Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Heading off breakdowns

Eric Morgan knows about stress.

It’s something the employees he supervises battle every day as they field hundreds of calls inside Public Service Company of New Mexico’s customer care center.

The calls can get heated, Morgan says. Customers might want something the company simply cannot give them. There can be verbal attacks.

“Some (employees) become very upset and take it personally,” says Morgan, customer care coordinator. “Some understand it’s just part of the job.”

If things get too bad, there’s an escape for employees just down the hallway: a quiet room with green and white walls that holds an air hockey table, mini-arcade basketball, red and white beanbags, board games and colorful chairs that look like giant hands flexed to catch a boulder-sized baseball.

Called the Power Lounge, it’s a place where PNM employees can go to regain their peace of mind. And measures like it to protect an employee’s mental health – for example, reducing stress levels in the workplace or providing professional care for serious mental illness – can prove invaluable to businesses.

In a single year, untreated and mistreated mental illness costs U.S. businesses $150 billion in lost productivity, according to the National Mental Health Association. In a typical workplace with 20 employees, the association estimates four will likely develop a mental illness annually, and mental health conditions are the second-leading cause of workplace absenteeism.

Despite the problem’s prevalence, mental illness still evokes strong prejudices, advocates say, and maintaining mental health in the workplace can be a complicated process for employees and employers alike.

Albuquerque business people say it can mean pep talks, job perks, time off, open doors, kind ears and, when the problem is something more serious than a temporary dip in mood, calls to trained mental health professionals.

“As a person in the field of any industry, you spend a lot of time at work,” Morgan says. “A lot of times that support system comes from your peers and co-workers. I need to respond or at least listen to what’s going on in their (employees) life.”

The grumpytrons

Elissa Breitbard, owner of Betty’s Bath & Day Spa, has a name for the bad mood that occasionally grips some of her employees: the grumpytrons.

“There is a sort of infectiousness to the grumpytron state,” she says. “So we try to nip it.”

Nipping means asking employees what’s bothering them and finding out what can be done to alter it – particularly important, she says, for a spa where an employee’s bad mood could hijack a customer’s attempt to feel good.

If the mood persists, Breitbard says she’ll get employees out of direct contact with the public. Sometimes she’ll give them time off. She’ll encourage them to get a spa treatment, one of their job perks. But she says she would never want to see her employees become emotionless robots.

The goal, she says, is confronting the grumpytrons and trying to understand them to make sure her employees are happy – which helps keep her customers happy too.

“The direct communication thing is very effective,” she says.

When it’s clear employees are dealing with a mental illness, Breitbard will encourage them to get professional help. For her, that can include include therapists and yoga practitioners.

“I really do think it’s a serious issue we need to deal with,” she says.

For Heath Riddle, general manager of Shoes on a Shoestring’s store on the West Side, employees’ mental health weighs heavily on the store’s success.

Again and again, he says he has seen employees dealing with so many stressful situations outside of work that they abandon their jobs in the middle of the workday.

“It can hurt us bad,” he says “It’s important to nip the problem in the bud.”

Like Breitbard, he talks to employees, finds out what is affecting their work performance. If the problem was not a temporary one of sunken spirits but a more serious case of mental illness, he says he would help the employee find professional care as much as he “possibly can.”

However, he says achieving mental health comes down to the employees “wanting to be healthy themselves.”

“You can only do so much before it really is out of our hands,” he says. “It comes down to them.”

Reaching out

When workers do seek care, one resource they can tap is employee assistance programs.

The programs give workers – often along with their spouses, partners and family members – confidential assistance with a wide range of mental health issues. Both PNM and University of New Mexico Hospital offer them.

“There’s no question about it, employees do use this service, and it has increased in terms of both the numbers of companies that we contract with and the request for services,” says Jane Hertz, executive director of Outcomes Inc., an Albuquerque agency that provides the employee assistance program for UNM Hospital.

“Mental health services are becoming more acceptable. . . . We understand that people need to deal with depression, anxiety.”

Jim Pendergast, administrator for human resources at UNM Hospital, said the employee assistance program has been “extremely successful.”

“We use the EAP (employee assistance program) for any problem that an employee has outside of the workplace that is hurting their performance in the workplace,” he says.

“We don’t want supervisors to try to diagnose and/or treat employees. What we want to do is get them to the employee assistance program.”

In an average month, he says about 50 workers or their family members out of 4,000 employed by UNM Hospital use the employee assistance program.

Other approaches to employees’ mental health focus on creating healthy lifestyles that discourage illness, both mental and physical.

PNM Resources, parent company of PNM, brings in massage therapists to its Downtown offices, says Laura Patterson, director of compensation and benefits for PNM Resources.

Besides 15-minutes massages, PNM Resources employees can also attend stress management seminars, take part in exercise programs and, down the line, get catered meals if they’re working extremely long hours – a scenario experienced by the company’s accounting department in the wake of the recent merger with a Fort Worth energy company.

“I’ve become more and more concerned with the food issue,” Patterson says. “If you’ve got people working long hours, they tend to eat very badly for several months, and that really can impact your health.”

Another player in employees’ mental health is the balance between work and social life, says physician Susan Romanelli, a director at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, which specializes in inpatient psychiatric treatment for adolescents and adults.

She mentions a seminar run once a year by one of her colleagues; he asks a group of doctors to schedule 10 pleasurable activities into their datebooks.

“The datebook has no pleasurable things in it,” she says. “Our work ethic sometimes interferes with our ability to have the best life we could. I think we all need to continue to work on some type of balance.”

SIDEBAR: GROWING NEED

Outcomes Inc., a nonprofit mental health and social services agency in Albuquerque, has seen the number of employee assistance program contracts it provides grow by 23 percent since 2001. The number of workers using the services of such programs – which offer confidential assistance to people seeking help with mental health issues – has grown at a similar rate:

2001: 1,005 employee assistance program users

2002: 1,250 employee assistance program users

2003: 1,320 employee assistance program users

2004: 1,540 employee assistance program users

Source: Outcomes Inc.

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