Stress management: We need it more than ever

Combination of events weigh on workers

It’s been around for quite awhile, but we may never have needed it more. Today, says one health promotion expert, occupational health professionals should place stress management near the top of their programming list.

"A set of unique stressors has come together," says Lewis Schiffman, president of Atlanta Health Systems. "Our belief systems about how life in the world is have been turned upside down, and have caused us to re-evaluate our values and the foundation of our society.

"Specifically, our country is no longer safe’ from the threats of war," he continues. "And although there were downsizings in the early 90s, we’ve been living in an era of prosperity and a stock market boom. People believed their jobs were secure; they’re not. People believed that investing in the company they worked for was a solid investment and that their company’s retirement plan would take care of them for the future; it may not."

Beyond the disillusionment of Sept. 11, the recession, and Enron, teenagers are becoming more alienated from society, couples continue to get divorced at a better than 50% rate, and more than 54% of the population is overweight, says Schiffman. "That [obesity] number is rapidly expanding and health care costs continue to rise as we discover managed care is not the answer we thought it was," he adds. "And people are working more hours and have less free time."

This combination of forces is enough to make any employee feel stressed out. Of course, workers have the option of going into denial — just trying to "tough it out." This, however, is not a healthy choice. "Denial puts you at risk of insomnia, headaches, depletes your immune system, makes you more vulnerable to respiratory infections, gastrointestinal problems, depression, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and probably cancer," says Schiffman.

Stress management programming can break through denial, and give employees tools to deal with the stressors they’re facing, says Schiffman. Occupational health professionals must recognize that "the adverse effects of stress is an issue all of us confront, from the moment we begin fighting traffic during rush hour to dealing with difficult customers or patients, to trying to help the employer stay ahead in a competitive market, to doing more with less, to trying to stay flexible to deal with the inevitability of change, and to deal with other people’s stress — which too often they want to take out on you," he asserts. In fact, he suggests, the ability to manage stress should now be considered an essential business skill.

Making an impact

With this philosophy in mind, Schiffman recommends these high-impact components that should be part of any stress management program:

• Managing stress in times of uncertainty: Such modules help workers to cope specifically with the changes our society is going through, and prepares them to accept and deal with change as part of the natural order of things.

• Learning balance: Most people, Schiffman says , are out of balance and need reminders and better skills to manage home, work, and personal life. "Failure to maintain balance adversely impacts personal and work relationships and increases vulnerability to illness and injury," he observes.

• Developing better self-management skills: This can include how to relax or stay calm in heat-of-the-moment situations, as well as nutrition and fitness strategies to maintain resiliency, high energy, and the ability to concentrate. "Such courses incorporate rational thinking strategies to help people recognize that stress is often a matter of perception — what we think and what we tell ourselves a situation means," Schiffman explains.

• Effective communication: We must recognize that we are surrounded by people who are experiencing the adverse effects of stress, and that all of us would benefit from communication strategies to deal with difficult people and to actively focus on maintaining a positive attitude.

• Self-care strategies: It is extremely important that employees learn not to become overwhelmed by a stressful situation. "We need to utilize effective self-care strategies rather than immediately reaching for mind-altering drugs or engaging in self-destructive behavior," Schiffman says.

In addition, he concludes, managers and supervisors would benefit from learning more effective coaching skills, to address the needs of the overstressed employee.

[For more information, contact: Lewis Schiffman, Atlanta Health Systems, 2516 Wowona Drive N.E., Atlanta, GA 30319. Telephone: (404) 636-9437.]