Why Employers Should Add Stress Management to Workplace Wellness Programs

By: Caryn S. Tijsseling, Esq

“Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. It means it’s time for a promotion.” — The Devil Wears Prada (2006).

One of the most toxic and infamous work environments in cultural history is at the fictional Runway Magazine.  In the 2006 comedy the Devil Wears Prada recent college graduate Andy lands her dream job working for the infamous fashion icon, Miranda Priestley, at Runway Magazine.  During her time as Miranda Priestley’s assistant, Andy is exposed to extremely long hours, unclear job duties, unrealistic expectations, unhealthy bullying and fierce competition from her co-workers, lack of clear communication from her boss and co-workers, and a toxic corporate culture.  Andy ultimately excels at her job at the expense of her personal relationships and autonomy.

While Runway Magazine is an extreme (and fictional) example of workplace stress, it is illustrative of the types of stressors that American workers face at their jobs.  Workplace stress is one of the most common problems employees and employers face today.  According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS) 40% of employees consider their jobs “extremely stressful”.  Twenty-five percent of employees consider the workplace their biggest stressor.  According to the World Health Organization, workers who are stressed are more likely to be unhealthy, unmotivated, less productive and less safe in the workplace.

Workplace stress also impacts employers.  Employer costs associated with workplace stress can be exorbitant.  It has been estimated that mental health disorders cost U.S. employers $317.5 billion annually.  Most of these costs do not come from the treatment of the condition but from indirect costs such as worker’s compensation claims, short-term and long-term disability, presenteeism, and absenteeism.  While these costs would shock even Miranda Priestley, it seems most employers are not taking steps to reduce stress in the workplace.  In fact, it is estimated that only 15 percent of employers identify improving the emotional and/or mental health of their employees as a priority of their health programs.

Workplace stress can arise in two different ways, from “work content” and “work context”.  Work content includes job content (such as monotony, under-stimulation, meaningless tasks), workload, work pace, and work hours.  Workplace stress is also increased when workers perceive a lack of participation in decision-making, lack of control over work processes and adverse conditions in the work environment.  Work context on the other hand, includes career development, status and pay, the worker’s role in the organization, interpersonal relationships, organizational culture, and work-life balance.

One-way employers may be able to mitigate workplace stress in both work content and work context is by including stress management and reduction as part of their overall Wellness Programs.  Workplace stress can be addressed through wellness initiatives aimed at the helping the individual.  Individual approaches to stress management may include counseling through an employee assistance program (EAP) and offering stress reduction programs such as physical activity, meditation, or yoga.  Individual approaches can also include screening for stress or substance misuse; and training efforts to improve manager and relations including enhanced skills in problem solving, effective communication and conflict resolution.

A second way employers can mitigate workplace stress is through an organizational approach aimed to create a healthy work environment and culture.  This involves addressing organizational factors that lead to job stress such as long working hours and workplace culture.  Effective workplace wellness programs will work to develop managers who support their employees, maximize employee autonomy, promote engagement in the value of employees’ work and emphasize how that work aligns with the organization’s mission.  These programs will also address the work environment, including flexible hours and monitoring environmental risks to mood.

The fictional Runway Magazine would have benefited from a stress management workplace wellness program.  Unfortunately for Andy, the only form of wellness she received was a pair of Jimmy Choos and some left over accessories.  Including stress management and reduction initiatives and programs may not have helped Runway in the long run, but it may benefit many employers by avoiding unnecessary expenses and claims, while improving the wellbeing of their employees.

As with all Workplace Wellness Programs, those that incorporate stress management and reduction initiatives should be reviewed by legal counsel to ensure the delivery of services under such a program is safe, effective, and compliant with federal and state laws and regulations.

Caryn S. Tijsseling, Esq., is an attorney with Lemons, Grundy & Eisenberg whose practice encompasses a diverse field of law. Caryn is a certified Nutrition and Sleep, Stress Management and Recovery coach, and authors an article each month for the Washoe County Bar Association newsletter, The Writ, focusing on attorney well-being.