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How Are You?

With work-related stress on the rise, some forward-thinking organizations seek guidance from their employees to find better ways of helping them cope.

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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Gigi Louden knows stress.

With the weighty job title of multidisciplinary systems engineer, she confronts it daily at the intersection of advanced technology and national security.

Her job is to bring clients of MITRE Corp. -- a manager of federally funded research-and-development centers with campuses in McLean, Va., and Bedford, Mass. -- together with its technical staff on a number of deadline-driven, high-value projects involving homeland security, defense and intelligence.

"The job itself, the very nature of it, is stressful," says Louden. "[But] the company does an amazing amount in order to help employees manage it and have a healthy work/life balance."

Like many other organizations, MITRE provides its workers with access to state-of-the-art on-campus fitness centers, as well as an array of other programs and initiatives -- including online instructions on breathing and stretching exercises that can be done at your desk -- to help employees manage work-related stress.

What's more, when Louden's 90-year-old father suddenly needed a series of surgeries, and she learned she would have to act as his medical advocate throughout the process, her stress levels didn't jump off the charts. That's because she knew that stress management at MITRE involves a lot more than just downloadable breathing exercises or the latest exercise equipment.

Louden was able to quickly arrange with her manager a flexible-work schedule for the week so she would be able to focus on her father without neglecting her job duties. Thanks to the company's in-house electronic-scheduling system, she was also able to complete her work without disruption to any of her -- or her colleagues' -- projects.

"I was able to take [my father] to the hospital for his first surgery, and I was able to spend the entire day there with him," she says. "I also had to take him to a follow-up appointment and yet, I was still able to work my full, scheduled week because I was enabled to work at home, as well as around his appointments. That's huge, because being able to flex like that is just so helpful."

MITRE's willingness to listen and respond when employees talk about what's stressing them out is part of the reason it was recently named to the American Psychological Association's 2011 Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Award Winners list.

Stress management and work/life balance are just two strands in the tapestry of an overall holistic approach to keeping employees healthy at MITRE so they can be as creative and innovative as possible in supporting customers, says Bill Albright, the company's director of quality of work/life and diversity.

Being named to the APA list is a validation that MITRE is "at least moving in the right direction," he says, adding that this exposure helps its corporate brand and serves as a point of pride for employees.

Workplace stress has always been with us, but the turbulent economy is making it a bigger factor than ever. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll finds that employees' levels of dissatisfaction with on-the-job stress has risen six percentage points since 2008, and a Careerbuilder.com survey finds 43 percent of workers saying their job-stress levels have increased over the past six months.

Couple that with a new report entitled Psychosocial Working Conditions and the Utilization of Health Care Services by Montreal's Concordia University -- which finds that the number of visits to healthcare professionals is 26 percent higher for workers in high-stress jobs -- and it becomes clear there are also bottom-line benefits, in addition to increasing worker morale and productivity, to helping employees deal with their stress issues in a positive manner.

And while it's commendable to offer workers the very latest and greatest in stress-management tools and programs that the market has to offer, MITRE and the other companies interviewed for this story have already learned it's just as important to look within your own organization and ask the stressed employees, themselves, what will most help them do their jobs productively and happily.

"Many companies require a one-size-fits-all mentality with their employees [when it comes to stress management]," says Minneapolis-based author and stress-management coach Kristen Brown. Instead, she says, "Be open to their suggestions. If they feel they are being heard and respected, it will help them feel more in control ... and less stressed."

Embracing Health

MITRE's Albright says the company began ratcheting up its stress-management efforts about 12 years ago, when the HR function was revamped and the division he now oversees was created.

"Prior to that, we've always had [subsidized] fitness centers and sponsored health-and-wellness programs," he says, "but back then, it was more of a 'nice thing to do,' rather than a business imperative. Then we created the division to put more resources into work/life balance, employee engagement and stress management."

Albright says the company hoped its efforts would someday become "differentiating factors in attracting and retaining a quality workforce." As proof that it worked, he points to a recent internal employee-engagement survey in which 48 percent of 6,100 employees cited work/life balance as one of the reasons they stay with MITRE.

"They were asked for the top three reasons they joined and the top three reasons why they stay and, by far, work/life balance was up top for both," Albright says, adding that Fortune magazine recently ranked MITRE Corp. third in its 100 Best Companies To Work For list.

The company's main initiative aimed at keeping that positivity going, called Embrace Your Health, is broken down into a variety of areas, from physical programs -- such as sponsoring jazzercise and yoga classes at the fitness center with on-site, certified fitness coordinators and a 10,000-step-a-day program -- to overall work/life balance issues, including flexible-work and telework arrangements, phased retirement and compressed workweeks.

The program, he says, also coordinates on-site conveniences that workers have requested, including dry-cleaning services, having a car detailed or even getting one's tires changed.

"This allows folks to satisfy some of their obligations and responsibilities while working that will allow them to spend more time with family on weekends and evenings," Albright says.

Nonetheless, while it's nice to have so many choices on the stress-reduction menu, he says, it's all for naught if workers don't know about them.

"The programs are only as effective as they are being used," he says, and one of the initial challenges was to try and get the idea of stress management acculturated within the organization so it wouldn't just sit on the shelf.

By using a top-down communications approach starting with leadership, Albright says, managers quickly embraced the concept, and its success is borne out in both the employee surveys and shelves full of awards.

"It indicates that it's part of the MITRE culture now," he says, and Louden certainly agrees.

"My managers have been really supportive," she says. "They know when I'm taking a class [she also exercises at work four times a week], because we have electronic calendars and I share it with them and other staff, and meetings are usually arranged so there's a minimum of conflict."

So what kind of effect has all this had on Louden's stress levels?

"I really feel like my stress is minimal and that I'm really able to cope with almost anything that comes up," she says. "People say I'm even-tempered, and I think it's because of the exercise facilities and all of the other offerings we have."

Feeding the Mind

Somewhere in the woods of Cary, N.C., lies the main campus of software maker SAS Institute, which regularly shows up on Fortune's Best Companies to Work For list. Within that campus' borders, just behind a stand of trees, lies the company's not-so-secret weapon against stress: an employee-created meditation garden. (See sidebar.)

Jennifer Mann, vice president of human resources, says the garden was created partly due to a grassroots campaign by workers three years ago to designate a permanent outdoor space at work to de-stress.

"It's just literally a place in the woods, with simple stepping stones that lead you there," she says. "The rest is the beauty of nature."

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Mann, like countless other SAS employees, finds herself drawn to the garden, even if only to eat lunch and relax rather than meditate. Other employees who practice tai chi together gather in the garden for weekly sessions, and the company's wellness center even offers courses on meditation and mindfulness, which are taught in the garden.

Having access to such a natural area to unwind also gives employees the mental space they need to come up with new ideas and products, says Mann.

"What we produce are products of the mind," she says, "so it's important to foster an environment that, in turn, fosters innovation."

In addition to operating its own fitness-and-recreation centers and a healthcare center -- which offers employees biofeedback sessions, massage therapy and courses in the arts of controlled breathing and meditation, among others -- the company operates a Work/Life Center to address employees' emotional and mental needs, including classes and discussions on a variety of topics.

While anyone can attend a center-sponsored session, Mann says, "there are some topics we would just want men in the room to have a dialogue on, like anger management, for example.

"Likewise, we might do something similar for just women, like breast-cancer screenings. Because, while we all have stress, we want to be able to talk about what may be unique for [different demographics]" in a comfortable environment, she says.

"One of the things I really love about this is that we target the full lifecycle of our employees," she says.

The employees apparently appreciate it, too: SAS operates with a 4-percent turnover rate in an industry where 22 percent is the norm, according to Mann.

Retreat to Advance

So what happens when you give employees a great stress-reducing resource such as a wellness center, but almost half your workers can't use it? GE Capital Fleet Services, a lender and servicer of fleet vehicles located in Eden Prairie, Minn., found both that very problem and the solution through a site-specific, semi-annual needs-and-interests survey of its roughly 600 workers.

Shannon Tolbert, a business initiatives leader at the company, says the surveys -- which are coordinated by corporate HR's Health Ahead wellness initiative -- typically query workers on topics such as how they want to spend their breaks or how much or little they know about the company's employee-assistance program. The results help GE Capital Fleet Services get a better understanding of which offerings get used most and which ones do not.

"We have about 45 percent of our employees who are nonexempt," says Tolbert, "and one of the things that came out of a recent survey regarded how the laws on nonexempt employees don't allow enough time for them to make use of the wellness center."

Essentially, those nonexempt workers weren't able to fit in a full visit to the gym for a workout and a shower afterward and still return to work in time.

In response, the company opened its Fleet Retreat earlier this summer -- the room's naming rights went to an employee who won a raffle -- complete with a ping-pong table, putting green, dart board, Wii videogame system, computer terminals for Web surfing and even a blood-pressure machine. Reading material on stress management is posted along the walls, as well as information from the company's EAP.

Located right near the front entrance of the building, the retreat room now affords nonexempt employees a place to relax and unwind in a shorter period of time than they would have had to give up if they went to the gym.

"It's just a great place to go and de-stress, and we encourage managers to use it, too," says Tolbert. In its first week alone, she says, 150 employees stopped by to relax and enjoy a brief respite in the workday.

"There are times when I come in the front door and I can hear the ping-pong balls and laughter, and it makes me smile," she says. "And that all came out of the needs-and-interests survey."

Paul Batz, a CEO-level executive coach and speaker based in Minneapolis who specializes in helping leaders better balance their personal and professional lives, says this trend of management's increasing involvement in dealing with employee stress is a growing one.

"Managers are talking about stress management more than I've ever seen," he says. "When the top leaders continually show concern and express empathy toward [employee stress], people feel engaged. The opposite is the leader who never acknowledges, and acts like everyone should always work this hard."

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