Stress Top Workforce Issue

work stress

U.S. Employers Rank Stress as Top Workforce Risk Issue   
by VERGE Staff | Work and Health | Thursday, December 19, 2013 

Stress is the number one workforce risk issue, ranking above physical inactivity and obesity, according to a recent survey conducted by global professional services company Towers Watson, and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH). 

NBGH is the nation’s only nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to representing large employers’ perspectives on national health policy issues and providing practical solutions to its members’ most important health care problems. 

Understanding Employee Views is Key to Addressing Workforce Stress

Despite the fact that stress ranked as the number one workforce risk issue, only 15% of employers identify with improving the emotional/mental health of employees (by lessening stress and anxiety) as a top priority of their health and productivity programs.


“Employers need to understand their employees’ stress drivers, assess their health and productivity programs in light of the findings and leverage what employees are already doing to cope with stress.” -Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health


While stress can energize workers to meet challenging goals, it can also overwhelm them and interrupt business performance. Despite the negative consequences, many employers do not fully understand employee views of its causes.

“Employees seem to be saying, ‘support me, pay me, and direct me,’ but employers are focused on other stress factors,” said Shelly Wolff, senior health care consultant at Towers Watson. “Stress has a strong link to physical health, emotional health, personal purpose and community — all contributing factors to workplace performance. Employers that fail to understand employees’ views on stress risk diverting time and resources to fixing the wrong problems and, at the same time, alienating employees.”

Causes of Stress: Employer and Employee Disconnect

Employers rank the top three causes of workplace stress as lack of work/life balance (86%), inadequate staffing (70%) and technologies that expand employee availability during nonworking hours (63%). 

On the other hand, employees rank inadequate staffing as the number one source of stress, followed by low pay or low pay increases, and unclear or conflicting job expectations, according to Towers Watson’s Global Benefits Attitude Survey of 5,070 U.S. workers. Inadequate staffing includes lack of support or uneven workloads and performance in groups.

This is where the disconnect starts to take shape. Inadequate staffing is the only issue ranked in the top three causes of stress from both employer and employee points of view. Based on 10 drivers of workforce stress, employees ranked lack of work/life balance fifth, while employers ranked it first. Furthermore, employees ranked low pay or low pay increases as their second-biggest source of stress, while employers ranked it ninth.

The Solution: Establishing a Workplace Culture That Proactively Manages Stress

85% of employers report that they promote the employee assistance program. While 61% provide access to financial planning information/services and 51% offer flexible working options to help employees manage stress. 

While employers feel that the employee assistance program (EAP) is a primary way to address stress issues, only 5% of employees say they actually use this resource. Also, less than half of employers offer overt stress management interventions to employees such as: stress management workshops, yoga or tai chi. Less than 50% of employees reported turning to leisure/entertainment activities, social support and physical activities to help them cope.

There is a strong recognition that the workplace experience can both contribute to and reduce employee stress. By pursuing a holistic approach that covers both health and well-being programs and the employee value proposition, organizations can foster a healthy and productive work environment.

“Employers need to understand their employees’ stress drivers, assess their health and productivity programs in light of the findings and leverage what employees are already doing to cope with stress,” said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health. “Employers should improve and promote EAPs, encourage employees to take vacations, design company-sponsored physical activities and offer formal programs to effectively manage stress.”

In addition, organizations need to take a closer look at their employee value proposition, including employee compensation, lack of adequate staffing levels, unclear or conflicting job expectations, and organizational culture. Improved manager training, clear direction on the job and a review of compensation practices could help alleviate the stressors.

Source: National Business Group on Health (NBGH). Photo credit: ©iStock/Alija


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