ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nearly half the nation's private-sector workers -- under increasing pressure to prove their value to employers during recessionary times -- say job stress is destroying their mental and physical health and eroding their productivity.
That's the essence of a study on work place stress and burnout released yesterday by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. Minneapolis-based Northwestern National Life, with $9 billion in assets, is among the nation's 10 largest providers of employee benefits.
Its survey of 1,299 private-sector workers nationwide found that four of 10 find their jobs very or extremely stressful and 39 percent are thinking about quitting their jobs because of stress.
"Stress is running like fire through the American workplace and the recession is adding fuel to it," said Peggy Lawless, Northwestern National Life's research project director. "This is real stress and burnout. Employees are not whining. Many of them are working extremely long hours, but they never have the opportunity to recharge."
She said 46 percent of private-sector workers said they feel increasing pressure to demonstrate their worth to employers because of the recession. Meanwhile, they report they are also being asked to do more work with fewer people.
Thirty-four percent of workers said they have too little time -- even with overtime -- to get all their work done. Thirty-two percent said they expect they will burn out within a year, either quitting their jobs or continuing in them but at a less productive level.
Workplace stress was already rising because changes in the family -- such as the trend toward both parents working out of the home -- and the severing of traditional employer-employee loyalties. But the recession has greatly exacerbated workplace stress, Ms. Lawless said.
"When you add the effects of the recession, American companies have become pressure cookers," she said. "Overstressed employees are less able to perform their jobs and more afraid to leave them."
Some employers feel that stress is a great motivator and that it maximizes worker output. But they are mistaken, Ms. Lawless said.
Half of the employers surveyed said stress cuts their productivity. One-third of workers experiencing high job stress said they have frequent stress-related physical or mental
conditions that could increase health costs.
"The myth that high levels of stress are motivating is very widespread among organizations," she said. "Workers respond by being very stoic and not admitting they are under stress."
They fear that admitting that they are overtaxed is equivalent to proclaiming that they are inadequate, she said. That just adds to their stress.
Some of the survey's other findings:
* Low-income workers, especially those with college degrees and single women with children, have the greatest risk of job burnout.
* Sixty-five percent of highly stressed workers say they suffer from exhaustion and 45 percent say they're bothered by insomnia. They commonly report depression, muscle pain, anger and anxiety.
* Women report a 36 percent burnout rate, compared with a rate of 28 percent for men.
* Understanding supervisors can greatly reduce workplace stress. They can cut burnout rates and stress in half by reducing overtime, delegating responsibility and being supportive. But Ms. Lawless noted that such managers are relatively rare, and most supervisors are under great stress themselves.
"Employers would be wise to recognize that stress is debilitating for their employees and it's important they treat the symptoms of workplace stress and take steps to prevent it in the future," Ms. Lawless said.
The stress survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.