Stress in the workplace Company cutbacks take a toll on mind, body, soul

April 13, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

The patient presented the familiar story of a shell-shocked employee: Her company had cut back its work force and, suddenly, the retail store manager had two more stores to supervise and orders to increase sales at the five she was already running. Her work life soon became overwhelming.

"Her employers gave her a task that made it impossible for her to succeed. Or if she did succeed, it would be at great cost to her health and to her marriage," says Mort Orman, the Baltimore internist who treated her.

"So why didn't she say, 'Pick more stores or higher productivity: You can't get both, life doesn't work that way'? Because she was afraid she'd lose her job."

Instead, the young woman struggled with the new workload. It disrupted her new marriage. She started sleeping less, suffered severe headaches and had trouble concentrating. By the time she finally visited Dr. Orman, she was physically and emotionally exhausted.

Fearful, jaw-clenching responses to the downsizing of the work force are causing a variety of health problems, physicians say. Patients complain of sleeplessness, chronic headaches, sore backs, upset stomachs, colitis, ulcers, poor eating habits and physical and spiritual exhaustion.

The American Institute of Stress estimates that at least three-quarters of Americans' visits to physicians are due to stress-related disorders; tranquilizers, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications account for a quarter of the nation's drug prescriptions.

"There's been a tremendous increase in the sheer numbers of patients that complain of being overly stressed at work. They feel mentally and physically exhausted, discouraged and demoralized," Dr. Orman says.

He mentions a hospital where a nursing shortage led to patient complaints. Meanwhile, the nurses on staff were working overtime and double shifts.

"Management's response was to hire an outside consulting firm to give training programs to teach nurses how to smile and be more pleasant to patients," he says.

"There was no acknowledgment about what tremendous pressure these women were under.

"There was no 'We understand that you're short-staffed we realize what you're doing for us, we intend to reward you in the future for being good troopers.' Instead, they were thinking, 'These people should feel lucky to have jobs.' "

The author of "The 14-Day Stress Cure," Dr. Orman runs the Health Resource Network, a non-profit health education organization that has designated April as Stress Awareness Month. He says more patients have begun telling him about taking on jobs that were formerly assigned to two or three people, their fears of becoming unemployed and the family strains resulting from their spending more time at work.

"They've all experienced reductions in the work force around them as their companies cut back and lay off. They're survivors, but they have increased workloads and increased anxiety about when the ax is going to fall on them. . . . That can really affect people's bodies."

It also affects their productivity. The International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, estimates that stress costs employers as much as $200 billion a year in absenteeism, lower productivity and health insurance. According to a 1992 study by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., almost half of the survey's respondents claimed their jobs were highly stressful.

But what makes them stressful is not always easy to identify.

In a national study about the effects of stress on health, Dr. George S. Everly Jr. found the most reliable predictor of physical illness was the employee's perception of a workplace rather than the actual facts of the situation.

"Stressors, like beauty, lie in the eye of the beholder," he says.

Dr. Everly, who is president of the Maryland Psychological Association and chief psychologist at Union Memorial Hospital, says he sees patients who are anxious about losing their jobs, patients who are feeling tremendously overworked -- and a minority who don't mind increased work because they are "absolutely tickled pink" to have paychecks.

"My approach -- and this is not totally psycho-babble -- is to tell people to recognize the things that are beyond our control, such as the economy and downsizing, and let us control what we can, which is our reaction to it," he says.

The best way to combat stress is to treat its invisible causes instead of concentrating upon its physical symptoms, Dr. Orman says. At the workplace, this often means confronting ambiguous areas in the relationships between employees and their supervisors.

Take, for instance, the issue of trust. "One cause of stress is if management lacks true commitment to the welfare of the workers and their families," he says. "Many companies say they are committed to their employees, but if you look at their policies, you'll see they're more committed to money first and everything else second."

He refers to a company that chose to lay off its most senior employees at a time of cutbacks.

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