Tackling employee stress takes a holistic approach

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Chronic stress takes a big toll on the workforce and is a persistent threat to employees’ overall well-being and productivity.

In fact, according to Cigna’s 360 Global Well-Being survey of more than 13,000 people, 87% of workers say they are stressed, with 64% claiming to be in an “always on” environment.

The impact of stress varies across generations and employee groups. Millennials, who will make up half the workforce by 2020, are more affected by behavioral health conditions and Type 2 diabetes than previous generations, according to a study by Blue Cross Blue Shield. And unlike their predecessors, the first generation of digital natives don’t separate their personal lives from work. Meanwhile, Generation X — the sandwich generation — is struggling with the emotional and financial burdens of caring for their kids and parents.

Having such a wide variety of responses to stress requires adopting a fundamental shift in the way we think about workplace health and well-being. Companies can understand and more efficiently address the complex problem of employee stress by taking Cigna's Life Connected approach, which examines stress through five interconnected dimensions of well-being: physical, emotional, financial, environmental and social.

So, how can employers begin approaching health and well-being as one complete picture within their own companies? Below are three ways HR leaders can start creating this shift within their organization.

Build and promote tailored programs informed by data: Meaningful engagement starts with using data to understand the employee population, such as geographic location, socioeconomic factors, generational mix and claims data. Then, analyze the data and look for actionable ways to improve everyone’s well-being. This approach once helped Cigna identify a client whose workforce had a high number of employees with chronic conditions who were also prescribed depression medications. We took this insight and worked with the HR team to develop an employee mental health campaign that focused on stress management and promoted their existing lifestyle management programs.

Seek opportunities to integrate benefits: Being able to see an individual’s unique healthcare journey puts employers in a stronger position to address an employees’ physical, emotional, financial and social health. For the 44% of U.S. households who can’t cover an unexpected health expense, a cancer diagnosis or injury can be extremely stressful, especially for an employee with a high deductible health plan. At Cigna, we automatically remind the employee to submit their supplemental health claim when they have a qualifying medical event. Through this connected experience, we help employees focus on getting healthy so they can go back to work.

Nurture a culture of well-being. Although it’s not easy to change company culture, leaders and HR managers have many tools at their disposal to help with the process. Start with manager training by finding senior leaders to sponsor the efforts for change. When managers champion employee well-being, employees believe the company is truly behind it. Without the support of champions at the manager level, other well-being initiatives are unlikely to be effective. This top-down support is especially important for breaking the stigma around using mental health resources, such as employee assistance programs and on-site counseling.

By going deep and looking at the whole picture, employers can uncover the underlying issues that make a meaningful impact on health and well-being. And what they find can be surprising. We’ve seen accounting firms with stressed out young talent because they are overwhelmed with student debt, and counseling centers whose employees needed stress management to reduce burnout.

It’s critical that HR managers expand their definitions of employee health and well-being to include initiatives that support the whole person. Doing so will increase workforce resilience, engagement and productivity.

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