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Anita Bruzzese column: Worker stress, health a concern for employers

6:02 PM, Dec. 1, 2013  |  Comments
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Stress can mean different things to different people, but the American worker clearly has plenty.

Consider:

? Interruptions ruin our day: A survey by AtTask finds that 37 percent of workers say interruptions lead to "work hell."

? We work too much: Some 57 percent of workers put in more than 40 hours a week while 8 percent work more than 60 hours a week, the AtTask survey finds.

? Financial worries abound: "High" or "overwhelming" is how 19 percent of those surveyed by Financial Finesse describe their financial stress in the third quarter of this year, compared with 13 percent for the same time last year. Forty-three percent worry how the U.S. economy and the stock market will affect their financial future.

? We don't take enough downtime: A recent Expedia survey finds that while the average American worker gets 14 days of vacation time a year, they take only 10. That's two more unused vacation days than the previous year, Expedia reports.

"No one retires wishing they'd spent more time at their desk," says John Morrey, vice president and general manager of Expedia. "There are countless reasons that vacation days go unused - failure to plan, worry, forgetfulness, you name it."

Companies are beginning to become concerned with the workers who don't take better care of themselves. Stress increases health risks, unhealthy workers are less productive and engaged, and they drive up health-care costs, experts say.

Many workers know they need to take better care of themselves but find it difficult to start living healthier or maintaining healthy habits.

That's why more employers are encouraging healthier behavior. Workers aren't taking the necessary steps.

That can mean employers take the "carrot" approach and provide cash incentives for employees achieving certain health goals. Or, employers may adopt a "stick" approach, punishing workers with higher insurance deductibles if they are overweight or smoke.

Other employers are looking for ways to encourage not just employees to become healthier but also their workers' families and network of friends. Wellness experts say an employee can become healthier more easily if his family also eats the right food or friends agree to exercise, too.

One program that takes this social approach to health is Keas, an employer health and engagement company.

Josh Stevens, Keas chief executive, says that his company offers a Facebook-like program that allows workers, their friends and families to communicate online about their exercise and diet. He contends that this socialization is key to driving good health since most workers already are operating under information overload and don't want to be inundated with health information from their employer.

But if a friend or family member talks about a fun way to exercise or brags about losing weight by eating healthier, that can help spur the employee into also adopting better habits, he says.

Many workplaces don't like workers using Facebook on the job, but the truth is that many employees rely on this connection to help them relieve the stress of their day. So, taking a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach, he says employers can let workers enjoy the social aspect of online connections and learn ways to become healthier.

Workers are aware that they need to be healthier, and may be looking for the approach that works for them, Stevens says. His company's recent survey found that 86 percent of those surveyed believe that exercise boosts happiness.

As more employers understand that healthier employees help drive bottom-line results, Stevens believes that more help will become available for workers who want to reduce stress and become healthier.

"In the past, employers looked at (wellness programs) as a sort of 'me too' program" and something they offered because the competition offered it, he says. "Now they see it as a strategic benefit."

What's your take on the Packers Family Night change?

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