Stress: It's The Full-Plate Syndrome

November 5, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Most workplace depression isn't of the clinical variety.

But it is very real for employees and it can be extremely costly for employers.

The American Institute of Stress has estimated that mild depression and ongoing stress costs businesses $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and direct medical, legal and insurance fees.

A poll taken earlier this year by the American Psychological Association revealed that two-thirds of men and women reported that work has a significant impact on their stress levels and, as a result, one of four has taken a "mental health day" due to stress, anxiety, or depression.

The need to take mental health days isn't solely related to activity at work, as almost always a worker's personal life contributes to the stress he or she constantly carries.

But part of this consistent blue mood that some workers battle every day can be attributed to having to carry a larger workload for a firm that has downsized and has demanded more production from a smaller staff.

Some of these employees then fear losing their jobs if they can't meet the demands and that, in turn, raises their anxiety levels.

"This is often one of the most difficult costs for businesses to access because it often wears multiple masks," said Alison Brown, CEO of Employee Assistance Associates (EAA).

EAA has been a work-based benefits provider of EAP services locally for decades and once was part of the Butterworth and then Spectrum Health systems.

Brown has managed the firm since 1988 and she bought the company four years ago. Today, EAA serves more than 140 clients across West Michigan and in other portions of the country.

Brown told the Business Journal that the easiest depression to spot is the clinical type, which has all the key symptoms that revolve around a dramatic personality change. A classic example of that case is when a lively, productive worker suddenly loses interest in a job and then doesn't have the high energy level he or she once had.

"What I don't think is so easy for the employer or the employee to sift through are all the other signs of milder depression, which include ongoing stress.

"And that's not just at work. You only need to look to your left or right to talk about the different kinds of stressors that are going on in their lives," said Brown.

Common stressors can be a concern about a close friend or relative who is in poor health and a fear of not being able to make ends meet financially. These alone, however, might not lead to mental health days unless an employee feels lost.

"The person who has got the prolonged exposure to stress and very few tools to deal with that is really at a greater risk for depression," said Brown.

In general, depression remedies fall into three areas. One is medication. Here, a worker's personal physician is likely the best starting point, even though a specialist, like a psychiatrist, may be needed later.

Medication by itself, however, often isn't sufficient for everyone, so having an employee talk with a trained professional is another area.

But for Brown's money, a more holistic approach is the best method to fight stress and a nagging case of the blues.

Regular exercise, proper nutrition, and maintaining good overall physical health make up the key tools of the third area. Sometimes these are enough for many, but the trio also works well for those who need prescriptions and counseling.

"These don't fit for someone who is profoundly, clinically depressed. Someone in that state is going to need something more on the medical side," she said.

"But for the millions of people who are walking around with full-plate syndrome in the personal and work arenas, and have the stress that accompanies it, there are tons of tools that they should be able to access through their employer, through the benefit plan, and, hopefully, through their EAP."

So how should a company official get started? First, by telling employees what the firm has available to help them. Then, by looking to lessen stress before it fills a worker's plate.

"Their health insurance provider typically has a lot of resources regarding depression. But there is a prevention piece that educates people about ongoing stress, that depression is often a condition that has three root causes," said Brown, whose firm offers that prevention.

"The feedback that we have gotten from our quality surveys showed that (the prevention program) definitely made a difference for the persons that we had a chance to interact with."    

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