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Benefits Column

http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/images/CarolHarnett106x106.jpgStress, Envy and Mental Health in the Workplace

HR leaders are key to creating and sustaining functional, psychologically healthy workplaces.

Monday, September 23, 2013
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As a writer, a story sometimes shows up at your doorstep and keeps reappearing until you pay attention. This is one of those stories.

On July 2, 2013, Catherine Rampell wrote a New York Times Magazine article entitled "The Half-Trillion-Dollar Depression." The author outlined the United States’ growing challenge of mental health from both a health and economic perspective.

The number of Americans approved for Social Security Disability Insurance for mental disorders has doubled over the last 15 years. Part of this change is due to the change in SSDI’s definition of a disabling condition, but it is hard to ignore the $150 billion spent annually on direct medical costs related to mental illness.

People with mental-health challenges also make less money than their mentally well colleagues and are more likely to suffer from presenteeism, which essentially translates into being less productive at work.

Rampell’s column drove me and Fran Melmed to schedule the American Psychological Association’s David Ballard and UST Global’s David Whitehouse for one of our CoHealth Checkup radio broadcasts on the topic of stress and mental health in the workplace.

The themes we discussed during the radio show were reminiscent of Bob Merberg’s ongoing coverage of stress at work, including karoshi -- or death from overwork -- a phenomenon taking place in Japan.

While karoshi is not something we follow in the United States yet, Whitehouse described a worrisome American workplace trend: "the stress-envy culture." Some workplace environments have become so entrenched in favoring hard-driving employees – who are often immersed in projects to the point of sleeping overnight at work and receiving new clothing from their employers the next day -- their co-workers become envious of the attention. In short order, they seek to imitate the same behaviors and hope for similar recognition.

Offering a stress-management program in the middle of an ecosystem like this one is a strategy similar to placing your finger in the proverbial dike. And it's not too dissimilar from the health-insurance company that gave employees free Krispy Kreme donuts if they participated in the on-site biometric-screening day.

I’ve continued to be surrounded by people and situations bathed in a mental-health conundrum: from having lunch with long-time colleague George Carpenter, CEO of Aliso Viejo-based CNS Response Inc. following his interview at a local NBC television affiliate during National Suicide Prevention Week, to a 12-year-old girl’s suicide at the end of that week due to cyberbullying, to staying overnight at a Wall Street hotel on 9/11 with the accompanying memories of that day.

The final experiences that drove me to my computer to write this column included the Washington Navy Yard shooting, which came within days of the nine-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy (an event that also compelled me to write), and Twitter exchanges with Penn State University’s associate dean of undergraduate programs and outreach, Dennis Shea, about trust issues as the crux of the PSU wellness debacle.

Whitehouse, too, referenced trust when I asked him what advice he could offer employers on creating a psychologically healthy workplaces. "As David Shore said, ‘Whoever wins the trust game wins the health game.' "

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Workplaces that exhibit high levels of employee trust not only have healthier employees, these corporations are also more profitable. Interaction Associates’ ongoing Building Trust survey indicates a strong correlation between financial health and the leadership culture and actions in organizations. Companies adept at reinforcing strong leadership, trust and collaboration showed better financial performance in each of the survey's five years, as measured by net profit and revenue growth.

So, my goal in writing this column is to inspire – yes, inspire – HR executives to universally guide the effort to systematically influence workplaces so they are good places to work. No other company leader is better positioned to steer this effort.

The American Psychological Association’s outline for elements that make up a psychologically healthy workplace falls into five categories: health and safety efforts, including wellness programs; work/life initiatives that feature flexible work arrangements, child- and elder-care benefits and financial counseling; involving who are involved in the organization in a meaningful way; people who are recognized for the contributions they make to the company; and workers who are provided with growth and development within the corporation.

Ballard indicates that employers should couple these five criteria with a strong communication strategy that contains no surprises and is packaged with outcomes that demonstrate the positive impact to employee well-being and organizational performance.

Both Ballard and Whitehouse emphasize that the practices each company uses to achieve a healthy work environment must be customized to the unique attributes of each corporation. So while ideas for how to achieve and maintain a good place to work can be derived from the APA’s award winners and the Great Place to Work Institute’s Best Place to Work Awards, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy workplace.

On a final note, it is my hope that most employees will someday experience life in the way that the great Harvard psychologist, Erik Erikson, described: "The richest and fullest lives balance work, love and play. All three must be pursued with equal dedication."

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

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