Psychologists and occupational health leaders highlighted programs aimed at alleviating work-family conflicts and workplace stress at a recent conference organized by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and more than 20 co-sponsors, including APA. The 2004 Steps to a Healthier U.S. Workforce Symposium brought together leaders from the occupational safety and the health promotion communities to explore ways to improve employees' health and safety.

One session at the event included promoting employee well-being through such means as flexible work schedules and team-based employee problem-solving.

The need is evident: The number of employees nationwide reporting psychiatric disabilities is steadily growing and costing companies in lost productivity and employee absenteeism, according to psychologists who spoke at the session.

For example, at Bank One--now J.P. Morgan Chase--employees' mental health issues from 2000-2002 accounted for the second leading cause of short-term disability and were second in total of days absent from work--behind only pregnancy.

Depression, in particular, is the most reported psychiatric disability, and contributes to the most absences, limiting employees' cognitive reasoning and interpersonal skills, said clinical psychologist Daniel J. Conti, PhD, an employee assistance program director at J.P. Morgan Chase. By 2020, depression is expected to rank second in leading causes of worldwide disability; in 1990, it ranked fourth, according to the "The Global Burden of Disease" (Harvard University Press, 1996).

As such, Conti said companies need to not only take into account the productivity lost through employee absenteeism due to such mental health problems, but also the productivity lost while an employee is present but limited at work due to health problems--which he referred to as "presenteeism." He stressed the need for companies to change management and organizational work methods to help decrease such losses.

Doing that requires workplaces to examine returns on mental health components of their medical plans, and it requires employees to shift their work attitudes and behaviors, Conti noted.

Employer flexibility is also key to minimizing mental health problems among employees, said Lynne Casper, PhD, of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"Workplace polices can have an effect on people's health, how they live their life and their ability to manage their work and family obligations," she said.

Team-building interventions

Indeed, tedious job tasks, job insecurity or inflexible work schedules can demoralize some employees or lower their motivation, speakers noted.

To address such issues, psychologist David M. DeJoy, PhD, director of the Workplace Health Group, conducted a study on healthy work organization in retail. DeJoy and his colleagues surveyed employees at 21 stores--all part of the same company--to identify employees' concerns about issues such as their work schedules. From there, the researchers formed a team of eight to 12 employees at each store to develop store-specific interventions to respond to those concerns. Such interventions included programs geared to build skills to enhance employer and employee communication, improve morale, manage conflict and solve problems related to, for example, customer-service issues.

According to self reports from employees and employers, the interventions led to better communication as well as improved employee satisfaction with work schedules, job content and feelings of increased involvement in workplace decisions, said DeJoy, a professor of health promotion and behavior at the University of Georgia. The team-based intervention also had some positive effects on store sales and employee turnover.

Working parent programs

Researchers have shown that programs--such as Triple P (Positive Parenting Program)--geared to help working parents balance work and family life also can contribute to improved employee mental health.

Triple P provides evidence-based support strategies for parents of children from birth to 12 years old, said psychologist Ron Prinz, PhD, Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina. The program features individual or small group sessions focused on helping parents better plan and prioritize their family and work responsibilities and gain confidence in their parenting skills. Australian psychology professor Matthew Sanders, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of Queensland developed Triple P.

Triple P, in particular, derives from research showing that parents with high work stress tend to have low job self-efficacy, less positive parent-child interactions, less parental satisfaction and more coercive parenting styles, Prinz said.

Triple P can counter some of that, according to preliminary data. Parents who participated in Triple P group sessions at work were able to reduce work stress and child behavior problems and also improve their overall self-efficacy, Prinz said.

However, child care isn't the only source of family life stress. At IBM, for example, the company found a 200 percent increase from 1986 to 2001 in employees needing elder care for aging loved ones. To help, the company created a national referral and resource service to help employees find elder care.

Flexible work schedules

IBM also introduced flexible work schedules--such as giving many employees the option to work part-time or at home--based on another of its survey findings that such scheduling contributes to improved worker satisfaction. Now one-third of IBM employees do not work primarily at a traditional IBM office. Working from home, in particular, has gained acceptability among employees and employers, said Michael D. Shum, IBM's director of Global Workforce Diversity Operations.

Indeed, IBM researchers have found that employees who work at home have the least difficulty with motivation and retention and are more willing to put in extra effort in their job. Plus, 55 percent of the employees surveyed agreed that working from home at least one day per week is acceptable, and 64 percent said they are likely to work from home in the next five years.

"This whole face-time culture of a manager having to watch a person work is changing," Shum said. "We still have a long way to go, but we're making progress."

Further Reading

The new Society of Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP) is working to advance research, training and practice to improve employees' work life and enhance their health and safety. To join the SOHP listserv and stay updated on their activities, visit www.cdc.gov/niosh/ohp.html.