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STRESS : Firms Use Perks, Seminars to Fight Work-Related Tension


About a year ago, the management of Avco Financial Services realized that it was losing good workers who were quitting because they had complaints about their jobs and no place to voice them.

So the Irvine financial services and insurance firm established an employee relations department to listen. As a result, it learned that workers were tired of long freeway commutes. It also learned that the employees thirsted for more information about Avco's corporate goals and the role they were expected to play in achieving them.

Realizing that such concerns and frustrations were causing stress for its employees, Avco decided to take action to remedy the problems.

It established flexible work hours and a car- and van-pooling program to help weary commuters. It also started an improved orientation for new employees, gave quarterly reports to workers on the company's progress and began management training that emphasized teamwork and conflict resolution.

The result: a "dramatic reduction in turnover" at Avco headquarters in the last year, according to Carol Wienski, vice president of staffing and employee relations.

Like Avco, many employers in Orange County and throughout the nation are becoming more aware of the dangers of stress in the workplace, which can increase absenteeism and turnover and cut into productivity.

Some firms have been jolted into awareness by a rising incidence of alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace and other stress-related health problems that translate into spiraling costs for employer-subsidized medical insurance.

In California, stress claims for workers' compensation rose 531% to nearly 7,000 annually between 1980 and 1988, the last year for which state figures are available. During that same period, the total of all workers' compensation claims in the state increased less than 10%.

In The Times Orange County Poll of workplace issues, 17% of those surveyed said they have suffered from headaches, stomachaches or lost time from work because of stress from their jobs. Clerical workers and salespeople reported the most problems with stress, with 28% citing stress-related health woes.

Corporate psychologists generally agree that the stress level in American business has been aggravated by the merger and acquisition frenzy of the 1980s, which has led to cost-cutting layoffs and demands on remaining workers to be more competitive and productive.

"Everywhere I go, whether in education or industry, everybody has more work than they can accomplish," observed Jim Rockett, a management consultant in Chino.

In Orange County, the psychologists say, the social culture espouses the importance of success, which is a very stressful objective.

"You work real hard in Orange County to be able to look like you are having a good time," said Santiago Estrada, a psychologist who has set up employee assistance programs at a number of Orange County firms.

But striving for success is not all fun and games. Estrada said he knows of workers who keep note pads next to their beds in case they wake in the night with a business idea they want to jot down. Other people report they have Sunday morning "anxiety attacks" when they begin dreading the return to work the next day.

Psychologists emphasize that there is a link between stresses at home and at work and that these pressures have become more pronounced in an era of two-worker households.

Bernice Hogan, a clinical social worker at FHP, a Fountain Valley-based health maintenance organization, said that in some instances husbands and wives deliberately work different shifts so they can take care of children. Marital discord can result, she added, as the spouses become "passing ships in the night."

Increasingly, companies are contracting with outside consultants to establish employee assistance programs that provide confidential counseling on how to deal with a wide range of personal problems, such as arranging for child care, coping with an alcoholic spouse or caring for an elderly parent. These counseling and referral services generally charge $1.50 to $3.50 per employee per month.

Employees, meanwhile, are growing more concerned about the effect of stress on their physical and mental health. They are more willing to seek help as well.

Many seek out company gyms and fitness centers to sweat away tension. Others are flocking to lunchtime programs on stress reduction, meditation and nutrition, many of which are conducted by local hospitals.

Clarence Dibble, manager of corporate health services for St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, said the hospital held stress-management classes for about 25 companies in Orange County during the past year.

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