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Growing job stress seen in benefits use

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- Stressed-out workers are calling in sick more often and turning to employee assistance programs for help in greater numbers in the wake of layoffs at many firms, according to a new survey.

Benefits consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc. said nearly half of the 282 large companies that responded to a recent e-mail survey say they have seen more use of employee assistance programs, which typically offer counseling or stress management help. Twenty-two percent say they have seen an increase in unplanned absences.

Watson Wyatt conducted the survey in June and July with the National Business Group on Health, an association of large employers. They targeted firms with at least 1,000 employees.

The results are typical for a recession or tough economy, said Shelly Wolff of Watson Wyatt.

"There's a couple things that are classic when you have business downturns," she said. "You see sick leave use go up. We also are seeing an uptick in health care costs."

Wolff said sick day increases are often tied to job stress, which can trigger health problems. Companies that cut jobs frequently heap more work on remaining workers.

"When you're doing twice as much work, you reach a point where you just need to take a step away," she said.

The survey said 78 percent of employers cited "excessive work hours" as a leading cause of worker stress.

Health care costs often rise because workers feel compelled to use benefits while they still have them. That might lead to workers going ahead with medical procedures they have been putting off.

"People just want to make sure they are taking care of themselves and their family members," Wolff said.

The survey focused on companies with as many as 25,000 employees, but some findings apply to smaller businesses too.

Many clients of the consulting firm FlashPoint have started offering workplace financial education programs because their employees have become more worried about finances and job security, said FlashPoint president Krista Skidmore. The Indianapolis-based company works with small and medium-sized companies and was not involved with the Watson Wyatt survey.

Skidmore said their clients are offering presentations on budgeting and saving to help reduce employee stress levels.

"I think they hope by providing these things, they'll see increased productivity," she said.


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