Category Archives: workplace stress

Student Debt Still a Plague

Here’s some more fuel on the financial-stress fire, particularly as it affects employees straddling student debt: A new survey by American Student Assistance finds more than half of all young workers worry about repaying student loans either all the time or often.

Here are some key — translated alarming — findings of the Young Workers and Student Debt survey, which polled 502 young workers (ages 22 to 33) as well as 451 human resource managers at companies with at least 100 employees:

  • 40 percent report that worrying about their student loans has impacted their health,
  • 55 percent would like to go to grad school but couldn’t take on any additional student loans,
  • 61 percent have considered getting a second job to help pay off their student loans,
  • 63 percent of young workers report that they don’t have anyone to turn to for help with regard to paying off their student loans,
  • 75 percent of HR professionals report that their company does not offer any guidance or assistance regarding student loans, and
  • 54 percent of young workers report that, right now, paying off student loans comes first, and they will put off saving for retirement until later.

Seriously folks, how did this burden on this nation’s young workers get this bad? And why aren’t we doing a better job of triage here?

Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman at Boston-based ASA, says the stress these workers experience over student debt “clearly impacts their health and productivity in the workplace.”

In this editorial I wrote in November of last year, I cite a study by EdAssist in which 72 percent of all people with student debt say it impacts their daily lives, forcing them to give up on dream jobs and further education. That study also finds nearly half (49 percent) of these people saying they’re so stressed, they’d prefer help with school debt over budgeting, credit-card debt and even retirement.

Indeed, the ASA survey shows more than 90 percent of young workers would take advantage of a sign-on bonus or a company match targeted at paying back these mountainous burdens. So why do a whopping 75 percent of HR professionals say their companies offer no help or guidance?

Granted, some companies are treading into this muck and mire to try and clean some of it up. We blogged on this site about PricewaterhouseCooper’s commitment to pay up to $1,200 a year toward employees’ student loans for up to six years. And we blogged about Natixis Global Asset Management’s pledge to contribute up to $10,000 to every full-time employee who has been at the company for at least five years and has outstanding Federal Stafford or Perkins Loans. But that was 2015. And we’re still not hearing about any massive debt-help-bandwagon jumping.

Let’s hope a bipartisan bill introduced Feb. 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Employer Participation in Student Loan Assistance Act does better this time around than when it was introduced in October 2015 as H.R. 3861. The proposed law would shield employers’ student-loan-repayment benefits from federal taxes, thereby opening the door to many more than just a few willing to help their employees pay down their school debt. Why didn’t this garner more support two years ago? This needs to pass.

Meanwhile, this November feature by Larry Stevens, which I mention in my editorial, cites a new approach some employers are taking for all their financially stressed employees: paying them pre-paycheck for the income they’ve already worked for — in other words, the hours they’ve already accrued. As Ijaz Anwar, the co-founder and chief operating officer of one of the suppliers behind this approach, San Jose, Calif.-based PayActiv, told me:

“Why can’t you just give people [living paycheck to paycheck] what they have earned, what is rightfully their, when they so desperately need it [and when it can mean] dignity for these struggling people who can’t even qualify for a credit card?”

But, sadly, there again, there’s no flood of employers taking this approach. Not sure why, when the benefits include better health and productivity for employees, and there don’t appear to be any negatives.

The Toll of Talking Politics

It’s fair to say that this very unique presidential race has engendered plenty of, let’s say, spirited conversation.

Even if you abstain from political chatter at the office, you’ve probably heard at least one co-worker offering an in-depth analysis of the candidates and the issues shaping the 2016 election season.

And, as we enter the homestretch, employees are growing weary of such talk, and months of discussing politics—and hearing others discuss politics—is starting to take a toll on the workforce.

So says new research from the Washington-based American Psychological Association. The organization’s Politics in the Workplace: 2016 Election Season survey recently polled 927 employed American adults, and finds workers feeling stressed (17 percent), more cynical and negative on the job (15 percent) and less productive (13 percent) in the midst of political chit-chat.

Overall, 27 percent of workers reported at least one negative outcome stemming from political banter. Younger employees (age 18 to 34) are feeling the most ruffled, with more than one in four saying they’ve experienced added stress due to political talk in the workplace. In addition, more than twice as many men said election-related conversations are making it more difficult for them to get work done.

The especially vitriolic tone of this year’s race isn’t helping, either. Overall, 47 percent of employees said individuals are more likely to talk politics in the workplace this election season than in the past. On the bright side, though, a majority of respondents (60 percent) said co-workers are generally respectful toward those with differing political views.

That said, more than a quarter (26 percent) have seen or heard colleagues arguing over politics, with 11 percent of employees admitting they’ve entered the fray themselves at some point. Twenty percent of respondents, meanwhile, say they’ve taken to avoiding certain co-workers because of their political views.

“The workplace brings people together from different backgrounds who might not ordinarily interact with each other,” says David W. Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, in a statement.

“When you add politics to the mix—a deeply personal and emotional topic for many—there is potential for tension, conflict and problems for both employees and the organization.”

Indeed. And there might not be much that our major political parties agree on at the moment, but employees from both sides of the aisle seem to acknowledge that election fatigue has set in.

“Regardless of political identification, the heated discussions and divisive rhetoric this election season have the potential to take a toll on people’s well-being and even affect their job performance,” says Ballard.

“While employers may not be able to limit political discussions in the workplace, they can take steps to ensure those conversations take place in a civil, respectful environment. A psychologically healthy workplace is particularly critical during challenging and polarizing times, and these survey results highlight the fact that, despite conventional wisdom, people are often more alike than they are different.”

Transforming the Workplace

I just came across this interesting piece on Forbes’ site about the different ways organizations are transforming the way business gets done in the modern workplace.

From office furniture with built-in tracking devices to measure users’ activity rates to desks that don’t stay put themselves, the experiments are indeed pushing the envelope of what’s to be expected in the workplace:

“There have also been some interesting approaches to encourage work/life balance among employees, with a Dutch startup called Heldergroen installing desks that literally get pulled up into the ceiling at 5:30 p.m. to force employees to go home.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Greek designers NL Studio developed a desk that converts into a bed. While the aim is to perhaps encourage ‘power naps,’ it could also facilitate all-nighters at the office.”

The piece goes on to explore the merits of “encourag[ing] external people to come onto company premises,” which include:

1. They allow employees to rub shoulders with interesting people they might not ordinarily meet.

2. They allow HR folks to keep a much closer eye on potential talent to bring on board.

3. They allow those in the merger and acquisition team to keep tabs on interesting startups and spin-outs in their industry.

It’s an interesting, forward-looking piece and you can read the full story here.

Wait … Work Is Good for Your Health?

A compre200400993-001hensive survey of American workers this week offered some predictable findings about health and employment. But there are some happy surprises as well.

Perhaps most interesting was a finding that 28 percent of workers said their job was good for their overall health. That’s considerably more than the 16 percent who said it was bad.  (The rest, a slight majority, said their job had no effect on their overall health.)

Why the upbeat view? Researchers didn’t ask, and declined to share any thoughts about what respondents meant. But we can find some clues on our own by looking at this poll and other research. And those clues offer some encouragement for HR professionals.

How does your job affect your _____?
Good impact Bad impact No impact
Overall health 28% 16% 54%
Eating habits 15% 28% 56%
Stress level 16% 43% 39%
Sleeping habits 17% 27% 55%
Weight 19% 22% 57%
Social life 27% 17% 56%
Family life 32% 17% 50%
Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Make no mistake, there are plenty of concerns raised by this survey, which was performed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in conjunction with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Researchers polled 1,601 working Americans across a range of ages, ethnicities, income levels and industries. The margin of error for the full sample was 2.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

NPR stories about the survey this week have highlighted how workers with disabilities often struggle at work, how lack of sick leave can drive some families into financial crisis and why so many employees go to work while sick.

Among other troubling — if unsurprising — findings was that 43 percent of respondents said work added stress to their lives. A news release from the university quoted poll director Robert J. Blendon concluding that “The takeaway here is that job number one for U.S. employers is to reduce stress in the workplace.”

But what might workers be thinking when they say their job is good for their health?

One obvious point is that having a job means having an income and (often) having insurance. That’s definitely good for your health. But I wonder if many respondents were really thinking at that level of abstraction.

There’s also research suggesting that, in fact, work is good for your health. One frequently-cited research overview conducted in the United Kingdom concluded that meaningful, safe work generally offers physical and mental-health benefits. Being active and having a purpose is good for us.

But were many respondents thinking about arcane findings in the field of occupational health?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is in the new poll itself — findings that suggest wellness programs really matter. More than half of respondents said their company had a formal wellness program.

Even more significant: Of those workers, a whopping 45 percent said that program was “very important” to their health. Nearly as many said it was “somewhat important.”

Wellness programs don’t offer any clues about some other surprising findings in this poll, alas. Respondents also apparently think work is good for their social life and (even more mysteriously) their family life. Let’s hope researchers some day will drill deeper to find out what’s really going on here.

Are Long Hours Making Workers Sick?

ThinkstockPhotos-179039030In some parts of the world, workaholism is beginning to look uncool. Some companies in South Korea are literally turning off the lights to get people out of the office at a reasonable hour. Desks in a Dutch design studio automatically retract into the ceiling at 6 p.m. Researchers in Sweden report increased worker productivity with an experimental six-hour day.

What’s happening in the U.S.? Long workdays remain as popular — or necessary — as ever. And now some new research suggests there are long-term consequences that employers, as well as workers, need to understand.

A study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University and the Mayo Clinic finds people who routinely work long hours have sharply higher risks of chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease later in life. And the risks are especially severe for women.

Workers at the beginning of their careers may be happy to invest in long work-weeks, and employers benefit, notes lead author Allard Dembe, a professor of public health at Ohio State. But “you may be setting the stage for a physical breakdown later in life,” he says.

Other studies have found long hours at work can lead to stress, fatigue, reduced work performance and safety issues. But until now few researchers had looked at long-term health effects. Dembe and Xiaoxi Yao, now a research associate at the Mayo Clinic, found a way by analyzing a database that tracked both the work hours and self-reported health information of more than 12,000 people nationally from 1979 to 2011. Only full-time work was counted.

The results, published online last month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, were particularly stunning for women: Those who averaged 60-plus-hour weeks over those 32 years were at least three times as likely to report heart disease, cancer, arthritis or diabetes. That’s compared to those who had average workweeks of 30 to 40 hours.

Men in the study showed smaller increased risk. The largest effect in men was with arthritis, which was more than twice as likely for those working 60 hours or more, compared to standard full-time hours.

Earlier research had suggested that women might see more long-term health effects, but the size of the disparity was surprising, Dembe says: “I didn’t expect the gender effect to be so, so striking … it was just day and night.”

Researchers can only speculate as to why, but Dembe thinks the most plausible explanation is that most women have greater responsibilities at home than men. “A lot of things are going on here,” he says. But one is the “multiple roles that women play in society, compared to men,” he says. “Women don’t have the time.”

What can employers do? Working long hours is “part of American culture,” Dembe says, and curbing workaholism isn’t easy. But companies can make employees aware of the consequences of long hours — and start health screening programs early, he says. Existing wellness and chronic-disease-management programs can be part of the effort .

“Talk about the issue when people are younger,” Dembe says. For employers, “this study suggests you really should think about it.”

It’s Take Your Dog to Work Day!

Today marks the 18th annual celebration of Take Your Dog To Work Day and, fittingly enough, a new survey sheds (pun clearly intended) some light on the topic to show the benefits reaped by organizations that allow their workers to bring their four-footed friends into the workplace.

Of course, it may seem like a shaggy-dog story to some skeptics (I’m looking at you, cat owners) that bringing your dog to work actually does produce positive workplace effects. But according to this research from Randolph Barker (no joke!), a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University:

“Dogs in the workplace can make a positive difference,” he said. “The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present [at an office participating in a study] and absent were significant. The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms.”

From the looks of a recent poll, organizations are (slowly) warming to the idea of pet-friendly workplaces: A 2015 Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 8 percent of American workplaces allow employees to bring their furry friends to work, up from 5 percent in 2013.

(And while it may be too late this year, here’s a link to obtain a toolkit to help you set up the event for next year.)

 

Reliably Irrational or Occasionally Unfair?

Being consistent as a boss—even if that means being consistently awful—counts for something with employees.

That seems to be the big message to emerge from recent Michigan State University research.

Published online in February by the Academy of Management Journal, the study determined that employees who see their supervisors as being reliably unfair are happier in their jobs and feel less work-related anxiety than those who view their bosses as unpredictable.

Actually, the team—led by MSU doctoral student Fadel Matta—performed a pair of studies on the way to reaching that conclusion, according to the Washington Post.

In a lab experiment, college students had to estimate a hypothetical company’s stock price, using information about its performance. These participants were told that their peers would be sitting in another room and acting as their supervisors, but they were “actually receiving feedback on the task from the researchers,” the Post reports.

The study authors divided the students—all of whom were having their heart rates monitored in order to gauge their stress levels throughout the experiment—into three groups. Students in one group received input from “supervisors”  such as “thanks for your effort during the last round” or “it’s great to work with a motivated person,” according to the Post. A second group was on the end of a steady stream of negative comments like “it sucks to work with an unmotivated person,” while the third cohort heard mixed messages from their would-be bosses.

Those routinely hearing words of thanks and encouragement demonstrated the least stress. Those who were peppered with put-downs, however, actually fared better than students whose bosses’ feedback wavered between nasty and nice.

In a second study, approximately 100 workers filled out daily surveys throughout a three-week span, answering questions regarding their perceptions of fairness. Participants’ supervisors were polled at the study’s start, in an effort to “measure their capability for self-control,” the Post notes. As was the case in the first experiment, employees with erratic managers experienced greater stress, job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion compared to those who felt they regularly received the short end of the stick from the boss.

These results may stem, in large part, from “this issue of uncertainty,” Matta recently told the Post. “This notion of knowing what to expect—even if it’s bad—is better than not knowing what to expect at work.”

In the Post piece, Matta advises that employers coach wild-card bosses on how to brace workers for bad news that could be coming, as a way to (hopefully) quell employees’ insecurities.

“Sometimes you have to be unfair. There’s only so many resources you can distribute, for instance,” Matta told the paper. “But if you say ‘tomorrow this is going to be happening’—then all of a sudden people aren’t coming in not knowing what to expect. At least that uncertainty is mitigated.”

A Case for Sleeping on the Job

Workplace nap rooms continue to be extremely rare. Indeed, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s just released 2015 Employee Benefits study, about 2 percent of employers report having nap rooms. (And that seems high to me.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea doesn’t have merit, right?

ThinkstockPhotos-483838351Admittedly, nap rooms are never going to gain significant traction in the workplace. Probably not in my lifetime, anyway. Most companies simply aren’t going to buy into the concept. But recent research coming out of the University of Michigan and posted on the online version of the journal Personality and Individual Differences—titled “Napping to Modulate Frustration and Impulsivity: A Pilot Study”could, at the very least, open the eyes of a handful of HR professionals.

Researchers at U-M recently found that napping can be a “cost-effective and easy strategy” that can boost employee productivity and workplace safety.

To arrive at its findings, the study’s authorsJennifer Goldschmied (lead author), Philip Cheng, Kathryn Kemp, Lauren Caccamo, Julia Roberts and Patricia Deldinrecruited 40 individuals, ages 18 to 50, to take part in the research. In a laboratory, the participantswho maintained a consistent sleep schedule for three days leading up to the testcompleted tasks on computers and answered questions about sleepiness, mood and impulsivity.

All were randomly assigned to a 60-minute nap opportunity or no-nap period that involved watching a nature video. Research assistants monitored the participants, who later completed the questionnaires and tasks again.

The researchers found …

“Those who napped spent more time trying to solve a task than the non-nappers who were less willing to endure frustration in order to complete it. In addition, nappers reported feeling less impulsive.

Combined with previous research demonstrating the negative effects of sleep deprivation, results from this latest study indicate that staying awake for an extended period of time hinders people from controlling negative emotional responses … .”

Commenting on the findings, Goldschmied, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, said …

“Our results suggest that napping may be a beneficial intervention for individuals who may be required to remain awake for long periods of time by enhancing the ability to persevere through difficult or frustrating tasks.”

None of this, of course, comes as a huge surprise. I’m sure we all feel a whole lot more functional after a nice nap. Right? But despite this fact, the U-M study and other research that has arrived at similar conclusionsI’ll stick with my earlier prediction that nap rooms and nap times, as a practice, aren’t going to see the light of day anytime soon.

Best and Worst States for Working Moms

To kick off Mother’s Day week (Wait, is my mom the only one who raised her kids believe the holiday was actually an entire week-long celebration?) WalletHub has just released its findings on the best and worst states for working moms.

They analyzed the attractiveness of each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia to a working mother by examining three key dimensions: Child care, Employment opportunities and work/life balance. Data from 12 key metrics — such as median women’s salary, female unemployment rate and daycare-quality rankings — helped determine the list.

According to the rankings, Vermont took the top spot, followed by: Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Washington, North Dakota, Maine, Virginia and Ohio.

Meanwhile, Louisiana took the bottom spot in the rankings, preceded by: South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Other key stats include:

  • Day care quality is five times better in New York than in Idaho.
  • Child care costs (adjusted for the median woman’s salary) are two times higher in the District of Columbia than in Tennessee.
  • Pediatric services are 12 times more accessible in Vermont than in New Mexico.
  • The ratio of female to male executives is three times higher in Alabama than in Utah.
  • The percentage of single-mom families in poverty is two times higher in Mississippi than in Alaska.
  • The median women’s salary (adjusted for cost of living) is two times higher in Virginia than in Hawaii.
  • The female unemployment rate is four times higher in Nevada than in North Dakota.

In an a Q&A accompanying the findings, Zachary Schaefer, assistant professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, says it’s actually getting both easier and more difficult for women to find the right work life balance because they are being put in a “double bind”:

As the number of organizations that offer “work-life” policies continues to increase, the expectations of women to be able to gracefully balance both spheres of their life will also increase. This is an unfair double bind where women are now supposed to be able to raise a family, head the household, and establish a successful career all because organizations now offer telework, more paid time off and flexible work schedules. Men are not faced with this.

So if you’re an HR professional working in an organization in one of the bottom-10 states for working moms, maybe it’s time to start thinking about what you and your organization can do to raise your state’s score.

After all, that’s an effort I’m fairly sure your own mother would be proud of.

To view the full WalletHub results, click here.

Making Workplace Meditation Work

Mindfulness appears to be alive and well in Fort Collins, Colo. Or at the Fort Collins Housing Authority anyway.

139980668-- meditationJust before the holidays, I came across this release about the FCHA completing a month-long mindfulness program for its staff.  Seems the organization’s top leaders took its annual wellness survey seriously when a common complaint came back suggesting improvements in work/life balance and health and general well-being were needed.

In the words of FCHA Chief Executive Officer Julie Brewen: “We are committed to implementing new programs for the health and well-being of our staff.”

In an industry that deals with tough issues such as poverty, homelessness and families in crisis, she says, the program was a step in the right direction. The program consisted of daily, hour-long sessions during work hours that blended presentations, group discussion and meditation practice.

The results? According to Brewen, lowered stress and depression, and an increase in work/life balance.

What’s even more impressive is what she shared with me just recently, that her organization’s commitment to this lives on, with additional mindfulness training planned for this year, and some added questionnaires and wellness-survey questions designed to keep a close eye on the workplace well-being meter.

“Many of the participants [intend] to continue [their] meditation and mindfulness exercises” into the rest of 2015, she says.

Of course, putting this kind of program together takes a huge and collective commitment to the idea and the practice. It needs to come from the top and be ingrained into the culture, as this column a year ago (to the month) by our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett, suggests.

Her column also suggests the concept could use some booster shots in the business community. “In my experience,” she writes, “most employers pay scant attention to stress and defer to employee-assistance programs as check-the-box solutions — despite poor utilization of this service.”

So what’s it going to take for the Fort Collins approach to become the approach of most? Perhaps when employers start acknowledging they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, even as it relates to your brand and reputation. As Harnett writes:

” … mind-body curriculums will please a growing portion of your employee population and improve your workers’ perceptions of the workplace culture. And that may be an employer’s greatest consideration of all.”