Feeling a little stressed out? You're not alone. But don't fret: More and more companies are finding ways to help employees cope with presures at work.
Ruth Flott, a vendor relations representative for Home Depot (HD) in Atlanta, hated coming to work. Every day for four long years, it was the same thing: take calls from irate suppliers, have lunch, take more calls, go home. "I felt cooped up and depressed," she says.
Flott, 45 years old, spent many nights tossing and turning. Still, she couldn't bring herself to complain to her boss. If he knew how stressed out she was, she figured he'd think she couldn't handle the job. "I didn't want him to think I was crazy."
Then, in 1998, she started getting a sharp pain every time a vendor yelled at her, usually about unpaid bills. The pain would start at the base of her neck and shoot up to her ears. "It felt like someone was grabbing hold of my neck muscles and then squeezing them really hard until it was all knotted up," Flott says.
Mustering the courage, she walked into her boss's office to request some relief from the constant flow of calls. Initially, her supervisor recommended that Flott simply take additional breaks. Then when he saw her holding her head in pain a couple of days later, he made additional suggestions: She should enroll in a company-sponsored stress class and work out in the company gym.
Fine, said Flott, but what about the nagging calls? Her boss agreed to take her off the phones for two months to do some cross-training in other departments. "It was an opportunity to learn about areas like merchandising," Flott says. "And, of course, it was a nice break from the phones."
Flott is back working with vendors, but she no longer lets them get to her: "I learned in stress class not to sweat the small stuff." Though she still gets screamed at from time to time, the pain in her neck is gone. "If they start yelling, I tell them that I cannot help them if they're going to continue to yell."
These days companies such as Home Depot are taking stress more seriously. The reason: It's costing them money. According to the American Institute of Stress, U.S. companies lose $300 billion annually due to absenteeism, turnover, poor morale and lost productivity — plus medical, legal and insurance fees — related to job stress.
"Companies used to sweep stress under the carpet," says Tim O'Brien, director of the Institute for Stress Management in Tallahassee, Fla. "They've finally gotten to the point where they're making the correlation between stress and productivity. They also know that it's more cost-effective to keep someone happy than to recruit and train someone new."
Stress-management classes. Sabbaticals. Weekly massages. Companies are using a variety of methods to help employees cope. According to consulting firm Hewitt Associates, more than 40% offer some kind of stress-relief program.
In some cases, employers are getting inventive. Storr Office Environments, a furniture dealer in Raleigh, N.C., is using intervention — divine intervention, that is. It hired a chaplain to come in twice a week to lend a supportive ear to its 175 employees. "Having the chaplain around is one of the best things we've done," says Chief Executive Tom Vande Guchte. "He's helped us keep the stress level down and keep people happy."
For some people, there's no better de-stresser than shopping. That's why Bill Harris, partner of Strategy Associates, a Foster City, Calif., PR firm, recently gave all 35 employees a gift certificate to Nordstrom — from $50 for interns to $500 for managers. "Everyone liked that one," Harris says. "It's an extremely intense industry, and shopping helps."
At Young & Laramore, an ad agency in Indianapolis, the employee deemed to be most stressed out each week gets a half-hour massage. "Every week at least one person nominates our production manager," quips CEO Paul Knapp, adding in half-jest: "Maybe we need to pay attention to that."
Even when companies have stress-relief programs in place, employees don't always take advantage. "People might be afraid that their boss will hold it against them if they want to take some time off to regroup," says Ruth Gordon Howard, a Charlotte, N.C., consultant. So how do you ask for help without letting on just how much the pressure is getting to you? By not telling too much, says Howard. "Err on the side of caution. Don't go in there and share your life history or you will, in fact, be stigmatized."
Being diplomatic helps too. "No matter what the cause, you never want to go on the attack; you never want to bring to light your inadequacies or anyone else's," says Brian Luke Seaward, executive director of Boulder, Colo., consultancy Inspiration Unlimited. Rather, simply say that you're "overloaded."
If your company doesn't already have a stress program in place, be ready with a solution. "I know of a D.C. firm that built a meditation room because employees said that they just wanted a place where they could sit and do nothing," says Seaward.
Not interested in meditation? "Suggest a lateral move within the company," Seaward says. Or change aspects of your schedule so you don't feel so harried. Ask for flextime or for the freedom to work from home certain days. If you can show the move will benefit the company as well, you're more likely to get approval. Says Seaward: "Bosses really like to hear the word productive."