The Price Of Pain
By: Paula Allen
Virtual risks – including information overload, long hours in front of a computer, and workplace violence – are resulting in a stressed workforce and a stressed workforce means more mental and physical illness and the pain which results. Paula Allen, of FGIworld, looks at how employers can deal with this pain.
Twenty years ago, pundits forecast that, thanks to technology, weʼd all be working four-day weeks by the year 2000. Instead, technological advancements, corporate downsizings, and increased global competition have done the opposite. Thanks to home computers, cell phones, and Blackberries, many white collar workers are working 24/7 and the shrinking manufacturing sector has forced many blue collar workers to work two or three part-time jobs just to make ends meet. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that most Canadian employees are, or will be, in pain and that healthcare costs are skyrocketing.
“Work has intensified and workloads have increased,” says Jean-Pierre Brun, a professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Laval University in Quebec City. “People are struggling to cope with this new reality and the results are now responsible for most of an organizationʼs health-related costs.”
Brun, also the director of the Quebec Health and Safety Research Network and a leading authority on workplace and occupational health, sees a new addition to the traditional workplace health risks – what he terms “virtual risks.” These virtual risks include information overload, long hours in front of a computer, and workplace violence. They are resulting in a stressed workforce and a stressed workforce means more mental and physical illness.
While office workers deal with this new reality of pain caused by their jobs, those with more physical employment continue to experience on-the-job injuries that often bring with them the added stresses of workersʼ compensation boards, employers who are unequipped to manage disability claims, and trying to access appropriate medical care. Adding to this situation is the fact that Canada has an ethnically, culturally, and generationally diverse workforce and different people deal with pain in different ways.
“With a physical injury, itʼs not always a good idea to ʻsoldier onʼ,” says Brian Kleinberg, a Toronto chiropractor and occupational health consultant. “Being stoic or afraid to report an injury often results in that injury worsening to the point that a short- or long-term disability leave is necessary. Or the injury becomes more complex as the employee becomes depressed and anxious by his or her worsening condition.”
Surveys show that about 2.5 million Canadians already suffer moderate to severe chronic pain. Painful conditions cost the Canadian economy approximately $6 billion a year and, with the aging of our population over the next two decades, that figure is expected to skyrocket.
For organizations, the costs are often indirect, manifesting in higher absenteeism, more workplace conflicts, lowered productivity, and, if managed improperly, poor workplace morale.
“If employees see a colleague being treated insensitively or ineffectively by management, theyʼll be less likely to seek prompt attention for their own pain,” says Kleinberg. “Morale is affected as employees perceive a company that does not care about their welfare.”
In his practice, Kleinberg sees some organizations taking a proactive approach to organizational health, but many are just not getting it.
“Many organizations do not have a good disability management process or the services of an experienced disability management provider in place, which makes managing employee pain and return-to-work more difficult,” he says. “By the time an individual reaches my office, he or she is dealing with physical, psychological, and social issues. Theyʼre in pain, depressed, and scared that they will no longer be able to support their families. On the organizational side, thereʼs confusion about the disability process, especially if itʼs a workers compensation issue, and how to properly accommodate the injured or ailing employee. It can be at the point where itʼs a stressful situation for all involved.”
For Brun, the problem reaches far into the future.
“For organizations, the impact of too much workplace stress will affect their future retention of Gen Xers,” says Brun. “This group wants a work-life balance and, because they follow the massive departing Baby Boom generation, will be in demand. If they donʼt like a workplace environment, theyʼll take their skills elsewhere.”
So what should employers be doing?
The first step is recognizing that not everyone stays home from work because theyʼre in pain. But employees in pain are often unfocussed, unproductive, experience more accidents and workplace conflicts, and, as their pain worsens, so does their performance.
“Many new Canadians come from countries where time off to recover from an illness or accident is not tolerated,” says Kleinberg. “Theyʼre fearful of losing their jobs if they have an illness or injury. For other people, itʼs part of their culture to keep their pain a private matter or not to give in to what they perceive as a weakness. Managers must begin by understanding cultural differences and understanding the differing concerns.”
If an employee wonʼt discuss their pain, how can a manager be supportive and direct the employee to the appropriate resources? The second step is to know the signs that may indicate an employee is in distress – either from physical, mental, or social issues. Some of these are:
- Sudden negative change in behaviour
- Irritability and/or impatience
- Withdrawn or aggressive
- Sudden change in performance – more errors, decreased productivity
- Problems with interpersonal relationships
- More absences
The fear of being unable to work can have devastating psychological results and the sooner the situation is addressed and managed, the better – for the employee and the organization.
“Work is more than just a way to support ourselves financially,” says Brun. “Itʼs become a psychological necessity. It is through work that we express our potential, demonstrate our skills, define our identity, and do something useful. Itʼs also a chance to establish relationships.”
Create An Environment
Organizations need to create an environment in which employees know theyʼll be supported if they suffer an injury or are physically or mentally unwell.
“Boards and senior management have to understand that business decisions impact workforce health and workforce health impacts organizational goals,” says Brun. “To make changes, it is essential to obtain the commitment, support, and participation of management.”
Once management is on board, the next step is to establish clear policies regarding injury and illness and communicate them to all staff so they understand their rights and responsibilities. If English is a second language, management must ensure the policies are understood. Information sessions can be helpful. One HR person should be the central point of contact for this initiative.
“With todayʼs diverse workforce, managers can also greatly benefit from cross-cultural training to understand how different people cope with pain,” says Kleinberg. “In some environments, information sessions on pain management and work accommodation can help employees be more understanding and supportive of each other.”
Returning an employee to health and productivity frequently involves much more than merely addressing medical needs. It can also involve behavioural, psychosocial, and occupational issues. And when this occurs, managing a disability leave can be a complicated, costly, and time-consuming process. For such complex cases, several people are often involved – for example, a general practitioner, specialists, third-party assessment, chiropractor, physiotherapist, counselor, and workersʼ compensation personnel. To ensure the best medical care that returns the employee to health and productivity in a timely manner, having one point of contact for all parties, someone who co-ordinates the process and ensures all involved are communicating, is essential.
“If your organization is too small to have one person dedicated to disability claims, workersʼ compensation, health management, and return-to-work plans, consider hiring a disability management provider on an ad hoc basis,” says Kleinberg. “Knowing the compensation process, understanding the legislation, finding the appropriate medical care, and, if necessary, accommodating an injured employee with modified work, ergonomics, or with another comparable position takes a wide range of expertise.”
The same applies for mental health issues.
“To deal with the rise in work-related mental health problems in a lasting manner, the development and implementation of prevention strategies must take place within a planned and structured approach,” says Brun.
And finally, ensuring an integrated employee assistance program is in place can speed the re-integration of the employee back to full productivity. Apart from psychological counseling to deal with physical, mental, and social issues of an illness or injury, other resources within an EAP can prove invaluable – financial counseling, stress management, anger management, conflict resolution, nutritional advice, and more.
“Organizations need to focus on people, not numbers,” says Kleinberg. “Few people want to be in pain or off work.”
Paula Allen is vice-president, health solutions and product development, for FGIworld.
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