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Employers say friends can ease work stress

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Stress can mean different things to different people, but the American worker clearly has plenty.

Consider:

• Interruptions ruin our day. A survey by AtTask finds that 37 percent of workers say interruptions lead to “work hell.”

• We work too much: Some 57 percent of workers put in more than 40 hours a week while 8 percent work more than 60 hours a week, the AtTask survey finds.

• Financial worries abound. “High” or “overwhelming” is how 19 percent of those surveyed by Financial Finesse describe their financial stress in the third quarter of this year, compared to 13 percent for the same time last year; 43 percent worry how the economy and the stock market will affect their financial future.

• We don't take enough downtime. A recent Expedia survey finds that while average American workers get 14 days of vacation time a year, they take only 10. That's two more unused vacation days than the previous year, Expedia reports.

“No one retires wishing they'd spent more time at their desk,” says John Morrey, vice president and general manager of Expedia. “There are countless reasons that vacation days go unused — failure to plan, worry, forgetfulness, you name it.”

Companies are beginning to become concerned with workers who don't take better care of themselves. Stress increases health risks, unhealthy workers are less productive and engaged and drive up health-care costs.

That's why more employers are encouraging healthier behavior.

That can mean a “carrot” approach that provides cash incentives for employees to achieve certain health goals. Or a “stick” approach that punishes workers who are overweight or smoke with higher insurance deductibles.

Wellness experts say employees have more success becoming healthier if family and friends eat the right food and exercise, too.

One program that takes this social approach is Keas, an employer health and engagement company.

Josh Stevens, Keas chief executive, says his company offers a Facebook-like program that lets workers, their friends and families communicate online about exercise and diet.

Most workers are operating under information overload and don't want to be inundated with health information from their employer, he says, but if a friend or family member talks about a fun way to exercise or brags about losing weight by eating healthier, that can help spur better habits.

Many workplaces don't like workers using Facebook on the job, but many employees rely on this connection to help them relieve the stress of their day. So, taking an “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” approach, he says employers can let workers enjoy the social aspect of online connections and learn ways to become healthier.

As more employers understand that healthier employees help drive bottom-line results, Stevens believes that more help will become available for workers who want to reduce stress and become healthier.

Write to Anita Bruzzese in care of USA TODAY/Gannett, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22108.

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