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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 27, 2003


Calling off well
The occasional mental health day can help people cope with real life

By John Fries

You just got chewed out by a customer for something you weren't responsible for. The phone rings incessantly, and the work is piling up. You've worked past 8 o'clock for the past three nights. A co-worker has become hostile and uncooperative.

Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful just to call off from work, curl up under the blankets and veg out all day?

Not just wonderful, but healthy, said Michael Crabtree, a professor in the psychology department at Washington & Jefferson College.

He recommends taking what he calls a "mental health day" once in a while to recharge the batteries.

Call in "sick" if you have to, he says. If you don't, the intermittent stress could make you physically sick. Half of all physical problems have a psychological connection.

"While physical needs are seen as very important, our culture doesn't validate psychological needs as important, and we often don't realize that we're wearing ourselves down if the psychological needs aren't addressed," said Crabtree, a stress management therapist.

Dealing with family responsibilities may compound the stress at work.

While many companies provide employees with a bank of sick days - generally to be used only in case of unexpected illness - research indicates that they're often used for other reasons.

For 12 years, CCH Inc., a human resources firm based in Riverwoods, Ill., has been conducting an annual survey to track the reasons for unscheduled absences in the workplace. More than 330 human resources executives, representing a total of nearly 2 million employees, responded to the 2002 survey.

Lori Rosen, a CCH attorney and workplace analyst, said the study shows that employees are taking more sick time off to tend to personal and family needs than for actual illness. In fact, the use of stress as a reason for absence dropped from 19 to 12 percent between 2001 and 2002. But use of personal needs as an excuse nearly doubled, going from 11 to 21 percent.

Real illness prompted a third of employees to call off sick in 2002 and 2001; dealing with personal needs or families issues made up half the absences.

In many of today's families, all members are working, leaving no one at home to provide support, Rosen said.

"Also, many employees have reprioritized their lives over the past year. We're seeing that their loyalties are with themselves and their families."

Employers are trying to accommodate these needs, she said. "Employers understand that this is the time we live in, and that family and personal time are important."

More companies are offering benefits like flexible time-off plans or a lump sum of days that are available for employees' use.

Representatives of local companies interviewed said they weren't aware of employees using sick days as "mental health days", but all acknowledged the need to address stress, and have implemented programs to help employees.

"It's critical that employers address stress in the workplace," said Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of UPMC's Healthy Lifestyles Program, which provides a range of lifestyle-related programs and services for businesses and the public.

"Depressed employees are at an increased risk for atherosclerotic heart disease and heart attacks," he said. "And employers are affected as well. People who have high stress levels or are depressed use health care resources more than others do. A depressed employee's cost can be 150 percent or greater than employees who are not depressed."

What can be done?

"Companies can provide a person to talk with employees, but a brief discussion about stress doesn't work. You must have a sustained effort."

That's what drives the UPMC Healthy Lifestyles Stress Coping Program for Employees, an innovative, 21-week series that was introduced at UPMC McKeesport and is now under way at UPMC South Side, where some community members are participating alongside hospital employees.

The objective is not only to change participants' approach to coping with stress and anxiety, but to teach them how to have a healthier lifestyle.

Each Wednesday, sessions are scheduled throughout the day to accommodate a variety of schedules, and include instruction in, and practice of, techniques such as deep breathing to cope with anxiety and guided imagery for relaxation. Participants also are encouraged to increase their physical activity, be more socially interactive and to develop their spirituality or get involved in religious activities, which can help the brain calm down.

Feedback from participants shows the program is achieving its objectives, Rabin said. "One person had had a heart attack, along with a number of other problems - was overweight, a smoker, didn't get enough exercise and had poor stress coping skills - and wrote to say how beneficial the program had been.''

A local company that has tried to help employees balance work and family is PNC's Financial Services Group. Five years ago, it created a Work/Life and Diversity department that provides the group's 12,000 employees with "resources to make it easier to navigate between work and life," according to Heather Buehler, the group's vice president and manager of Work/Life Strategies.

"The department was established after the company began looking at its core values, one of which focuses on employees' quality of life," she said. "We respect the whole person and recognize that our employees have personal lives."

Rather than the company providing traditional sick days, employees can take "occasional absence days," when they're not feeling well, have a sick child at home or have to deal with an emergency.

PNC also offers its Life Balance Employee Assistance Program, which offers an array of such programs as stress management and smoking cessation classes, annual health fairs, lunch-and-learn seminars, and referrals to professionals, from mental health counselors and plumbers to cat sitters and on-site day care.

 

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