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In weak economy, stress strong

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2002

Are you more or less stressed at your job today than you were a year ago?

Are you more or less stressed at your job today than you were a year ago?

Most of you would say more. Maybe a lot more. Assuming you still have a job to worry about.

Why the surge in workplace stress? Well, here's a wild guess. Our national leaders may insist the economy is steady enough, but job-insecure workers sense we are right on the edge of another recession.

Some reasons for such stress are obvious enough: rising unemployment, corporate scandal, tanking consumer confidence, the ongoing threat of terrorism and possible war in Iraq. The drooping stock market has socked anyone with 401(k) retirement savings. Many major Tampa Bay area employers -- from J.P. Morgan Chase, Verizon and TECO Energy to Tech Data and Jabil Circuit -- are in cost-cutting modes after suffering sharp hits to their earnings and stock prices.

Former area telecom high-fliers -- think back fondly to the $130 share price of Clearwater's Digital Lightwave (now under $1.50) or the $50-per-share Paradyne Networks (now trying to stay above $1) -- are just trying to hold on.

Other factors behind work stress are less blatant.

In recent months, I've received a surge in e-mails from area folks who are out of work and having a tough time finding comparable jobs. Many moved here in recent (but more prosperous) years, many with technology-related jobs in hand, but they have since lost their positions in cutbacks.

Local job openings, they now complain, are thin and pay less than they should. Yet these openings are flooded with applicants. Many of these people say they want to stay here but may be forced to head back north in search of better opportunities. Still others now work two jobs -- certainly a stressful task -- to make ends meet.

Other signs of rising job anxiety abound. Here's a Top 10:

10. In Chicago, employee assistance provider ComPsych says it's seen a 35 percent increase in calls from workers citing financial issues as a source of stress. Overall calls are up 10 percent this year.

9. Almost half of 750 employees surveyed nationwide this summer said they had either considered leaving their job, actually done so, or planned to do so soon. The study by Cigna Behavioral Health of Eden Prairie, Minn., suggests mounting economic and world tensions are pushing employees to reevaluate their priorities. Forty-four percent of workers said their jobs were a lot more stressful now compared to a year ago.

8. A New York Times/CBS News poll released this week found that American workers are more anxious about the economy than at any time since 1993. Of 668 Americans surveyed, 56 percent consider the economy fairly bad or very bad. Thirty-nine percent said they thought the economy would get worse, 46 percent expected the economy to remain the same, but only 13 percent predicted it would get better. More than 50 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned that in the next year they or someone in their household might be out of work or looking for a job.

7. Rising productivity means companies are getting more work per hour from their existing workers. That may be good for the economy but surely adds to the stress levels of harder-pressed employees. Here's an example: a report this week on the latest shortage of nurses also means more stress -- and danger -- for their less-attended patients.

6. As employers demand more work from fewer employees, workers are starting to call in sick or taking more vacation time than they are really allowed. So says a study by CCH, a provider of human-resource and employment-law information. In 2002, the cost per employee for unscheduled absences reached an annual average of $789. That's a record high and an increase of nearly 30 percent since 2000.

5. Last year, 180-million prescriptions for antidepressants were dispensed. That's up from 163-million in 2000. And in the first seven months of 2002, about 115-million prescriptions have been dispensed, according to IMS Health, a Pennsylvania provider of information services to the pharmaceutical and health care industries.

4. Blame the explosion of corporate scandals for making it tougher for discharged managers and executives to find new work. Job search times surged 26 percent over the past 12 months and now stand at nearly four months. That's a 16-year high, says the international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Corruption at such companies as Enron and WorldCom also has prompted more companies to check and double-check references, conduct more intense and extensive background checks (including the use of investigation agencies), and even use behavioral testing to screen out potential problems.

3. Christian & Timbers, a New York executive search firm, says it's seen a 177 percent increase in resumes received in September 2002 versus September 2001. "The bombardment of resumes we are getting from job hunters has created an environment that is a war for jobs," says Jeffrey Christian, the search firm's chief executive.

2. Half of the workers surveyed by the Conference Board earlier this year said they are unhappy with their job. That's up from 40 percent in 1995. How bad are things? Employees say their commute to work is the favorite part of their job.

1. In an annual survey by workplace research firm Marlin Co., 29 percent of respondents put themselves in the highest category of stress -- extreme or quite a bit. That's the highest percentage in the poll's six-year history.

I'd continue, but after assembling this list I'm stressed enough to gnaw through my phone cord. It's time to take a few deep breaths and stroll around the block. Join me. Then get back to work!

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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