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Stress-free zone

Mental health-friendly workplaces good for the bottom line


Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Neonatal intensive care staff members Susan Okuno-Jones and Cheryl Fornowski work a jigsaw puzzle while Joyce Wright relaxes with a magazine in a massage chair during their break in the Comfort Corner at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge.

As a neonatal intensive care unit nurse for more than 20 years, Susan Okuno-Jones knows a thing or two about taking care of critically ill babies. “At times the NICU can be a stress-filled environment,” she notes.

“Today’s tiny patients are more ill and, while medical science has made great strides, the patients have more intense medical needs.”

Although the rewards are great, she says, caring for the tiny newborns —many who arrived too soon, are premature, low birth weight or critically ill — can be a physically and emotionally stressful, exhausting job leading to high stress levels, burn out and escalating turn over rates.

While recently completing her second master’s degree as a clinical nurse specialist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Okuno-Jones says she stumbled across new compassion-fatigue research in her palliative care class that she believed could help her 120 NICU colleagues and perhaps other health care professionals at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge.

Her concept to help de-stress and decompress? A tranquil, quiet and peaceful Comfort Corner room for nurses to relax and “get away” for a few minutes during often hectic 12-hour shifts. In addition to a comfortable massage chair, puzzle table, soft lighting and music, the room also features a specially compiled three-ring binder chock full of information on local and in-hospital mental and physical health resources available to staff.

“It’s a huge hit,” Okuno-Jones reports of the 30-day Comfort Corner pilot program. “Here’s the place where we can regroup, unwind and take a mini distressing break to do puzzles, read or enjoy a soothing massage.”

Thanks in part to results of the pilot project, plans for each floor of a new hospital bed tower at the Park Ridge campus (scheduled for completion next spring) will include staff tranquility rooms with soft lighting, aromatherapy and massage chairs.

Assessing climate & culture

Business may be about having a competitive edge, but according to mental health experts, creating a mental health-friendly workplace makes good business sense and is good for the bottom line.

“You can tell a company’s culture the minute you walk in the door,” says Denis Ferguson, executive director of the Alexian Center for Mental Health, Arlington Heights. “There may be some truth to the adage that laughter is the best medicine, even in the business world. A little chuckle, taking time to smile, relax and paying attention to employee physical and emotional well-being often can mean big rewards within a stress-filled work environment.”

Denis Ferguson

Most of us feel stressed out at one time or another, acknowledges the former junior high school teacher, drug and alcohol abuse counselor and program manager for the DuPage Health department.

“At work, people often talk about putting out fires,” Ferguson states. “Everything is a top priority. Eighty percent of the problems arising at work aren’t necessarily about the job. It’s the personality clashes and office conflict which prompt others to get involved and escalate issues.”

Stress plays a leading role

Experts at Mental Health America say Ferguson’s observations are right on the money. Their studies show one in four American workers say they’ve missed work due to work-related stress.

“We’ve all heard of working smarter, not harder,” Ferguson notes. “Demands on employees are up as workplace operations shift and employees find themselves constantly on-call thanks to e-mail, pagers, Blackberries, PDAs and around-the-clock expectations. In general, the trend toward increased productivity also means increased stress.”

Ferguson and his staff, who frequently present lunch and learn style health education programs at area businesses such as Little Fuse, Des Plaines, Heidenhain, Schaumburg, and ITW, say the overall approach to corporate wellness is shifting to focus on both physical and mental health needs.

Experts indicate mental health conditions are the second leading cause of workplace absenteeism, with the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health recently reporting that most of the $79 billion in annual costs associated with mental illness is due to lost productivity — approximately $63 billion.

Good for workers, good for the bottom line

According to Mental Health America, current data clearly supports the case that employers benefit financially from paying more attention to their staff members’ mental health needs.

Each year in a typical office of 20 people, four will suffer from a mental health problem with stress topping the list.

The fast-paced world of constant communication can be advantageous for business, but also intrusive, Ferguson says. “Stress may exist in our minds, but it can take a heavy toll on bodies, too. No community is unaffected by mental illness and no school or workplace untouched.”

For some, short-term stressors serve as motivation, inspiring workers to thrive. “One person’s stress is another’s challenge,” admits Ferguson, who points to workers thriving in super-charged and stress-filled workplaces like the Board of Trade, Options Exchange or even an air traffic control tower.

Yet, according to mental health experts, chronic stress can take its toll on careers, on quality of life and the body, increasing susceptibility to a host of illnesses.

Mental health professionals say workplace stress also can trigger a variety of ailments ranging from life-threatening illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer to other ailments such as high blood pressure, upset stomach, osteoporosis, premature aging, headaches, and even gum disease.

According to Christine L. Scheck, Ph.D., principal, Scheck & Associates, Wheaton, who provides corporate stress management training at a variety of locations throughout the northwest and western suburbs, it’s estimated $300 billion is wasted annually due to employees’ inability to manage stress. Sixty to eighty percent of work-related accidents are due, at least in part, to stress.

“Managing stress,” Dr. Scheck says, “may be related to various personality traits, both those we inherit and those which are nurtured. Those with type A and type B personality traits respond very differently to stress.”

Type A individuals tend to be obsessed with time, explains Dr. Scheck, who has more than 20 years teaching experience in higher education.

“Everything seems to be placed on a deadline and projects are approached aggressively,” she says. “Type B personalities are more relaxed in their approach to projects/deadlines and don’t apply the same self-pressure.”

Those with type A personalities may have:

  • hurried speech
  • walk, move, eat rapidly
  • impatient with slow moving traffic or people
  • like to do two or more things at a time (multi-tasking)
  • interrupt others to complete their train of thought
  • guilt feelings during periods of relaxation
  • feelings of competitiveness versus compassion when working with other Type A people
  • develop nervous ticks/gestures (tapping of fingers, legs, etc.)

“Those with type B personalities are relatively free from these characteristics, yet they have considerable drive and a desire to work hard,” Dr. Scheck explains. “In fact, studies have shown that there are minimal performance differences between types A and B. The problem is that our perception is that type As are much more productive and often labeled the “fast trackers” within organizations.”

Finding a work-life balance

Stress at work isn’t the only source of conflict, experts indicate.

According to Sheila Krippner, a licensed clinical social worker and supervisor for the Provena Health Employee Assistance program, everyday stressors, depression, anxiety, parenting skills, marital issues, family crisis, illness, concerns of the sandwich generation caring for both children and elderly parents, drug and alcohol problems, financial worries and much more can detract from a worker’s ability to concentrate fully on the task at hand.

For some, finding a healthy work-life balance may seem like an impossible goal. With many torn between juggling heavy workloads, managing relationships and family responsibilities, and squeezing in outside interests, it’s no surprise one in four Americans describe themselves as “super-stressed.”

With workplace mental health issues manifesting in a variety of ways, many mental health experts say working slowly, missing deadlines, frequent sick days and increasing absenteeism, irritability, anger, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, appearing numb or emotionless, withdrawing, overworking, forgetting directives and having difficulty with change are all warning signs for possible mental health problems.

“Reaching out in a variety of ways to proactively address issues, counsel or help employees tap into resources is an important aspect of our role,” explains Krippner, whose program reaches some 11,000 in the Fox Valley area. “It’s a comprehensive approach to workplace well-being which works best.”

Krippner cites the example of Provena Mercy Medical Center, Aurora, and Provena St. Joseph’s Hospital, Elgin, where workplace wellness efforts focus on both physical and emotional well-being.

“In addition to management consultations, a comprehensive array of physical and mental health services includes everything from a far-reaching employee assistance program to the Bottom Line Weight Management Challenge, a Highway to Health Cardiac Care program and special mailings of the Frontline Employee and Frontline Supervisor newsletters with succinct articles addressing issues such as how to talk about a raise to stress management and well-being.”

Caring for the mind & body

Whether stress originates at the office or at home, mental health experts say the good news is that caring for minds and bodies can help keep workers healthier and more productive in all areas of life.

“Employers definitely are recognizing the impact of mental well-being on the bottom line,” notes Paula Peacock, director of business development for Workplace Solutions, a Schaumburg-based comprehensive employee assistance provider working with local, national and international clients for more than 20 years.

Paula Peacock

“More and more studies show that a focus on wellness saves on healthcare costs and makes businesses better able to compete in a global marketplace,” Peacock states. “Employee assistance programs aid employees with access to resources for a variety of professional personal, work-life and legal-financial issues. At the same time, employers benefit by freeing staff to work productively and with fewer distractions due to personal problems.”

Benefits of such a program, according to Peacock, include enhanced workplace morale, reduced absenteeism, medical cost offset, reduced cost for mental health and substance abuse issues, increased concentration and productivity and a safer work environment.

According to MHA experts, higher productivity and motivation are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mental health-friendly workplace picture.

Other outcomes, they indicate, include reduced absenteeism, health insurance cost containment, better preparedness for disaster, loyalty and retention, increased pools of qualified applicants for hiring and promotion, better workplace relations, diversity, acceptance and respect.

 

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