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Stress Levels Lashing Out At Work

Tuesday, October 14, 2003 at 1:57 PM

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Tough economic times are translating into higher stress levels in the workplace. Many employers are putting extra emotional strain on workers and managers with higher performance demands. These additional pressures can lead to frustrations and conflicts between co-workers. Employers also worry about the effect on productivity and they're looking for help. ideastream's Mike West has more.

The Mental Health Advocacy Coalition in Cleveland says untreated depression alone costs the state nearly $24 billion a year due to absenteeism and lower on-the-job productivity. That doesn’t include substance abuse and less severe emotional problems. Katherine Stetson says a growing number of businesses are addressing these issues by joining employee assistance programs or initiating drug-free workplace programs. Stetson is a supervisor for Ease At Work, a Cleveland-based EAP. Her organization offers anger management classes, counseling and advice on emotional matters.

Katherine Stetson: I’d say stress is up and I think it’s predominately that the work environment has changed a lot - most of us are expected to do the jobs of two people, three people, four people now with downsizing. The economy is tough right now, people are concerned about lay off(s), especially people that are in manufacturing and those types of workforces where the job market is getting worse and worse, people are pretty fearful.

If you are not feeling your best, Stetson advises reaching out before something happens that could cost you your job. She says the only thing stopping most people is shame.

Katherine Stetson: Get help as a preventative measure rather than waiting until things are out of control. You can be a lot more empowered if you set forward on your own and ask for help. I think the stigma of getting help for mental health issues now is so much lower than it used to be but most of us still don’t ask for help until were in over our head.

Serious mental problems are not likely to strike most of us. But our mental resilience is tested regularly. Commitments that can’t be kept and endless demands on our time confront us daily. And then we have to go to work. After fighting traffic, deadlines and performance pressures loom. We sometimes encounter difficult co-workers and managers. The stress can lead to worry, fear and anxiety. Doctor Don Kitson is a management psychologist for the Employers Resource Council. Over the past couple of years, requests for help have spiked, especially from small and medium size companies. One of the most common problems is employees who verbally lash out.

Don Kitson: We deal with quite a few cases concerning anger management. Anger management mostly relates to situations where an individual’s needs have been frustrated and they haven’t developed up until that point a means of coping with those situations in a productive manner.

Kitson says frustrations at work most often stem from a lack of credit for accomplishments, sudden schedule changes, or a shift in responsibilities with little or no warning. He says managers are often asked to do more than they can handle. It’s common for them to verbally attack if they think a job isn’t being done well enough. Smart remarks are another common trigger.

Don Kitson: One of the more typical situations that I’ve dealt with is dealing with managers who have displayed some frustration in relation to a disrespectful comment that might be presented to them. Often times an individual might respond again, to a fairly strong need to be respected by others.

The doctor says if managers and workers understand the roots of frustration they can minimize their reaction and keep the workplace happy and productive. He teaches alternatives to yelling. But when verbal tirades continue, workers often turn to the law. Attorney Joe McCafferty specializes in employer/employee cases.

Joe McCafferty: I think the most common calls I get are from individuals/employees who feel they are being harassed in the workplace. And they put the term harassment in sort of a general category of, my supervisor yells at me for reasons that they don’t feel necessary.

But McCafferty says many of his would-be clients are surprised to learn that in the eyes of the law, there’s nothing wrong with yelling at workers. As long they spread the misery.

Joe McCafferty: What I come to learn quite often is that this employer, this supervisor, manager yells at everybody. And if that’s the case it could be that this is just somebody that we call and equal opportunity. You can fill in the blank after that, which may or may not give rise to a cause of action.

However, McCafferty says most businesses don’t like verbal abusers because they tend to chase away good workers. At the same time many employers are also very forgiving. At least two mental health experts say even in today’s tight job market. Most companies would rather send valued employees in for help, rather than letting them go. More serious emotional issues are also addressed by labor laws. McCafferty says if someone has a certified mental disability, federal law mandates they be accommodated. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

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