affected whether the change was a conscious choice or a decision made outside of one’s control.  While at times change is difficult to adjust to, it is a necessary part of living.

From a corporate perspective, dealing with change at the organizational level has become a major business concern.  A national survey conducted by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company indicated that three of the four leading factors related to job stress involved changes typical of current economic conditions:  a substantial reduction in employee benefits; merger, acquisition or a change of company ownership, and a reduction in the size of the workforce or elimination of positions at the company.

Another study conducted by the New York Business Group on Health reported that 22 percent of U.S. workers suffer from stress related illnesses most of which are directly related to the recession.  The most common stressor, and the most severe one is the threat of job loss.  Dr. Leon Warshaw, primary investigator of the study reported that the threat of job loss was a more potent cause of stress than actual job loss.

Five major reasons for job stress

On a more individual basis, The National Institute for Stress lists the five major reasons for job stresses are:
1) too much responsibility and no authority
2) inability to voice complaints
3) not enough time to complete a job
4) absence of recognition or reward for good performance
5) mismatch of job skills

The work culture, as well as the individual health of the organization, is put into a precarious situation when dealing with the stressors of change and transition.  If one views the corporation as a living organism and its culture as the life force nourishing the company’s vitality, change that is perceived as negative or “threatening” can drastically offset the equilibrium of that organization.  This can significantly impact the company’s performance measurements and drastically increase health care costs.

Change can also be a positive transition.  For individuals who see opportunities to grow and build something new and better, change can be exciting and fulfilling.  The way that the individual perceives the change has a major effect on the way he or she responds to the situation.  The key word is response.

Stress is neither good nor bad.

Hans Selye has stated that stress in and of itself is neither good nor bad.  It is an essential part of life.  It is the quality of the response to the change that makes it a positive (eustress) or negative (distress) force in our lives.  A positive stressor for one individual such as getting a promotion at work may be a negative stressor for another.  Similarly, the process of getting a divorce may cause one individual great joy, while another may be  “quite distressed by the situation.

An important factor in determining the level of distress in our lives is the attitude toward the situation.  Attitudes are the perceptual filters through which we give meaning and understanding to all of our life and work experiences.  Negative, rigid, inflexible attitudes decrease our ability to cope with transition and change.  Flexibility is an essential quality in the way an individual perceives the situation and the choices that are available.

Psychoneuroimmunology – a strong mind-body connection

Behavioral medicine has strengthened the theories on the mind/body connection by some rather significant advancements in the area of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI).  PNI is the study of inter-relationships among the mind (psycho), the nervous system (neuro) and the immune system (immunology).  According to John Koriath, Ph.D., a specialist in PNI, events in our life that are stressful can have an impact on our health and the quality of our life.  “We once thought that it was the event itself that influenced our health, and if that event seemed stressful, we needed to back off in some way and get away from the stress.  In the last two decades the research in the field of PNI has found it is not the event itself that causes illness but the way we respond to that event.

When we tend to respond to an event in a way that is reactive and threatened by the situation, and don’t see possibilities, our immune system on a cellular physiological level that maintains our health is disrupted, and an imbalance takes place.  On the other hand; the same event, if we see possibilities, if we are creative in the way we respond to that event, if we use our CHOICES rather than our CHANCES for influencing our health, then our immune system becomes stronger.  Instead of eroding away, it becomes a force to fight off whatever may be threatening our health.”

How employers can deal with stress

Human resource, benefits, and health care managers are faced with the major dilemma of how to cope with the magnitude of organizational change and its effect on the health of employees and family members.  The fields of health promotion, wellness and behavioral medicine have created some viable solutions by encouraging the development of wellness strategies at the worksite.  These programs are becoming the essential link in a company’s ability to survive and thrive in today’s economy.  Corporations both large and small now offer health promotion and wellness programs that include stress management, exercise and nutrition education and skill development, positive behavior reinforcement and “life in balance” programming.  As the cost effectiveness of these programs continues to be documented the trend should expand extensively in the next decade.

Companies need to focus on the organization and the individual for skill development.  When a company begins to address issues on change and stress management within their workforce the focus should be directed in two primary areas:  organizational stress management skill development, and individual (employee/family/retiree) stress management skill development.  The purpose of this dual concentration is to provide a healthy working environment for people to deal with change productively, and to offer coping skills and healthy behavior strategies needed for optimal performance.

Organizational skill development

The purpose of identifying organizational issues that are contributing to job stress is to first acknowledge that this process is one of partnership. The individual employee should not be held totally responsible for reacting to the amount of stress at the worksite, but viewed as an active participant with the management team in creating a healthier, more productive work culture.

The following items have been found to reduce the amount of stress found within the worksite.  While it may be difficult to institute every item, it has been documented that the companies with strong human resources, health promotion and employee assistance programs and services in place, and where there is cooperation between labor and management, have far fewer stress related claims.

Healthier organizational choices for de-stressing the workplace:

  • increase employee involvement in the workings of their departments
  • enlist in the help of professionals within the community and within the company to develop personalized programs that meet your specific needs including the areas of: health promotion, positive psychology, wellness coaching, preventive medicine and financial counseling
  • implement supportive work and family policies
  • develop effective lines of communication from management, to middle management, to employee base
  • communicate frankly and frequently share key information with employees before it becomes distorted through the grapevine.  If there are sensitive or confidential issues and it isn’t possible to share everything, let the employees know exactly that
  • implement a management communications process that allows employees to express their concerns on a regular basis, feel validated that they were heard, and acknowledges management takes them seriously
  • offer regular opportunities for employees, retirees and family members to participate in stress management programs and have educational information and opportunities accessible at the worksite
  • develop current and clear job descriptions
  • offer regular opportunities for employee and supervisor to discuss performance goals and suggestions for improvement,
  • encourage an open, honest, supportive work environment
  • develop programs where employees are recognized and rewarded for their contributions
  • develop opportunities for child and elder care
  • develop adequate training for employees when assigned new tasks enable employees to have access to the technology that they need to do their job
  • create a philosophy of “I care, You matter, and this job should be rewarding”

Individual stress management and skill development

In creating stress management programs for individuals, offer a wide variety of information to meet the specific needs of your employee base. Consider exploring the following areas of programming:  personal management skills, physical activity on-site and community resources, healthy nutrition and meal preparation classes, healthy lifestyle habit acquisition, relaxation techniques, relationship and communication skills, financial management, and behavioral health self care guidance.

These examples illustrate diversity in developing stress management programs for your employees, family and retirees. The list may look overwhelming for a small, or perhaps non-existent budget.  There are many creative ways to incorporate health promotion/wellness programs on a limited budget by networking with other companies and seeking out community resources. The key is to make the initial effort of providing your workforce with choices and opportunities to deal with stress in a positive manner.

Be sure and do some homework on what is currently offered within your community to see how you can utilize the talents of health professionals and existing information that is relevant to your specific needs.  Most important, get the employees involved in the process.  Ask them what would be helpful in reducing the amount of stress they are experiencing.  It is amazing how many companies institute programming without finding out what their employee base wants, or needs are.

Change is constant, and stress is a given in life.  The bottom line is how we respond to that stress.  “Choicefulness” – having the ability to determine one’s destiny – clearly makes a difference in the outcome.  Making a commitment to identify sources of stress, and offering viable solutions will greatly impact performance, productivity, and health care costs.  Developing a partnership in health with your employees can be a mighty fortress for the change we are experiencing in the environment in which we live.

Originally printed in Benefits magazine by Lauve Metcalfe, M.S. 

Lauve Metcalfe