There has been a "staggering" increase in the number of calls made to its employee assistance programs over the past four years, says an executive with a company that provides such programs to employers.
Stephen Liptrap, executive vice-president of Toronto-based Shepell-FGI and general manager of Morneau Shepell Inc., a global provider of EAP programs, says there has been a 50-per-cent increase in usage of its programs since 2010. Employees are calling for help to deal with a variety of stressful situations, everything from coping with increasing workloads to help finding daycare spots to financial planning assistance.
People are simply under more pressure today than ever before, mr. Liptrap said, adding: "stress levels in this world are just going to get more complex."
More people are juggling caring for their aging parents and young children, they're always on call with work because of mobile technology, and the financial crisis has left many with their finances in disarray, so many have turned to whatever resources are at their disposal to help them cope, Mr. Liptrap said.
"I'm not surprised [more people are using their company's EAP programs] and I have a real hard time not thinking that's going to increase," he said.
A distracted and stressed employee is not going to be the most productive employee. The Globe's Your Life at Work Survey, to which more than 4,000 Canadians have responded so far, found that workers with strong coping skills – those who felt able to deal well with the stress of their life and work – also consider themselves productive employees, putting in 80 per cent or more effort into their work every day.
However, those who reported that they were less productive – putting in 70 per cent or less effort into their work every day – were far less likely to say they had strong coping skills.
Our survey found that 3 per cent of respondents said their stress has hit the "losing it" level, 39 per cent said they are "frustrated," 49 per cent consider themselves "OK," and 9 per cent say they are "happy."
So what can an employer do to help their employees cope with the stress of work and life? Mr. Liptrap offered the following suggestions:
1. Make people aware of their benefits
People need to know that "they can pick up the phone and get help" through their employee assistance plan, he said. They also need to know that most plans are available to the worker's spouse and children if they are also facing issues for which they need professional help.
Many assistance plans offer a variety of ways to contact them. Aside from a 1-800 phone line, most can be reached by text message, online chat or e-mail. That helps workers in open-concept offices who have little privacy for conversations while at work. They can go online and have a quick chat session with a counsellor to explain their problem and arrange a time for an appointment later, Mr. Liptrap said. Or they can get an answer to a quick question without having to draw attention to themselves. Morneau Shepell also has an app anyone can download: shepellfgi.com/myeap.
2. Teach managers to help
Managers are in a tough bind. They may see clearly that an employee is struggling, but need them to be productive and may not want to address a potentially personal issue with staff at work.
Many EAP programs have counsellors who can give advice to managers when they see that a staff member is struggling, helping them to approach a worker in an appropriate way, and can recommend resources to help out the colleague.
3. Create a resilient organization
If you give your staff the coping skills they need to manage work and stress, then you can prevent some staff from feeling overwhelmed, Mr. Liptrap said.
"How can you reach out in advance to organizations and teach them to be more resilient?" he asked. "How do you make it easier to cope?" Many EAPs have started to offer resiliency training, Mr. Liptrap said.
Resilency training teaches employees strategies to help them deal with change, manage the integration of their work and life, and manage their time better. The courses also promote healthful eating and exercise.
"Putting that together makes them more resilient," Mr. Liptrap said.
Some practical strategies include teaching staff to check e-mail infrequently so they're not sidetracked, and limiting multitasking so workers focus on one thing at a time instead of splitting their attention, which can make them less efficient, more anxious and stressed.
Employers can also encourage staff to get more exercise. Many employers are integrating exercise into the day, some by giving out pedometers and then running contests to see which department took the most steps each week.
4. Reach out at key times
Stress often results from key milestones in a worker's life: moving up at work, getting married, having kids, finding day care, dealing with teenagers, handling finances, buying a house, dealing with a divorce, managing elder care, or dealing with a death or illness in the family.
Morneau Shepell has created information packages based on key events in people's lives that can be mailed to the home of an employee in advance of, for example, a child being born.
"You can sort of head off someone needing to call an EAP," by providing them with information to help them manage the change in their lives.
The key is to help workers manage so that their stress levels don't cause them health issues, which hurts both them and their employer, Mr. Liptrap said. There is a cost to these programs but if the program prevents a worker from being off work, "that pays for it," he said.