Is the Recession Making You Sick?
By Kristina Cowan, PayScale.comEvery day there's more bad news reminding us our economy is sick. But what about us-are workers getting sick from recession-induced angst? Some of us might be. According to a January 2009 Workplace Options survey, 50 percent of workers are experiencing stress due to financial concerns, and 59 percent are stressed about whether pension and 401(k) funds will be there when needed.Career and medical experts say they're seeing a rise in stress-related complaints from workers, including headaches, muscular tension, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, some workers worried about keeping their jobs go to work sick-and often less productive-and in turn threaten their co-workers' health.
This all underscores a need for employers and employees to work together to ease the blow of stress, experts say.
Signs of Wear and Tear
Dr. Boyd Lyles has a medical practice in Dallas, and says he regularly sees patients with blood-pressure issues and insomnia, which he believes are a result of recessionary woes. "I'm also seeing executives with undue amounts of stress because they feel they have a greater need to perform and produce results ... All the way from the average worker up to the c-suite, no one is escaping this," Lyles notes.
Stress can cause some workers to go to work sick, experts say, often called "presenteeism." "When you are trying to protect your position, you will go to work under any circumstance. In the process you infect other people at work," says Lyles, who is also the chief medical officer at U.S. Preventive Medicine. Presenteeism can also cause productivity losses. A Cornell Chronicle article reported in 2004 that the Cornell Institute for Health and Productivity Studies and health-information firm Medstat estimated companies' on-the-job productivity losses from presenteeism could be as high as 60 percent of the total cost of worker illness-exceeding costs of absenteeism, and medical and disability benefits.
Other evidence shows workers neglecting their health.
Dr. Joel Shalowitz, who runs a medical practice in the Chicago area, says within the last year, there has been an increase in patients calling for treatments instead of coming in for office visits. Recurring headaches, for example, might be nothing, or something very serious, so in-person treatment is important, says Shalowitz, also the director of the Health Industry Management Program at the Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill. A 2008/2009 report by Watson Wyatt Worldwide says 17 percent of employees skipped a recommended doctor's visit to save on health care, and another 17 percent didn't fill or skipped doses of prescribed medication, up from 13 percent in 2007.
Is There an Antidote?
Employers and employees should work to stave off the ill-effects of stress-related health problems, experts say, and part of that lies in prevention. Employees shouldn't neglect prescriptions, immunizations, mammograms, or flu shots, for example, which can lead to more costly health problems in the future. Employers can provide wellness programs, and offer workers guidance on stress management and staying healthy, such as through regular exercise.
Rachel Permuth-Levine, deputy director of the Office of Strategic and Innovative Programs at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., says employers can offer inexpensive programs to promote health, such as seminars on stress management, meditation or reduced-cost yoga classes.
"You need to create a culture of change, wellness, and senior leadership support-only then will everything else follow. If you have programs but if bosses aren't in support of them, they will fail," she says. A 2008 piece by Ron Goetzel and Ronald J. Ozminkowski in the Annual Review of Public Health cites a 2005 study showing participants in work site health-promotion programs have 25 percent–30 percent lower medical and absenteeism costs compared with nonparticipants, over an average study period of 3.6 years.
Companies also should communicate how they're doing financially, experts say.
"I think one of the biggest things is to fill the information void. If you don't communicate to employees what's happening with your companies, they will fill the void and that's what causes stress-people assume the worst," explains Shelly Wolff, North American leader for health and productivity at Watson Wyatt in Stamford, Ct.