Four triggers that may set off your employees’ stress level

Good employers take stock of employee wellness to ensure productivity and engagement. That said, they often limit their perspective to inside the company. Did we just land a big project or account? Do we have staffing gaps that are putting pressure on others?

Beyond this, employers need to be aware of external triggers unrelated to an employee’s day job that can drive up stress, anxiety and emotional instability. Often these triggers are tied to major life changes, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one. But others are less obvious and may be missed.

Here are four common but easy-to-miss triggers caused by forces outside of work.

1. Holidays — Stress around family gatherings, gift giving, fasting, or travel can add a layer of anxiety on top of an already busy time. This is further exacerbated in families that struggle to maintain healthy finances. HR teams should ensure that holiday policies are inclusive and consider the needs of a diverse set of employees. Reminding employees of any emotional health resources around the holidays is also key.
2. Caring for loved ones — The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 17 million people in the US are actively taking care of an elderly parent. Healthcare systems and elder care facilities are quickly restructuring to support this trending demographic, but baby boomers (many of whom can’t afford to retire yet) have spent a lifetime working only to find out they have a second job in elder care. This trigger is gaining ground as our population ages and can be a source of anxiety and stress, even for Generation X and millennials.
3. Special needs parenting and infertility — Affecting both women and men, infertility challenges and caring for special needs children can have an enormous impact on self-worth, confidence and stress, not to mention financial strain. Because these personal challenges are sometimes very private, it’s hard for an employer to recognize these events as a trigger. By offering employees self-help resilience resources, companies can help employees address these challenges while feeling confident about privacy.
4. Tuition debt — Employers expect fresh-out-of-college employees to be full of energy and confidence. Yet, many of them are looking at years of student loan debt that can stifle their ability to move forward — in jobs, housing, even relationships. Combined with entry-level salaries and potentially stressful living situations (often with roommates or parents), college debt can be emotionally taxing and impact employee work performance.

New tools for both employees and employers

Forward-looking employers are increasingly using digital mental health and wellness resources to extend the reach of traditional EAP or behavioral health benefits. These flexible and accessible resources can help employees relieve stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts whether at work, or at home. Quite different than singularly-focused solutions for mindfulness or brain games, the best new mental health and wellness technologies take advantage of the full array of sciences including positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.

stress chart

One of the advantages of digital or software-based resources is that they can be easily integrated into traditional employer benefit programs, giving employees a self-directed and self-managed way to improve resilience, and better cope with both personal and work challenges.

Employees at Cigna have access to Happify — a mental health and wellness benefit delivered digitally that is designed to help employees achieve better emotional health. Michelle Leung, head of HR for Cigna International, explains that Cigna employees can choose from approximately 60 programs — called tracks — with more than 3,000 science-based exercises, activities and games that help them learn how to cope with stress more effectively, strengthen relationships, and build resiliency.

To ensure efficacy as well as program variety, it is important to look for resources that have been designed using experts in their respective health and science fields to design content and programs. Happify Health collaborated with meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg to develop a guided meditation track based on her book, Real Happiness, and worked with Harvard-trained researcher and author Shawn Achor to develop tracks related to career success.

But great content isn’t enough. Employees must also be engaged with the resources to create a tipping point where the collective behavioral results impact the desired organizational goals.

Using evidence-based interventions with gamification and innovative user experiences is vital to drive engagement. Based on its own user data, Happify supports activation rates of 20 to 30 percent and sustained usage of over 40 percent after six months when employers use Happify Health’s best practices for communication and outreach. This sustained usage has a positive impact on productivity, employee engagement and job satisfaction, as well as operational costs.

Connecting ROI with emotional health

Numerous studies have quantified the degree to which improved emotional health reduces employee absenteeism, healthcare costs, and turnover. Combining the models from these studies with data from a Happify Health randomized clinical trial, Happify Health was able to predict ROI for a company with 60,000 employees and an average employee income of $100,000. Using improvements in employee's emotional health scores combined with the financial impact of reduced depression, the trial calculated potential company-wide savings of nearly $10M, attributed to increased productivity and reduced healthcare costs.

When evaluating resources to help employees — whether the driving factor is improved wellness, increased productivity, operational cost savings or all of the above —make sure you understand the landscape of stress, anxiety or negative thoughts among your own employee population. By using new digital mental health and wellness resources, you can make a positive impact on employees, but only if you understand the potential internal and external triggers, and help employees engage with the tools in a meaningful way.

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