In a year marked by doom-and-gloom news stories about a failing economy, staggering unemployment rates and a major housing crisis, it's no wonder the nation's stress levels are at an all-time high. The 2009 "Stress in America Survey" by the American Psychological Association reports 75% of adults feeling significantly stressed, with the top three stressors being money, work and the economy.
This heightened stress and anxiety about personal and national finances takes a serious toll on people's mental and physical health, a syndrome many have begun to label recession depression. Characterized by sleepless nights, short tempers, increased irritability and chronic worry, recession depression can lead to increased absenteeism, poor employee health and decreased productivity at the workplace.
Recession depression takes a toll on the bottom line
Up to 80% of financially distressed workers spend time at work worrying about personal finances and dealing with financial issues instead of working. According to the latest research from Financial Literacy Partners, employees spend an average of 20 hours per month financially distracted on-the-job, costing employers $7,000 per-employee/per-year in lost productivity.
Not only are employees more stressed and less productive due to recession depression, but health starts to suffer as well. Financially stressed individuals tend to eat poorly, exercise less, sleep less soundly, turn to unhealthy coping behaviors such as excess drinking, substance abuse and gambling and may forgo necessary checkups because they want to save money.
They are also at greater risk for a wide range of medical conditions such as poor cardiovascular health, reduced immune response and severe depression. As employee health takes a nosedive, health costs begin to skyrocket. Out of seven risk factors associated with excess health care costs, the Health Enhancement Research Organization found that depression and stress had the greatest correlation to higher costs.
HERO also screened 46,000 employees, and found 18.5% were highly-stressed and their medical claims averaged 46% higher than those without stress. Considering that 75-90% of all doctor's visits are stress-related, employers' health care costs are bound to increase as financial stress increases.
By continuing to focus on health education, awareness and prevention, wellness programs can certainly help a workforce stay healthy during times of financial strain. There are a few specific strategies wellness programs can adopt to help minimize corporate financial losses and conquer recession depression at the workplace.
Incorporate financial wellness into long-term planning
In 2008, the National Foundation of Credit Counseling conducted a financial literacy survey and found some startling results regarding Americans' financial literacy and money skills:
- One in 10 Americans (roughly 10 million) either missed or were late in paying their mortgage in the last year
- 7% were getting calls from collectors or considering bankruptcy
- Only 59% of young adults pay their bills on time
- Nearly 20% kept little to no track of their monthly expenses
- Over a third have no savings other than retirement
- A fourth have no retirement savings
Without strong money management skills like budgeting, saving and investing wisely, people can easily find themselves in a situation where they're living beyond their means with skyrocketing debt. Financial health is part of one's total health and well-being, and should be incorporated into long-term wellness planning and activities.
Whether it's delivering a three-part webinar series on achieving financial wellness or simply incorporating financial education and awareness into wellness newsletters and communication, there are a variety of ways to use a wellness program to enhance financial wellness. Two things that help ensure that the financial wellness initiatives will make the most impact are knowing the primary health risks of an organization and surveying the employee population to determine which topics are most relevant.
For example, if smoking is a major risk factor, discussing the costs of cigarettes and potential health care costs associated with smoking in financial wellness trainings and materials could help motivate employees to participate in smoking cessation.
Bringing the concept of financial health into a wellness campaign can help minimize financial losses as a result of recession depression at the workplace and prevent financial stress from taking a toll on employee's health and productivity.
Integrate wellness and employee assistance efforts
Calls to EAPs during these tough economic times have spiked dramatically. Results from a December 2008 survey of EAP providers found that requests for financial services from employees shot up 88% higher than the previous year. People need assistance identifying the major financial stressors in their life and adopting healthy coping skills for dealing with these daily pressures. Many people are simply unaware of just how deeply financial stress is impacting their everyday life - from work, to relationships, to health.
Coordinated EAP and wellness benefit offerings can help build that awareness; refer employees to professional or personalized help when necessary and strengthen employees' resiliency to manage whatever life challenges arise.
"After a human resource manager noticed his employees were complaining more of stress and financial pressures, he approached me for benefits strategies to help his employees stay focused and motivated at work," says Gilbert Manzano, Chief Administrative Officer for ACI Specialty Benefits, a provider of employee assistance, wellness and work/life benefits.
"Since the client had ACI's EAP and Wellness benefits, I coordinated a series of trainings and materials titled, 'Coping During Difficult Economic Times,' that combined behavioral health information with wellness-related advice and resources regarding healthy stress management techniques, diet and exercise."
While streamlined communication and efforts would be greatly helped by having the same EAP and wellness vendor, employers can practice stronger communication between separate vendors to make sure that messaging is consistent. A wellness program in combination with EAP counseling and stress management solutions can greatly reduce unnecessary health care costs and improve productivity.
Boost wellness offerings and communication
Considering the best strategies to combat stress such as exercise, healthy eating and relaxation, are usually the first to go when times get tough, wellness programs have an opportunity and responsibility to boost education and awareness efforts and provide employees with resources to prevent health problems from escalating.
In a time when companies are cutting costs, what should they do when a wellness program reports low utilization? Before scrapping the program altogether, employers need to take a careful look at their outreach and communication strategies. Was there a clear benefit communication strategy to begin with? Do employees know how to access the wellness program? Do they know about their incentives? Have employers surveyed the employees to see what they're looking for in a wellness program?
Employers need to carefully assess their employee population and provide wellness education, incentives and programs that truly motivate their employees to take better care of their health. Wellness programs are perfectly positioned to not only help conquer recession depression at the workplace, but also help corporations achieve important long-term goals such as retention, cost control and morale. The corporation that stays committed to employee health and well-being during these tough economic times will see a healthier bottom line and a more viable future.
Author biography - Dr. Ann Clark
Dr. Ann D. Clark is CEO and Founder of ACI Specialty Benefits, a Top Ten EAP and leading provider of wellness, student assistance, work/life and concierge services. A best-selling author, Dr. Clark is one of the original Certified Employee Assistance Professionals (CEAP) and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
As an experienced mental health professional and Fortune 500 consultant, Dr. Clark revolutionized the benefits industry by creating health solutions for the workplace that effectively and simultaneously addressed behavioral, emotional and physical health needs. She created the award-winning "GetFit Cell Phone Diet" and numerous other innovative products designed to increase workforce health and productivity.
This past year, Dr. Clark has been featured in Workforce Management Magazine, Business Insurance Magazine and other leading industry publications discussing the impact of financial stress on the workplace. Recently named the Benefit and Compensation Solution Magazine's "Benefits Superstar," Dr. Clark is committed to improving the quality of life for the nation's workforce and families by leading the innovation and delivery of specialty benefits that effectively respond to behavioral, physical and mental health needs.
Dr. Clark was named one of San Diego's "Women Who Mean Business" by the San Diego Business Journal and received the "Bravo" award for excellence from the National Association of Women Business Owners. Her extensive published works include Citadel Press' best-seller, Surviving Your Boss, Looking Good, Alone but Not Lonely, Surrender to Win and Single Parent Families. Dr. Clark received her doctorate in Behavior Disabilities and Psychology from the University of Wisconsin and completed post-doctorate research on Alcoholism and Sexuality at the University of New Mexico.