Stressbreaker

Companies and workers confront a problem that continues to grow as employees put in longer hours

November 16, 2005|By STACEY HIRSH | STACEY HIRSH,SUN REPORTER

When Donny Allison arrives for work each morning, he takes the first hour to check e-mails and voice mails and to plan his day - and his boss knows not to talk to him until after 10 a.m.

When he goes home at night, Allison always takes about 30 minutes to unwind before jumping into family life.

"When I go home, my wife knows just to give me time so I can read and just calm down," said Allison, who works in sales for Quick Connect Communications Inc., an Owings Mills telephone company.

It's Allison's way of dealing with stress, which experts say has been increasing in the American workplace as employees put in longer hours to make up for a decline in resources and added competition. The increasing stress can affect worker productivity, boost absenteeism and increase health care costs for employers, experts said.

That's why companies and workers are trying traditional and innovative solutions to help combat the problem. From providing employee assistance programs with counseling to allowing games of one-on-one hockey in the office hallways, reducing stress remains a priority in many workplaces.

Though experts say exercise, good nutrition and relaxation techniques can help relieve stress, some workers deal with it simply by scheduling days off, taking breaks to talk with colleagues or working even harder.

RelianceNet IT Experts of Annapolis began a 90-day fitness challenge to help employees get healthy and reduce stress. The company is paying for three-month memberships for workersat a nearby gym and three personal training sessions for each worker, said Pat Cooley, the company's chief executive officer.

Employees also are permitted to leave the office early or arrive late to squeeze in workouts and may make up the time another day during the week. About half of RelianceNet IT Experts' 15 workers take part in the program, which Cooley said he might invest more in, depending on participation.

"It's unbelievable for me," said Cooley, who began his personal training sessions last month. "You go home completely decompressed from work."

More than half of American workers say they have an "overly heavy" workload, according to a recent survey of more than 2,500 workers in six countries conducted for Melville, N.Y.-based office supplies manufacturer Pendaflex. The survey, which was released this month, found that 49 percent of workers work late at least two to three times a week.

"In many companies that's almost part of being a team player," said David Lewis, a research psychologist based in England who has done work in offices in the United States and was hired by Pendaflex to analyze its study.

Many workers have found ways to reduce the stress of late nights and growing workloads. Sixty-six percent of workers said they often take "stress breaks" to talk with colleagues at work, according to a survey conducted in September of 762 workers. The survey by ComPsych Corp., a Chicago company that provides employee assistance plans and other corporate wellness services, also found that 24 percent of workers cope with stress by working harder and that 10 percent cope by taking a day off.

John M. Ruffini, an area manager for the Baltimore office of the accounting and finance professional placement firm Ajilon Finance, tries to reduce his stress by taking the train when he travels to his firm's Washington office. He also manages his stress by breaking up tasks into one-hour increments.

Ruffini, like many workers, feels most stressed when he doesn't have control over his day.

Experts say that's a common ingredient of stress. Workers who are better trained for their jobs are likely to be more confident and experience less job stress, said David Harrison, a professor of management at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business Administration.

Employers should share information with workers before a crisis ensues, said Reginald Bruce, an associate professor of management at the University of Louisville's College of Business who studies stress in the workplace.

If a factory is in trouble, the plant manager should let workers know about productivity and profit targets long before the problem becomes a crisis. That not only allows workers to come up with suggestions to help the factory, but it also avoids shocking employees if the plant closes, Bruce said.

"We wonder why our employees feel powerless," Bruce said. "They feel powerless because we don't give them an opportunity to have a great deal of influence in where the company is going."

Cooley of RelianceNet IT Experts in Annapolis said his workplace is probably less stressful than ever because the company has been addressing its corporate culture for the past 18 months. Part of that effort has been making employee needs a priority.

When Cooley started the health program, he bought toys, including Nerf footballs and table tennis equipment. Most of the toys sit in a bin in the office, but hall hockey has stuck. Several afternoons a week, employees (and employer) take a break from the grind of work for one-on-one hockey matches.

Shawn Cronk, a salesman for the company who often plays hall hockey, said the games are a stress reliever and an energizer.

Oh, and there's one more benefit.

"I just do it so I can hit our boss," Cronk joked. "When he starts giving us a hard time, we just say, `Hey, would you like to play a game?' Then we can slam him against the wall a couple of times."

stacey.hirsh@baltsun.com

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