Meltdown risks mental health disaster

Oct 28 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Fears over job security, paying the bills or even just whether your house is going to be foreclosed are fuelling an epidemic of stress, anxiety and sleepless nights among workers on both sides of the Atlantic – and it is managers who are having to pick up the pieces.

Increased stress, anxiety and tension inside as well as outside the workplace is posing a severe challenge for managers around how best to manage people who, often through no fault of their own, may not be 100 per cent focused on the job in hand.

Nine out of 10 American workers are losing sleep over financial worries, according to a poll by Chicago-based health and wellbeing company ComPsych Corporation.

Nearly a third of those surveyed said they were worried about the cost of living, while 29 per cent said their anxiety over their credit card debt was keeping them awake at night.

For 14 per cent it was whether they would be able to meet their mortgage payment that often preoccupied them in the depths of the night.

It's a similar story across the Atlantic in the UK, where a poll by health insurer Bupa has found that a third of British workers are deeply concerned for their jobs, with two out of five saying levels of stress at work have increased since the financial crisis began.

Almost a quarter say they are now working longer hours in an effort to ward off the risk of losing their job.

At the same time, the UK charity Rethink has warned that rising levels of repossessions or foreclosures could lead to a "mental health disaster".

Health insurers HSA and AXA PPP have both picked up clear evidence of workers being more likely to struggle into work even when they are genuinely ill because they don't want to pick up a black mark from their employer.

In fact, HSA's Healthy Working report even found evidence of managers putting pressure on employees to continue working while off sick – often by taking calls or answering emails – and to return to work before they are fully well.

AXA PPP found that, in the past six months alone, two thirds of working people admitted to having gone to work when they would have been well within their rights to stay at home.

And over the summer research by UK budget hotel chain Travelodge found that many more people were admitting to sleepless nights and nightmares, with financial, job and housing worries among the most common reasons for tossing and turning in bed.

More managers and employers were turning to employee assistance programmes, or EAPs, that could provide support and counselling for anxious workers on a range of issues, including financial, said Richard A Chaifetz, chairman and chief executive of ComPsych.

The company had been seeing sharply increased volumes of calls as the financial crisis started to bite, he added.

"Companies are realising the impact of financial uncertainties upon their workers, and are proactively promoting support services such as EAPs with financial and legal guidance to help employees cope," he suggested.

Rebecca Small, assistant medical director for Bupa UK Health Insurance, argued that, even if the stress or anxiety was not workplace-related, the onus was on employers to offer help and support to workers, particularly if they wanted to get them back to full productivity more quickly.

"We know that companies are keen to step up their preventative health agenda and understand that having a healthy, productive workforce is essential to business performance - particularly during hard economic times," she said.

It was also important that managers were given training on how to spot common signs of employee stress early on, such as uncharacteristic short temperedness or an inability to concentrate and plan work, she argued.

Dudley Lusted of AXA PPP added: "Smart employers will make sure their managers are properly trained and supported to manage attendance positively and, when people are off work sick, concentrate on managing those employees whose attendance should give genuine cause for concern, whether it's frequent absence takers (often referred to as skivers) – for whom there will probably be conduct issues – or people with medical conditions that put them at risk of being off long-term sick."