Category Archives: employee stress

The Struggles of Working in Retail

If you think you have it tough balancing the demands of child care, housekeeping and–maybe–night classes with a 9-to-5 office job, then try working in retail. A recently published study based on interviews with 463 employees at retail stores throughout New York City found that more than half learned their work schedules a week or less prior to the actual work week. Two in five said the number of hours they worked each week always or often varied, while one in five said they always or often had to be available for call-in shifts. The report, entitled “Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short,” notes that “guaranteed work hours are no longer the normal and just ‘getting on the schedule’ has become the reward for job performance.”

So just imagine dealing with such unpredictability while trying to attend classes and/or raise a family. It should be noted that this study was financed by the Retail Action Project, a pro-union organization, and conducted by the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute, which also appears to have a union affiliation. Yet the rise of “just-in-time” scheduling at many stores, further enabled by technology, has been noted elsewhere for the negative effect it can have on workers’ lives.  A team of researchers from the University of Chicago examined workforce data and surveyed workers and managers at a nationwide women’s apparel chain (with the company’s full cooperation).  The report, published in fall 2010, noted that just-in-time scheduling makes it difficult for workers to count on reliable earnings or plan for family responsibilities.

By comparison, the researchers discovered that the more hours employees at the apparel chain worked and the less their hours fluctuated, the longer they remained employed at the firm, regardless of age and job status. Stores with smaller staff size and more hours per employee have lower turnover and higher retention, the report found, while employee survey findings indicate that more-predictable work schedules led to less work/family conflict and lower stress levels for the workers. Sounds like a recipe for improved workforce health and greater productivity, no?

Of course, retail by its very nature is less predictable than other industries. Yet the researchers found that “overall store hours fluctuate much less than is commonly believed.” They suggest that managers can add some stability to employees’ work hours by using “predictable unpredictability”–keeping employees’ work hours the same for 80 percent of the week while telling them to expect that 20 percent of their hours may vary week to week.” Not a perfect solution, but one that may enable stores to remain profitable while giving employees a chance for some balance.


Women Choosing More Time Over More Money

Came across this recent piece in USA Today that hit a nerve. Written by Anita Bruzzese, it cites a nationwide survey from More magazine in which 43 percent of 500 women, ages 35 to 60, say they are less ambitious now than they were a decade ago.

And only a quarter say they’re working toward their next promotion.

Some even more eyebrow-raising gems: Two of three women polled say they would prefer to have more free time than a bigger paycheck and two of five say they’d be willing to accept less money for more flexibility.

Seventy-three percent say they would not apply for their boss’ job and 38 percent say they don’t want to put up with the stress, office politics and responsibility that often go hand-in-hand with such positions.

And my favorite: 92 percent say they value workplace flexibility, but a third consider it career suicide to ask for more flexibility in their jobs.

“We’re bemoaning the lack of women in top Fortune 500 companies or women in political office,” More Editor-in-Chief Lesley Jane Seymour tells Bruzzese. “We’re sliding backwards, and here’s your answer [as to why]. It’s because we have thrown ice water all over ambition.”

As the economy struggles, she says, “if we back off from promoting women, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The real focus of the piece — a single mom from Dallas named Tiffany Willis, who left a middle-management position to, as she says, “own my life” — calls many of the meaningful, ladder-climbing, career-enhancing positions now filled by women “heart-attack jobs.”

“… I strongly believe they took years off my life,” she tells Bruzzese. “I have been referred by people for other [management] positions, and I tell them no amount of money is worth it. I don’t care if they offered me a million dollars.”

She describes herself as “that mom sitting at the top of the bleachers at my kid’s Saturday-morning football game on my cell phone for a conference call with my laptop.” Hey, that stuff’s been going on for years. I remember watching many a varsity soccer or baseball game with reporter pad in hand trying to craft a lead for an article due later that night.

It’s amazing how long we’ve been at this working woman/working mother thing, yet how far we still seem to be from a universal ideal situation. The women I talk to, from HR leaders at conferences to relatives and friends, seem to agree corporate America is still in social-experiment mode when it comes to workplace flexibility, telecommuting and trust.

And, by all means, this inadequate corporate culture wreaks havoc on young men and working dads, too. They’re just not finding themselves forced to make as many dramatic, life-changing decisions — I don’t think — as women.

“Women will continue to be powerful,” as Willis puts it, “but it’s not going to be with a two-hour commute and a corner office.”


America’s Scariest Jobs

The good folks at who have compiled this year’s list of the scariest jobs in the country, as voted on by 4,300 American workers:

1. Bomb Squad Technician

2. High Rise Window Washer

3. Armed Forces

4. Miner

5. Police Officer

6. Alaskan Crab Fishing

7. Mortician

8. Firefighter

9. High School Teacher

10. Cemetery Worker

11. Exterminator

12. Stand-Up Comedian

13. Animal Control

14. Stunt Person

15. Politician

But when it comes to what is scaring employees — besides holding any of the above-mentioned job titles — more than a third of workers (36 percent) say layoffs are what they are most afraid of at work. Other work-related issues that may keep workers up at night include:

*Pay cuts — 13 percent

* Workload — 9 percent

* Presenting in front of other people — 9 percent

* Forced relocation — 4 percent

* The boss — 3 percent

Happy Halloween!


Report: Employees Getting More Suicidal

Thoughts of suicide are permeating the workplace, according to Harris, Rothenberg International, a New York-based firm that provides EAP, work/life consulting and other services to employers. Calls to HRI’s EAP counselors from employees contemplating suicide and managers concerned about suicidal employees are up 33 percent compared to the period a year ago, according to the company.

Not surprisingly, the lousy economy’s a big factor. HRI points to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled “Impact of Business Cycles on the U.S. Suicide Rates, 1928-2007,” which notes that suicide rates rise and fall with the economy.  What’s tragic, as HRI points out, is that many people with suicidal thoughts avoid getting help and instead try and “tough it out” on their own.

Suicidal thoughts are often triggered by despair over workplace changes wrought by the economy, says HRI’s director of clinical services, Dr. Randy Martin. Many employees thought (or were led to believe) that changes were temporary, but when they realize that’s not the case, despair can set in, he says. Some employees struggle with grief over the loss of coworkers who were downsized, while others deal with enormous stress and anxiety from generational conflicts with bosses who may be younger than them.

“There has been a significant increase in employee stress and anxiety from 2010 through the year to date, and overwhelmed employees who cannot see some light at the end of the tunnel may feel powerless, hopeless, angry and disenfranchised, which can lead to self-harming thoughts and behaviors,” says Martin. “The economic crisis has become a human crisis.”



In the Good Old Summertime

In these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, workers are either goofing off and dressing down — or they’re ruining their vacations by checking in with the office. (Let me know later, if you find yourself unconsciously humming either of those tunes …)

At least that is the non-consensus from three, count ’em, three surveys that crossed my desk (well, showed up in my email, anyway) today.

One, from CareerBuilder, finds that one in four employers say their workers are less productive in the summer.

Another, from Adweek/Harris Poll, shows that nearly half (46 percent) of vacationing Americans worked during their vacations.

And the third, from Adecco Staffing US, relates to appropriate workplace attire — although six in 10 of the respondents would like some extra vacation days or the ability to leave early on “summer Fridays.”

As for wardrobe, 71 percent of Americans say flip flops are the biggest summer no-no.

Amusingly, men and women differed in the acceptability of mini-skirts and strapless tops or dresses. For both, men were much more willing to see such items in the workplace.  Hmmm. Big surprise there, huh?

As for those non-vacationing vacationers in the Adweek/Harris Poll, the most frequent work-related duties involve monitoring email (35 percent), checking voicemail (22 percent) or taking phone calls from work (22 percent).

Employers in the CareerBuilder survey blame nicer weather, vacation-fever and kids being out of school for lower productivity, but nearly half (45 percent) of the employers say burnout is a problem. They may want to check out some of the tips we included in our recent HREOnline™ story, “Reversing Burnout.”

Your Workers May Be in Worse Shape than You Think

HR and benefits professionals might be surprised to find out — if they asked — just how on the edge financially their employees are … and how many of them in these dire straits there really are. They also might raise an eyebrow or two to learn how many on-the-edge workers actually don’t think a debilitating or catastrophic event could impact them or their family.

Such was the warning from Audrey Tillman, executive vice president of corporate services at the Columbus, Ga.-based supplemental and guaranteed-renewable insurance provider, in an interview Monday. She was referring to the results of a study released earlier this month, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Aflac.

The 2011 Aflac WorkForces Report shows 51 percent of American workers say they are not very, or not at all, prepared to pay for out-of-pocket expenses not covered by major-medical insurance. What’s more, six out of 10 workers do not have a financial plan in place to deal with an unexpected and costly life event, such as a medical emergency. And 31 percent have less than $500 in savings for emergency expenses.

“Remember, these are people who are working!” Tillman says. “These are the people one would assume have some sort of financial stability. We found these statistics startling.”

The study also finds that only 19 percent of employees think it’s likely that they or a family member will ever be diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, and only 13 percent say they think a serious illness, such as cancer, will ever occur or that there will be a need for long-term care.

Yet, according to the National Safety Council, more than 25 million people in the United States suffered accident-related disabling injuries in 2008 and the American Heart Association reports nearly one in three deaths in 2006 was caused by a form of cardiovascular disease. “So, clearly, these things are happening,” says Tillman.

Worse still, “about half of the workers we surveyed said they’re already struggling with financial stress, and again, remember, these are the people who are working,” she says. “These surveyed employees are real people in the workforce.”

When asked how they would pay for out-of-pocket expenses due to an unexpected illness, 44 percent said they would have to borrow from family or friends, tap retirement savings or use a credit card.

And, for the clincher, 19 percent — one out of five people — have no idea how they would cover the costs.

Aflac products and services aside, says Tillman, this should sound a reverberating wake-up call to employers to take a fresh account of the benefits they’re providing and, in this economy, with so many Americans living on the edge, “make sure the benefits they are providing really make a difference and are really providing that safety net” so desperately needed right now.

“What this says to me as an HR executive is that it’s time many of us survey our employees to find out where the real needs are,” she says. “We should be taking a new look with a critical eye, through our own research and workforce analysis, to become fully aware of what really impacts people.”

Supplemental insurance, for instance, which could mean the difference between financial ruin and recovery in the event of a catastrophe, and which a significant number of employers still don’t offer, “may have to be added in place of something else that may not seem so critical in this economy,” says Tillman.

“The pressure has been on HR to hold the line and cut back on costs,” she says. “This may not feel to an HR executive like a good time to revolutionize the system.”

But workers whose employers provide for them when catastrophe strikes, she adds, will not only stay on as productive workers in the long run, “they’ll become champions for that company.”


Most Read Stories on HREOnline last week

See what you may have missed:

* Checking in With the Next Generation

Peter Cappelli ‘s latest Talent Management column looks at Wharton’s annual mid-term exam, which explores students’ view of their last job and the way they were managed. In most cases, management was lacking. Feedback was limited or nonexistent, and bonuses — instead of resulting in engagement and motivation — often prompted these high-potential candidates to quit or slack off. 

* Time to Re-Engage

Top businesses for HR practices — according to an exclusive recalibration of Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” list — are taking employee engagement very seriously in this economy. (A PDF of the Top 50 Companies is here.)

E-Learning Still Trending Up

Companies continue to adopt technology-based training for employees as expenditures in training and development decreased overall last year. At the same time, the expenditure per employee actually remained stable, because the workforce was smaller.

 * Pinpointing Leadership Qualities

Social networking is changing the way HR leaders think of legal risks and recruiting opportunities, writes Susan R. Meisinger in her latest HR Leadership column. It also should make them think about the way they select high-potential candidates for leadership-development programs.

* Talking up Flexibility

Work/life balance is drawing more attention from the White House and other policymakers as research continues to show that the issue has an impact on the decisions of working families. A recent conference brought together representatives from the administration, military, academia and corporate America to attempt to drive the discussion onward.

Jump in Job-Security Fears Impacting Holiday Stress

Some 68 percent of employees report having high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and out-of-control feelings, according to the latest StressPulse survey by Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., a leading global employee-assistance provider. That represents a jump from 65 percent in 2009.

Although a much lower percentage, the biggest jump in the survey of employees from more than 1,000 ComPsych client companies, 20 percent, cite lack of job security as their primary cause of stress, up from 10 percent in 2009. The survey was conducted from Oct. 15 to Nov. 12.

“As the holiday shopping season begins [on Friday, officially], employees are trying to balance the urge to spend with the worry that they will retain their job,” says Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych.

“We increasingly get calls from employees who are struggling to manage their daily expenses,” he says. “On top of that, they are now faced with gift-giving costs.”

His company and other EAP providers now provide financial coaching along with psycholgical counseling, Chaifetz says. Not only should employers be on the lookout for signs of acute anxiety and changes in behavior, but they should also be reminding all workers that their EAPs are there, especially in this season, to “help individuals set and stick to a budget, as well as get counsiling to keep stress levels in check,” he says.

The next highest jumps in the survey were employees who say they lose more than an hour a day due to personal tasks, from 10 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2010 (trying to fend off creditors, perhaps?) and those who say they come to work one to four days per year when they’re too stressed to be effective, from 58 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in 2010.

Granted, none of this is all that surprising in this economy, but just in case you were wondering how worried employees appear to be heading into December — and about what, primarily — I thought I’d share.