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Employers turn to resilience-building programs to cut worker stress

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As increased worker stress hits the financial health of employers, more companies are turning to proactive stress-management programs to curtail the problem.

Known as resilience-building programs, the strategies seek to halt the cuts in productivity and increases in health care costs related to workplace stress by preparing workers to cope with stressful environments.

Training and educational programs that foster resilience give workers skills to manage and recover from stressful situations quickly, they say. They include in-person or online coaching on topics such as mental awareness, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and even meditation.

While the content and goals of resilience programs resemble traditional employer-sponsored stress management classes, wellness experts say what's different in resilience training is the approach: proactively building skills to manage stress before an incident occurs rather than responding to events such as organizational change or an employee crisis.

Employers are taking notice.

According to a Buck Consultants at Xerox survey released in May, resilience is the fastest growing U.S. employer-sponsored well-being program, with 22% of employers already offering resilience-building programs and 28% planning to do so (see chart, page 24).

Though resilience programs vary widely, they use a holistic strategy and may involve “making your body physically more resilient to disease, helping your mind and your psyche be more resilient to stress, and it could potentially have implications for financial resilience and being better prepared for the future,” said Barry Hall, Boston-based principal and innovation research leader at Buck Consultants.

IBM Corp. is among companies that have embraced workforce resilience.

About five years ago, Armonk, New York-based IBM shifted from “the more traditional (tactic of) dealing with risks” as they arise to building “resilience, capacity, energy and well-being,” said Stewart Sill, Raleigh, North Carolina-based manager of global health and vitality.

“We think about resilience in a pretty broad way because (it) relies on a lot of things,” Mr. Sill said, including “daily habits to build energy” and “other actions to promote your well-being.”

Among IBM's strategies are virtual programs to encourage mindfulness, or focusing on the current moment, and nature-related programs that “can clear your thinking (and) help reduce brain fatigue” along with other “restorative benefits,” Mr. Sill said.

IBM has found that the programs have helped improve the health, as well as health care cost trends, of participants.

Chicago-based employee assistance program provider ComPsych Corp. offers resilience training to workers in companies undergoing shake-ups, such as acquisitions, mergers or moving employees.

With shake-ups being “the new workplace norm,” said Ken Zuckerberg, vice president of training, ComPsych's resilience program helps employees build skills to thrive during challenging times.

Its program builds skills around what Mr. Zuckerberg said are four characteristics of resilience: self-awareness, emotional control, positive thinking and relationship management.

So ComPsych, which offers full-day programs, 45-minute webin-ars or on-demand five to 10-minute videos, teaches employees to diagnose the causes of their stress and how to maintain control rather than feeling helpless. For example, said Mr. Zuckerberg, workers are taught to recognize the connection between emotional stressors and physical symptoms they cause, such as headaches and lower back pain. ComPsych then can provide individual support.

“We can't make stress go away. Unfortunately, that magic pill doesn't exist,” said Paul Coppola, Hartford, Connecticut-based head of care management strategy, innovation and design at health insurer Aetna Inc. Instead, the goal is to become aware of the stress and its triggers, to allow people to control it, he said.

Aetna encourages this through its Mindfulness at Work program, which includes 12, one-hour virtual sessions for workers.

“What's often a big driver of stress is the anticipation of other things that are going on,” Mr. Coppola said. Mindfulness techniques help Aetna employees “stay present in the moment” and remain calm when dealing with distractions.

Since implementing the program in 2012, along with yoga classes, 13,000 of Aetna's 48,000 employees have participated. By analyzing work volume, employee turnover, presenteeism and benefit usage, Aetna determined that program participants' productivity rose by 62 minutes a week, resulting in a dollar return of $3,000 per employee.

In 2014, Aetna found that workers who participated in the Mindfulness at Work program reduced their stress levels by an average of 28%. Aetna also has seen improvements in the health of its workers and a reduction in medical costs among high-stress individuals.

Mindfulness and meditation are part of the virtual resilience program to be released by Providence, Rhode Island-based online wellness program provider ShapeUp Inc. in September.

Through games and quizzes, employees are trained to resist high levels of stress throughout their lifetime, said ShapeUp founder and CEO Dr. Rajiv Kumar. It includes self-paced lessons and educational videos on factors related to stress and resilience, including getting enough sleep, financial well-being and healthy eating.

It also incorporates best practices from yoga, tai chi and expressive writing to “lessen the impact of stress on (a worker's) mind and body and life overtime,” Dr. Kumar said. It's not about “being able to ignore stress or destress for a moment.”

“It's really about helping people build lifelong skills that will give them the ability to manage and bounce back from and really be resistant to high levels of stress throughout their life.”

While measuring an increase in employee resilience is difficult to link to other health costs or business performance, “I think what companies are looking to do first and foremost is to help their employees,” Dr. Kumar said. “If they can help them increase their resilience, I believe they see that as a worthwhile investment.”