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All Work, No Play – Recipe For A Sick Day

By: Jean Hervieux

Money may be at the root of all evil when it comes to the health and well-being of your employees. Jean Hervieux, of Sigma Assistel, looks at what employers can do to ensure a healthy workplace.

I owe, I owe. Itʼs off to work I go.

The modified song from Disneyʼs Snow White popularized by school children is now the anthem for Canadian workers as they put work ahead of personal health and interpersonal relationships. Now, more than ever, the vast majority of employees are reluctant to take time off work to recover from a physical or mental illness in fear of wage disruptions.

The reality is Canadians who are strapped for cash donʼt take time out. Whether at home or at work, Canadians say their primary stressor is money as they try to keep one financial step ahead. “Essentially work has become the focus of most peopleʼs lives and they believe they have to push themselves to dangerous physical and mental health limits to sustain spending habits and hard-earned job positions,” says Dr. Irvin Wolkoff, a Toronto psychiatrist, commenting on the findings of a Desjardins Financial Security health survey.

Forty-four per cent of Canadians said that money issues at home were their main source of stress, anxiety, or depression. Money problems are easily transferred to the office as close to four in 10 surveyed workers (37 per cent) said loss of income was the primary reason they avoided taking time off work to recover from mental or physical health problems.

“Even if they are managing to keep up the pace, people are discovering they have to run faster to keep from backsliding,” says Dr. Wolkoff. “People are not getting ahead. The feeling of not moving financially forward does lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. The World Health Organization predicts that over the next 20 years, depression – not all mental illness, just depression – will be the second largest health burden on earth; number two after cardiovascular disease.”

All work, No Play

Money is definitely the main cause of health-related problems at home and in the workplace. But workers in the survey identified other issues that employers and employee assistance program (EAP) providers must become familiar with to help ensure a healthy workforce. Technology, once touted as the answer to increasing leisure time, is blurring the line between work and downtime. Employees are living their lives on call.

Technology has not fulfilled its promise of increased leisure time, according to the 62 per cent of Canadian workers who have personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones, or laptops that allow their employer to reach them 24/7.

Of the nearly two-thirds of Canadians who use wireless devices, 83 per cent of workers say that technology has either maintained (54 per cent) or increased (29 per cent) their life stress levels. Only 17 per cent said that these technological devices have reduced their stress level.

“Canadians are feeling pulled from both ends and something is going to snap,” says Alain Thauvette, senior vice-president of group and business insurance at Desjardins Financial Security. “Itʼs apparent that workers seem to be vulnerable financially and emotionally at work – to the extent that they will show up at work unwell and unable to perform tasks at a standard acceptable to them. Or, they are unwilling to turn off their cell phone or pager during evenings and weekends out of concern of being seen as unreliable. This is a serious issue and employees need to feel secure that they have the support of their employer.”

Canadians Are A Resilient Bunch!

Twenty-one per cent of surveyed workers experienced diminished physical health as a result of mental health issues. Yet, of this group, only 38 per cent took time off to recuperate. The other 62 per cent tried to maintain normal work schedules in spite of compromised health. However, the majority of these valiant workers (59 per cent) discovered they were unable to keep up their usual pace once they left the office – and had to take it easy more than usual. They generally did this by sacrificing time with family and friends, the people who help them through hard times.

Survey respondents – who had suffered physical health problems as a result of a mental health issue – revealed that their primary sources of support were family members (86 per cent), friends (85 per cent), doctors (71 per cent), and colleagues (63 per cent).

Family and friends do offer a great deal of support. But this is no excuse for employers to back away from the issue of presenteeism (when people show up at work in mind and body, but not in spirit) and write the problem of helping people through this situation off to loved ones. Employees need to believe that they will not be penalized for taking time off work to recover properly. Giving workers the assurance they can take the necessary time off will reduce the number of employees coming to work when ill and not performing as well as they should.

All work, No play

EAP And Prevention Programs

Solutions to help reduce the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression in the workplace include offering workers access to EAPs and prevention programs. These initiatives offer resources – in confi dence – to help employees manage the issues causing them concern – money, workplace confl ict, technology, or personal family issues, anything that can affect an employeeʼs productivity and outlook on life.

The Desjardins survey revealed that 50 per cent of working respondents said they have access to an employee assistance program (eight per cent did not know if their employer offered this benefi t). Thirty-two per cent of workers had access to a preventive program for disability management. Of the 50 per cent of Canadian employees who have an EAP in the workplace, slightly over one in fi ve (22 per cent) have used it to help them through a situation. This means that 80 per cent of employees who have access to an EAP are not using the service. There is a great opportunity for employers to outreach to workers and educate them about the benefi ts of these personal, confi dential programs.

Interestingly, although EAPs and prevention programs for disability management are more prevalent in companies employing 200 or more workers (81 per cent and 49 per cent respectively), employees who work in companies with 200 to just under 1,000 individuals have used these programs significantly more (33 per cent versus 20 per cent for those working in companies with 1,000 or more employees). There is a lot of opportunity for small businesses to offer such programs in their group benefits packages since EAPs and prevention programs are flexible enough to meet the needs of each organization.

Although EAPs and prevention programs for disability management are available to many employees, close to six in 10 workers (57 per cent) believe employers, trade unions, or associations should offer more support to workers experiencing mental health issues.

Women feel more strongly about this than men (62 per cent versus 53 per cent respectively). Seventy-two per cent of respondents who have experienced health problems caused by stress, anxiety, and depression also feel strongly about this matter.

More Proactive

Most workers think the workplace could be more proactive in assisting employees with mental health problems. One-quarter of the respondents suggested prevention initiatives (See Chart 1).

Constantly dealing with workplace stressors and beeping technology does create stress, but there are employees (47 per cent of respondents) who have a peaceful place to take a breather at their workplace. Of this particular group, 57 per cent are between the ages of 18 and 29 and these people are likely to be employed at firms with less than 10 workers (57 per cent).

In the end, all the stress, anxiety, and depression the workforce is experiencing boils down to the pursuit of money, keeping up with the Joneses, and buying the latest consumer products on the market. Consumerism has resulted in families now having dual income earners, who are both working harder and feeling pressure to maintain their lifestyle even in unforeseen circumstances.

Employers have a duty to help employees escape from the endless spiral and help redefine what is important – family and friends and not pursuing the next dollar. Companies must communicate more with employees about EAPs and other prevention programs, as well as educate them about the early signs of burnout. This will help reduce absenteeism, presenteeism, and productivity losses. But, more importantly, it will give workers confidence to take the necessary steps to prevent illnesses and injury, remain productive, and reduce worrying about money.

“Perhaps itʼs best to consider workers as very valuable corporate resources and to look after them as much as you would look after motor vehicles in your fleet,” says Dr. Wolkoff. “Once employers embrace that attitude, they can cascade it to their employees to ignore societal stigmas around feeling stressed, particularly against diagnosable mental illnesses. Corporations can give their employees permission to try to preserve and protect their well-being and get themselves healthy again after they fall ill.

“And, I think once that attitudinal shift takes place, it will be clear that this is not bleeding heart liberal indulgence of workers. This is making sure that your profits stay maximized, that your share prices stay high. You donʼt do it on the backs of your employees; you do it with the heart and soul of your employees. And to have the heart and soul, you have to let them be true human beings.”

Jean Hervieux
Jean Hervieux is director of business development for Sigma Assistel, a telephone assistance company in Canada offering assistance services to Canadians and foreigners who are clients, employees, policy-holders, and members of Canadian and international corporations, institutions, and enterprises.

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