Stress has long been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and a number of mental health problems.
And a recent poll finds that a substantial number of working adults say stress is a critical health issue they face at work. The poll was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
So what are employers doing about it? Fifty-one percent of the people in our poll said their workplace has a formal wellness or health improvement program.
Such plans might include weight management, diet and nutrition, exercise, gym discounts, quit-smoking programs, assistance with alcohol or drug rehabilitation or disease-management programs for diseases like asthma or diabetes.
Many programs also focus on stress reduction.
The downside? Less than half the people polled — 40 percent — say they participate in the programs offered by their workplace.
Still, these programs can go a long way toward creating an environment that promotes health and reduces stress — thereby helping a company's bottom line.
"There's a recognition that the cost of burnout — either in the form of lower productivity or, in extreme cases, the loss of employees — is more costly" than taking steps to reduce stress, says Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, a staffing firm.
Those stress-curbing steps can include things like planning ahead and hiring temporary workers to fill in the gaps when regular employees take time off for stress-relieving exercise or vacation, she says.
Wellness programs can help, too. They're often aimed at improving specific health factors and offer ways to help employees lose weight, exercise more, improve diet and even diminish back pain. This may include employing people who can do back exams in the workplace and even offer physical therapy or financial advice.
Dr. Tim Church, a preventive medicine specialist and chief medical officer at ACAP Health Consulting, helps companies set up wellness programs. Most companies he deals with are concerned about health costs and see wellness as a relatively easy fix.
"Health care costs to a company are now a major issue, whereas it used to be an afterthought," he says. "As health care costs continue to skyrocket, it's the American employers who are taking the brunt of these costs."
Employers are now including meditation and yoga classes in wellness programs to reduce stress, he says. They're also trying "water challenges" to get employees to drink more water. Some companies even bring in a massage therapist every week or so, according to Church.
Beyond formal wellness programs, companies should also pay attention to stress-inducing conditions like workloads and paid time off, says John Quelch, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.
"The sheer overload that comes from downsizing and outsourcing and asking someone to do two jobs, when previously they had to do one" is something companies must consider if they're interested in reducing worker stress, Quelch told a forum on the workplace and health, held last week at the Harvard Chan School.
Among people in NPR's survey who work 50-plus hours a week, 49 percent said their workload made it too hard to take a vacation. And 42 percent said they don't take all the paid vacation they earn because there wouldn't be enough people to cover their work if they did.
Not taking all your vacation leave is an unfortunate mistake, says psychologist Matthew J. Grawitch of Saint Louis University, who studies stress in the workplace.
"When workers come back from vacation they have more energy, they tend to be more replenished and feel more engaged in their work," Grawitch says.
Companies have to make changes that actively encourage employees to take their vacation, he says, and to take advantage of wellness programs.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've known for a long time that stress increases the risk of heart disease, and many workers say stress is a critical issue on the job. That finding is from a recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, today's employers are starting to take note.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Go to a work site today, and you'll likely see things you wouldn't have seen in the past - an exercise room, weights, treadmills, parking spaces for bikes. Preventive medicine specialist Dr. Tim Church helps companies set up Workplace Wellness programs...
TIM CHURCH: They'll offer, like, water challenges. Are you getting enough glasses of water a day? They may bring in a massage therapist once every week or so. They may open up a room for yoga.
NEIGHMOND: ...And highly focused programs on nutrition, diabetes prevention and even help to reduce back pain.
CHURCH: You've got people who will do back exams in the workplace and who do, basically, physical therapy in the workplace.
NEIGHMOND: Why the focus on health? Pretty simple, says Church - healthy workers are more productive, and companies want to save money.
CHURCH: Health care costs to a company are now a major issue. They used to be an afterthought. As health care costs are continuing to skyrocket, it is the American employer who is taking the brunt of these costs.
NEIGHMOND: Fifty-one percent of the people we polled say their employer offers formal wellness or health improvement programs, but less than half say they take advantage of them. Now, another factor that contributes to stress on the job is that many people aren't taking enough vacation - a mistake, says psychologist Matt Grawitch with Saint Louis University.
MATT GRAWITCH: When workers come back from vacation, they tend to be under less stress. They tend to be more engaged. They tend to be more replenished.
NEIGHMOND: And yet, nearly two-thirds of the people in our poll who work 50 hours or more a week say they don't take all the vacation time they've earned. Grawitch says companies have to make changes that actively encourage employees to take their vacation and take advantage of wellness programs. It could mean more money, but Diane Domeyer, executive director of the staffing firm the Creative Group, says it's a good investment.
DIANE DOMEYER: Because there's a recognition that the cost of burnout, either in the form of lower productivity or, you know, in extreme cases, loss of employees or employees moving on, is more costly.
NEIGHMOND: More costly than what it takes to plan ahead and hire temporary workers to fill the gaps when regular employees take time off for stress-relieving exercise or vacation. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.