Work Overload Brings Panic, Anxiety, Stress

By now we've all heard the tales of the new workplace normal: Dwindling resources and ever-burgeoning workloads drive managers to push their staff to new lengths -- and new lows. Feeling trapped, rank-and-file workers do as they're told and do their best to keep the ensuing stress at bay.

Until getting laid off last month, Kristen, who didn't want to give her last name, was one of those workers. Only the more demanding her job became, the more her health suffered.

For one thing, the depression Kristen had managed all her adult life with "relatively low-strength" medication became unbearable, and her doctor prescribed her a second antidepressant.

For another, said the fit, 25-year-old St. Louis resident, "My blood pressure was totally rising. And I'd never had high blood pressure before. Plus, it was getting to the point where I had a bad headache every day. I was like, 'This is getting out of control.'"

Her doctor, who she was seeing more and more, thought so too.

"When I got laid off, my doctor said, 'You know, I'm really glad you're not working there anymore,'" Kristen explained. "It's stressful looking for a new job, but at the same time, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that anymore."

Welcome to the Worry Club

Kristen has plenty of company.

A recent report from Harris, Rothenberg International found that the number of calls workers were making to company-sponsored Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) increased by almost 10 percent in 2008.

"We have had a huge surge in call volume since the recession began," said Dr. Charles Lattarulo, clinical director of Harris, Rothenberg International, which provides EAPs for 2,600 employers and 7 million workers worldwide.

"People are in distress," he said. "They're calling with panic attacks, anxiety and depression. They're working a lot more hours. They're not taking lunch, and they're not taking vacations."

In fact, Lattarulo said, his counselors have experienced a surge in requests for phone sessions, as opposed to face-to-face counseling.

"People don't want to come in to therapy because they don't want to be perceived as slackers," he explained. "Instead they're doing telephone therapy on their way in to work, on their commute. We've never had that happen before."

A Stress Epidemic?

To accommodate the additional calls, Lattarulo has had to increase his counseling staff by 20 percent since December 2008. He's also had to offer his counselors additional training to handle the myriad issues they're getting calls about.

"A couple of years ago, employees would call about one issue," he said. "Maybe they were stressed at work or they were depressed. Now they're calling about a complexity of issues: debt, stress, marital problems, their children acting out."

"We have a much more serious problem than we had a year ago," said Barry Shore, professor of decision sciences at the University of New Hampshire, Whittemore School of Business and Economics. "The recession has permanently changed the workplace."

Specifically, Shore said, the heightened productivity demands on workers seem to be here to stay.

"A year ago we were saying, 'Socialize, go bowling and do all those activities that are going to make you feel better,'" Shore offered. "Now that only goes so far. You can't go around hoping things will be better, and you can't sit there and long suffer."

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