Cold and Flu Season

Why would I be thinking about colds and flu on a hot August morning?

For most people, cold and flu season starts in November and lasts until March or April. For me, cold and flu season starts in August and ends around Nov. 1.

Why would I have a different cold and flu season than the rest of the country? Because August and September are highly stressful months for me, months when I stay up late, worry about work, eat poorly… you get the picture.

For me, the end of summer means increased work commitments, family commitments and travel — all of which translates to no down time for a 2-month period. This spells trouble with a capital C-O-L-D and C-O-U-G-H. I almost can guarantee that I will be sick by the second week of October, probably really sick, requiring time away from work. In my case, a high level of workplace stress equals physical illness.

High levels of workplace stress also equal grand exits from jobs — like Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant — or an outbreak of violence, as in the case of Omar Thornton, an employee of a beer distributor who in August killed eight coworkers before turning the gun on himself. For other employees, workplace stress means a lack of attention to the task at hand, which can lead to injuries.

STUDY RANKS SAFETY FIRST

A new study from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that eight out of 10 workers rate safety as the most important workplace issue, ahead of family and maternity leave, minimum wage, paid sick days and overtime pay.

Although most workers say they are satisfied with safety conditions at work, they also reported that job-related stress was a contributing factor to injury. The most recent NORC study on job-related stress reported that 13 percent of workers find their jobs always stressful, while 21 percent find their jobs often stressful.

“Exhaustion, dangerous working conditions and other negative experiences at work are reported by many workers,” Tom W. Smith, director of NORC's General Social Survey (GSS) said. “Such conditions mean that workplace accidents are far from rare.”

Repercussions of recession-related layoffs and cutbacks have started showing up in workplaces in the form of increased stress, increased absenteeism and rising healthcare costs. Numerous companies have had to cut back their work force in order to survive the recession, and in most cases the remaining workers now carry an added workload resulting in longer hours. It's no surprise that healthcare costs and absenteeism are on the rise in many companies.

Many of today's remaining work force who have heavier workloads following recession-related layoffs are even more stressed than before, as reflected in rising health care costs and the growing number of employees turning to employee assistance programs (EAPs) for help. A worldwide benefits consulting firm stated that nearly half of the 282 large companies they surveyed reported an increase in the use of employee assistance programs, 22 percent reported an increase in unplanned absences and 78 percent of employers cited “excessive work hours” as a leading cause of employee stress. A Towers Perrin survey involving 321 companies showed that the 2009 average annual health care cost per employee was $9,660 — an increase of 6 percent over their 2008 figures.

Employers can take action to reduce workplace stress, which in turn will result in reduced absenteeism, reduced injuries and reduced healthcare costs. Here are some suggestions from NIOSH:

  1. Identify the problem

    Through group discussions or formal surveys, measure employees' perceptions of job conditions, stress, health and satisfaction. Companies also should examine objective data such as absenteeism, illness and turnover rates.

  2. Design and implement interventions

    Actions to reduce stress should be tailored to the problems found. Some interventions, such as improved communication or stress management training, can be implemented fairly quickly while others, such as the redesign of a manufacturing process, may require more time

  3. Evaluate the interventions

    NIOSH suggests both short- and long-term evaluations to check whether interventions are producing the desired improvements.

As for me, I'm taking two aspirin and going to bed — or booking a flight to Belize — I haven't decided yet.


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