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Wellness Programs Take Aim At Workplace Stress

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Stress has long been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and a number of mental health problems.

And a recent poll finds that a substantial number of working adults say stress is a critical health issue they face at work. The poll was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

So what are employers doing about it? Fifty-one percent of the people in our poll said their workplace has a formal wellness or health improvement program.

Such plans might include weight management, diet and nutrition, exercise, gym discounts, quit-smoking programs, assistance with alcohol or drug rehabilitation or disease-management programs for diseases like asthma or diabetes.

Many programs also focus on stress reduction.

The downside? Less than half the people polled — 40 percent — say they participate in the programs offered by their workplace.

Still, these programs can go a long way toward creating an environment that promotes health and reduces stress — thereby helping a company's bottom line.

"There's a recognition that the cost of burnout — either in the form of lower productivity or, in extreme cases, the loss of employees — is more costly" than taking steps to reduce stress, says Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, a staffing firm.

Those stress-curbing steps can include things like planning ahead and hiring temporary workers to fill in the gaps when regular employees take time off for stress-relieving exercise or vacation, she says.

Wellness programs can help, too. They're often aimed at improving specific health factors and offer ways to help employees lose weight, exercise more, improve diet and even diminish back pain. This may include employing people who can do back exams in the workplace and even offer physical therapy or financial advice.

Dr. Tim Church, a preventive medicine specialist and chief medical officer at ACAP Health Consulting, helps companies set up wellness programs. Most companies he deals with are concerned about health costs and see wellness as a relatively easy fix.

"Health care costs to a company are now a major issue, whereas it used to be an afterthought," he says. "As health care costs continue to skyrocket, it's the American employers who are taking the brunt of these costs."

Employers are now including meditation and yoga classes in wellness programs to reduce stress, he says. They're also trying "water challenges" to get employees to drink more water. Some companies even bring in a massage therapist every week or so, according to Church.

Beyond formal wellness programs, companies should also pay attention to stress-inducing conditions like workloads and paid time off, says John Quelch, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

"The sheer overload that comes from downsizing and outsourcing and asking someone to do two jobs, when previously they had to do one" is something companies must consider if they're interested in reducing worker stress, Quelch told a forumon the workplace and health, held last week at the Harvard Chan School.

Among people in NPR's survey who work 50-plus hours a week, 49 percent said their workload made it too hard to take a vacation. And 42 percent said they don't take all the paid vacation they earn because there wouldn't be enough people to cover their work if they did.

Not taking all your vacation leave is an unfortunate mistake, says psychologist Matthew J. Grawitch of Saint Louis University, who studies stress in the workplace.

"When workers come back from vacation they have more energy, they tend to be more replenished and feel more engaged in their work," Grawitch says.

Companies have to make changes that actively encourage employees to take their vacation, he says, and to take advantage of wellness programs.

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Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.