Mental stress claims against employers skyrocketed more than 500% in the 1980s in California and now cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the California Workers' Compensation Institute. And although the state is more liberal in allowing such claims than most, workplace stress seems to have gone up everywhere, said Paul J. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.
In a March survey commissioned by Revlon Inc., 36% of respondents cited their work situations as the largest cause of personal stress, more than any other cause. "Most Americans quite clearly perceive they are under more stress than they were five years ago--and job stress is No. 1 on the list," Rosch said.
The discomfort isn't limited to those toiling at the lower rungs of the job ladder. Years of merger mania have eroded the security of executives who know they may be dumped if a takeover occurs. By some gauges, top executives seem more willing than ever to bail out of the corporate race.
Back in 1979, 17.3% of 1,708 top-level managers polled by Korn/Ferry International, a major executive search firm, said they expected to work as long as possible before retiring. But the gung-ho group is shrinking. Asked the same question last year, only 9.6% of 750 executives polled expected to work as long as they could.
"The destiny of the individual at the senior level is more in jeopardy than it has ever been--and it has little to do with how good a job he's doing," said Robert S. Rollo, Korn/Ferry's managing director.
There may be no easy solution for some of the anxieties that employees face today, such as merger fears or the stress of juggling work and family. But certain things can be done to ease the pain, according to workplace experts.
Wells Fargo, Kaiser Permanente, Transamerica Life and many other companies now offer harried employees either counseling or other programs designed to help allay workplace stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, one firm reduced its annual workers' compensation claims to $93,000 from $272,000 with the aid of a program that made use of meditation, biofeedback and muscle relaxation techniques.
In light of such financial realities, the California Workers' Compensation Institute advises employers to identify--and eliminate--the causes of workplace stress. Among the worst: insensitive managers, unrealistic deadlines, insufficient training and failure to give workers the chance to share their views, a situation that leads to a sense of isolation.
"If you can spot the factors that lead to stress and deal with them, you're better off than trying to manage it after it happens," counsels Michael W. Jones, assistant general manager with the San Francisco-based organization.