Stress. Now there’s a condition we’re all too familiar with. More than a third of American employees are chronically stressed about work, according to a recent study from the American Psychological Association. And another study out of Penn State indicates that women are even more stressed at home than at work. In addition to making us feel personally awful, stress is incredibly damaging and expensive for the workplace overall: Stress-related absenteeism, lost productivity, legal and insurance fees, and employee turnover cost U.S. companies more than $300 billion per year. Working Mother has long worked to promote family-friendly workplace policies that experts agree can help ease working parents’ anxieties, but many businesses just aren’t there yet. Meanwhile, here’s what stress may be costing you—in dollars and more—and ways you can lower your bill.
Health care costs
Studies indicate that stress is responsible in some way for a whopping 70 to 90 percent of doctor visits, either directly or by aggravating an ongoing medical condition, says stress management expert Cynthia Ackrill, MD. Why? Stress and the hormones it causes the body to produce can set off a cascade of inflammation and decreased immune function. All that translates into doctor’s office co-pays plus test and prescription costs, notes Dr. Ackrill, chair of the Workplace Stress Board for the American Institute of Stress (AIS).
“Extreme self-care is the key,” Dr. Ackrill suggests. How to do it?
Prioritize sleep. “Five days of five hours or less sleep impairs you as much as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 (noticeably intoxicated),” she says.
Keep healthy snacks (protein, fruits and veggies) in your desk, and eat regularly to help rebuild your overtaxed brain and body.
Get regular exercise and make time to connect with friends and family.
Emotional toll—on you and your family
Your stress isn’t just yours. our brains are naturally wired with something called mirror neurons to pick up on how people close to us are feeling, notes Dr. Ackrill. Thus the phrase “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
Take time to transition to home after work. Park a few blocks from home and take five minutes to do some restorative deep breathing before greeting your family. Breathe in for five seconds, hold for five seconds, and breathe out for five. Repeat five times. Or stop for a calming cup of tea before hopping onto the train.
Adjust your expectations. Does your daughter really want home-made cupcakes for her class birthday party, or would she rather you take more time to read her a story? You know the answer.
Lost work time
Recent data shows American private-sector workers take almost four times as many days away from work yearly (a median of 31 days) because of stress, anxiety and related issues than they do for all other nonfatal injuries and illnesses (median of 8 days). Working moms are at particular risk for losing work time due to stress because of the trials of managing child care arrangements, elder care and necessary family tasks and errands, says Roxanne Conrad, director of work life products and services for ComPsych, the world’s largest provider of employee assistance programs (EAPs).
When you notice yourself regularly taking “mental health days” to deal with anxiety, stress-induced migraines or general overload, take these steps.
Consult your company’s EAP, if there is one. Services are confidential, so getting help won’t put your job at risk. Coordinators can help with everything from short-term counseling to finding child care.
Consider consulting a mental health professional. These services may be covered by your health insurance plan.
Even if you’re physically at work, you may be mentally absent if home- or work-related stress is taking over your life. You may leave your desk often to make personal calls or text loved ones, be less attentive than usual in meetings, make mistakes in your work and not be as creative at problem-solving as you once were. Left untreated, stress could eventually affect your job performance review—and potential pay raise.
Pinpoint your main stress points with your EAP or an outside counselor to help you develop a game plan for reducing them, so you can get your mind back into work.
Meet with your supervisor and brainstorm alternatives to reduce the pressure—from reprioritizing your workload to developing a strategy for dealing with difficult co-workers.
Working Moms Mentally Stress More than Working Dads
“Mental labor”—thinking about family-related matters throughout the day—causes much more stress and negative emotions for working moms than for working dads, according to a recent study presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. Although other research has focused on the unequal division of labor between working spouses, this study pinpointed the idea that simply thinking about household tasks can hurt working moms’ sleep, impair work performance and decrease their ability to concentrate.
The solution, suggests study author Shira Offer, an assistant sociology and anthropology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, is that dads still need to step up and take a greater role in family and home care to make mental labor less stressful for working mothers. In other words, we need to ask our spouses for a more equal home partnership. How to do that? Another massive study may be needed!