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The recession's psychological toll

Layoffs, workplace uncertainty stress workers and companies

May 31, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

The timing of the increase corresponded closely to a steady rise in the national unemployment rate and the real estate loan delinquency rate, ValueOptions found. The company also said employees reported more difficulty coping with legal and financial problems, as well as personal relationships.

"We're seeing employers who are very much concerned about their workers," said Rich Paul, a ValueOptions vice president. "Because they're doing more with less, the concern is that many employees may be at the breaking point. There's some fear they'll be left with a traumatized workforce that's hostile and eager to leave at the first opportunity."

But some companies are cutting back on the EAP benefits in contracts that are typically negotiated annually, industry experts said. That can compound pressures on employees, said Jodi Jacobson, chair of the EAP academic program at the University of Maryland Baltimore.

"EAPS are being asked to reduce services and are losing contracts with companies who don't have anything else to cut," Jacobson said. "You end up with stressed-out employees."

Meanwhile, experts warn that employees in disrupted workplaces could experience a lack of motivation or severe anxiety over their own job security — thus affecting company productivity.

MHN, the behavioral health subsidiary of insurer Health Net Inc., has seen the number of its employer training programs for how to help workers cope with on-the-job change and stress grow 45 percent from 2007 through last year. MHN also doubled the number of financial consultations it provides employees under company plans as the economy worsened between 2006 and 2009.

"If I'm on the job, and I'm worried I'm going to lose my position, then my productivity goes down," said Ian Shaffer, MHN's chief medical officer.

In the Baltimore area, there are signs that those without work or health insurance are increasingly tapping into mental health services.

Towson-based Sheppard Pratt Health Systems, which specializes in mental health care and substance abuse treatment, has seen the rate of patients who don't have insurance double from 5 percent to 10 percent over the past year.

Dr. Steven Sharfstein, the system's chief executive, blames the increase partly on people who've lost their jobs and lack insurance.

"It has increased fairly dramatically," Sharfstein said. "We've seen a very big jump in uncompensated care."

Dr. Brian Hepburn, executive director of the state's Mental Hygiene Administration, which oversees the state's publicly funded mental hospitals, said the number of people tapping Medicaid for mental health care grew 13 percent from mid-2009 through March.

"For us, that's a fairly dramatic spike in our mental health services," Hepburn said. He attributed at least part of the increase to the poor economy and a lack of work and health insurance for single mothers, who seek hospitalization for psychiatric issues.

Many of the clients who walk into the North Baltimore office of clinical social worker Rita Preller increasingly have one thing in common: high stress related to the poor economy and their job — or the lack of one.

Preller now gives discounts to about one-third of her patients because they're out of work and have trouble paying. Over the past year, she has seen economic-related stress build up for them and their families.

"This economy has forced them to deal with the fact they can't pay their bills," Preller said. "They feel like they can't do anything. They isolate. They withdraw. And the problem becomes worse."

At the Greater Baltimore Counseling Center in Glen Burnie, psychologist Deepan Chatterjee said he's helping more people suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks.

"About 50 percent of my cases are related to job loss," Chatterjee said. "I'm definitely seeing a lot of anxious people who have lost jobs, who don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/gussent

For assistance, contact:

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Metro Baltimore office

http://www.nami.org/sites/namimetrobaltimore

(410) 435-2600

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