After the Great Recession, American Workers Begin Adjusting to the New Normal

NEW YORK, May 17 , 2010—In the 2010 Annual Trends Report released today from Harris, Rothenberg International, Inc. (HRI), a leading employer/employee resource firm, new research reveals that American workers are beginning to adjust to a new normalcy in the wake of the most significant economic reversal since the Great Depression. Working Toward a Culture of Health examines the impact of the Great Recession on businesses and employees and outlines steps for companies to consider to support employees adjusting to the new status quo.
HRI issues trends reports annually. This year’s report is based on interviews conducted with senior HR executives, consultants, and internal counselors and specialists. In addition, recent Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and Work/ Life (W/L) Program data was analyzed to reveal the kinds of mental, emotional, and work/life issues employees are experiencing in the workplace.

2009 was certainly a stressful year, marked by millions of job losses and unprecedented increases in the number and severity of EAP-W/L calls and overall utilization. Key insights from Working Toward a Culture of Health include the following:

• Employee responses to the Great Recession have included increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression and fear, which in many cases have led to marital discord, insomnia, substance abuse issues, and/or other problems that can have a negative impact on employee health and performance.

• While these reactions are similar to those of previous recessions, according to HRI, the overall intensity appears to be greater, reflecting the greater magnitude and uncertainty as a result of the recent economic crisis.

• Exacerbating the current situation further, employees desperate to save their jobs are working harder to increase the perception of their value: arriving at work early and staying late; refusing to take breaks or vacations; and/or coming to work when they are ill—the kinds of behavior that can lead to serious consequences.

These observations are confirmed by the EAP utilization data analyzed by HRI. Notably:

• Calls to the EAP have increased by 14% between 2008 and 2009 and continuing in to 2010. This includes November and December, which are traditionally low months for EAP calls.

• Complexity of calls to the EAP is increasing, with one reported issue quickly giving way to two or three underlying issues.

• The number of emergency calls rose by 75% last year, reflecting the fact that although individuals are feeling greater levels of distress, they are delaying calling for help until they reach a crisis stage.

• Manager referrals and return-to-work cases increased significantly from 2008 to 2009 by 77% and 24% respectively.

• Legal and financial services utilization increased dramatically between 2008 and 2009, led by increases in: foreclosure support (+137%), mortgage issues (+95%) and bankruptcy issues (+75%).

• Prior to May 2008, the percentage of callers assessed as either moderately or severely impaired according to the Anxiety Scale only exceeded 50% twice. Between May 2008 and September 2009, the rate of callers assessed as either moderately or severely impaired according to the Anxiety Scale exceeded 50% thirteen times.

Despite these overwhelming numbers, the experts at HRI are beginning to see signs of stabilization as companies increase their focus on supporting their current employees and plan to operate within the new economic realities. In fact, HR executives report that they are integrating EAP-W/L services with their health and wellness offerings, describing this as a natural pairing that increases efficiency and encourages greater utilization.

“People and organizations are adapting,” said Edward Trieber, J.D., Ph.D., psychologist and managing director of HRI. “While some cultures are adapting better than others, the fact that we’ve come through the worst and signs are improving demonstrates that there’s an opportunity to build on the strengths that people have exhibited.

“One reason for increased calls is that people are reaching out and asking for help,” continued Dr. Trieber. “We know that these programs are effective — particularly for those under great levels of stress. We hope that one of the reasons behind the recent improvements is that people are turning to these services and, in turn, are becoming healthy, more productive workers.”

According to the report, now more than ever, it is imperative to make employees aware of their EAP-W/L and health and wellness programs so that they can access support and enhance their resiliency to stress (leading to reduced absenteeism and enhanced productivity). Promotion and marketing of EAP-W/L programs should focus not only on increasing awareness and understanding of program offerings, but should also emphasize confidentiality and foster the connection between identifying a personal need and reaching out to EAP-W/L and/or health and wellness programs.

Because EAP programs have evolved over time, new marketing techniques that include corporate branding and utilize terms other than employee assistance have proven effective in increasing utilization and understanding. Further, employers surveyed emphasized the need for internal champions to promote the benefits of these programs to employees and managers and to integrate EAP-W/L programs with other company-provided programs to promote utilization throughout organizations.

One area of concern for employers as the economic outlook begins to brighten is retaining good employees. Faced with the prospect of doing more with less for another year or more might push employees near the breaking point as the economy rebounds. According to HRI, some companies fear “being left with a traumatized workforce that is hostile to management and eager to leave for greener pastures at the first opportunity.”

“Everyone sacrificed to make it through the recession,” said Beatrice Harris, Ph.D., psychologist and managing director of HRI. “One would be hard pressed to leave a paying job in an uncertain and downright bleak job market. But with the anticipated rebound comes new opportunity. Employers today have to focus on supporting and keeping their best people. While the economy might improve, the impact on our collective psyche will be delayed by a year or more. That means expanding programs and making them more accessible to give the hardest workers the sense of support and resources they need to be successful and feel appreciated today.”

A Healthy Outlook for 2010
In addition to reflecting on recent trends, Working Toward a Culture of Health provides insights into 2010 and offers advice for employers and employees alike. Notably, the new normal workplace is leaner than in the past. Much of the organizational fat has been trimmed and there is less tolerance for poor performance or attitude among co-workers, managers and business leaders.

While the report cites a shared sense of cautious optimism among those interviewed, HRI experts call for increased communication throughout organizations. In one noted example, a CEO’s candor and confidence to stand up and speak honestly to employees about an office closing resulted in a markedly positive attitude among employees concerning their future and the future of the organization, despite the news.

Things are clearly improving. According to HRI, while the nation has been through an extremely disruptive time, the resiliency of the workforce is impressive. Many challenges remain but so do many opportunities. Corporations are in a position to create a stronger workplace culture than previously existed. By learning from the experiences of the recent past, organizations can create healthy cultures that will add up to a true culture of health.
“Creating a culture of health includes prevention, as well as treating and helping people in need,” explained Dr. Trieber. “Over the past 12 months, only one HRI company cut benefits. The rest have maintained or even increased the benefits they are providing. That level of support and commitment has certainly been appreciated by the workforce.”

The new definition of normal has also forced the evolution of attitudes among organizations and individuals. “Events in the world have forced us to recognize that we have to participate in our own well-being and that our present behaviors impact our future,” said Dr. Harris. “When faced with limited resources, the quality of our choices matters more.”


Harris, Rothenberg International, Inc.: HRI helps organizations all around the world solve their most challenging and complex people issues. HRI helps remove the barriers that prevent organizations and employees from achieving their best. Combining professional expertise and the latest technologies, HRI provides integrated solutions to clients, drawing on seven core service areas: employer and employee assistance programs (E/EAP), work/life services, executive coaching, training, organizational development, consulting, and web development. For more information, visit or call (800) 441-7509.

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