Like many workers, Nancy Topolski found herself with more work piled on after her law firm laid off 11 legal secretaries. Topolski soon began stressing over work, losing sleep and making mistakes. One day, the stress erupted into a full-blown panic attack in the office.
Trying to keep your cool in workplaces these days has become more difficult. The recession has brought a new set of issues, driving stress to a new level. Three out of every four American workers are on the brink of a meltdown, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University report.
"Workers are being pushed and pushed, and they lack the energy to deal with it," said Joyce Gioia of the Herman Group, whose specialty is employee retention. She believes that high workloads, fear of job loss and 24/7 connectivity are the recipe for the highest levels of stress in history.
Companies could end up paying the cost through more workers calling in sick, more job-related mistakes and higher turnover.
For years, experts have said a little bit of stress is good. But they were referring to the short-term jolt that comes before making a presentation, not the extreme kind prevalent in workplaces today.
"We're way beyond the level of it being motivating," said Helen Darling, president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health. "It will be hard to recover economically if we don't find better ways to help employees address stress."
Walid Wahad, owner of Wahad Construction, a high-end Miami home builder, confronts on a daily basis the stress of luring new business and keeping his staff employed.
"As a business owner, my responsibility is not to panic or panic privately," he said "I have to put on a positive face in front of my employees."
Surprisingly, while his type of stress is echoed by most corporate executives, studies show head honchos are less at risk for health issues than one would expect. As it turns out, it's not really the high-powered, fast-paced executives succumbing to stress. Those who suffer most have unsupportive bosses or hold lower-level jobs with little control over their schedules or work culture, according to studies by the famed neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky.
Sure, staying late at the office night after night can be exhausting, but it's not going to kill you. The person most at risk for stress-induced heart disease isn't the executive with an endless to-do list — it's the frustrated janitor, the legal secretary with worries about job security or the single mother with no flexibility in her hours.
Meg Florian, project manager at Wahad Construction, finds that her stressors are different from Wahad's. "I deal with a lot of subcontractors, and I find people just don't pay attention. You have to repeat yourself. There's a lack of care and focus."
Trying to fix mistakes, she said, causes her stress. Florian says she hasn't found a release — yet. She is considering yoga.
Wahad sets the example for his employees; he has fit yoga into his routine for 20 years.
He says it makes him a better boss and person. "I leave the company after a day with anxiety, about maybe something that went wrong. Yoga is a filter I go through before I get home. … All the negative energy, I leave it there."
By now, most employers know their workers are dealing with stress, not all of it business-related. "On top of the stress in the workplace, they are stressed about their finances, their kids, their parents. There is so much to worry about right now," Darling said.
"That won't change until the economy turns around."
Still, most employers haven't figured out what to do about it, and some have no interest in trying. In Topolski's case, she was fired the day after her panic attack. She has since sued her former law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, for $1 million.
Those employers who are attempting to address stress mostly are encouraging workers to use employee assistance programs, which provide mental health counselors.
Employee-assistance programs and HR consultants report a notable uptick in calls about job stress in the past two years.
Consultant Barry Hall, who analyzed workplace stress in a report published in July, insists businesses do realize they need to address the rising tide of employee stress. "Those who ignore stress will take a hit to their bottom line in higher costs and lower productivity," he said.