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Behavioral Risks Eat Away at Worker Gains

Behavioral risks cast a long shadow over the American worker, many of whom carry with them issues that stretch beyond the workplace. Nor are the burdens limited solely to the ranks of the blue-collar work force.

Saturday, September 1, 2007
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How many employees in America bring their personal troubles in through the door? More than most of us would guess, experts say. And pressure-cooker workplaces are growing those numbers based on the behavioral demographics of those entering the workforce.

Depression, exhaustion, stress, substance abuse, eating disorders -- combined, they are pervasive in the work force.

True, behavioral problems and the workplace have been linked, often corrosively, throughout the history of modern society. Prevalence has probably not increased, nor has it declined. The problems of individuals are more in the open today. A "performance problem" of yesterday may be a seen as depression today. The results are more demands on managers and more expense for health and disability programs. 

Focusing on behavioral risk, employers have been learning how to reduce personal distress and improve productivity. But human resources, constrained by privacy rules, usually does not know the precise problem. Employers are effectively trying to complete a puzzle in the dark without a count of the pieces, coherent strategy or tools.

Two doctors, Alan Langlieb and Jeffrey Kahn, concluded in 2005 that the indirect costs of depression alone to employers is "staggering." Langlieb is at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, Kahn with WorkPsych Corp., a consulting firm. They reviewed more than 100 published research reports to document the effect of depression and anxiety on work performance.

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Their article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine looked at prevalence, lost time, medical spending and intervention tools. Both employers and researchers, they wrote, "remain largely unaware of the value of quality care" for major behavioral problems. They drew their conclusions without even touching the hot topic of substance-abusing employees.

But employers at least know the symptoms of behavioral problems: erratic work performance, high benefits utilization and staff turnover. Troubled workers can be the most creative and most highly compensated. Gifted workers have been clocked at being either absent or ineffective at work for 50 or more days a year.

The Disability Management Employers Coalition picks behavioral risk as the top concern for its members. Marcia Carruthers, the organization's CEO, says that "47 percent of employers have initiated or are considering some form of behavioral risk management."

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