UC Offers Help to Stressed Employees

For Craig Mielcarski, the trend is hard to miss: More and more, employees coming to UC Berkeley’s CARE Services are having trouble coping with mounting stress.

“The ability to manage stress is more of a challenge because of the ongoing impact of the overall economy, from the country to the state to the University,” said Mielcarski, director of CARE Services, a campus faculty and staff assistance program.

Stress and depression have consistently been the top issues for which UC employees seek counseling. In mental health terms, it’s the equivalent of the common cold, with thousands of employees each year seeking treatment. Recently, that figure has been growing.

Need Help Managing Stress?

The number of UC employees seeking treatment for depression grew by 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to United Behavioral Health, the University’s primary provider for mental health services. And Employee Assistance Programs at campuses are reporting increases either in volume or severity of symptoms, or both.

“We’re seeing a much higher level of people being stretched as far as being able to cope,” Mielcarski said. “It’s not just people who lose a job; it’s people whose job is being changed. The ways things are being done are being realigned, and that’s stressful.”

It’s no surprise that workplace stress is rising. UC’s financial future has become less certain amid dwindling state support. The University is grappling with a $650 million state budget cut this fiscal year alone, and is resorting to a series of program reductions, layoffs, tuition increases and other measures to close the gap.

That kind of seismic change can be overwhelming. Employees usually turn to familiar methods of coping with stress but when even those trusted tools fail, they can be left feeling a loss of control. Stress and tension mount.

Stress Leads to Behavior Changes

Stress manifests itself in multiple ways at home and at work: trouble sleeping, a change in eating habits such as overeating or eating too little, problems concentrating, lack of motivation or a shift in energy level. Behavior may change, too. A jovial person may become quieter, or someone who is normally quiet may start making sarcastic comments.

“Tension rises under stressful conditions and some people may act out,” said Equilla Luke, director of the UC San Diego Faculty and Staff Assistance Program. “It can have a negative impact on your collegial relationships.”

Distressed employees may start showing a pattern of not coming to work, coming in later or leaving earlier. When they do come to work, they may have trouble focusing. A task that used to take half an hour to complete may take two hours or more.

These changes can be noticeable not only to those experiencing the symptoms, but also to co-workers.

“Any kind of significant change in behavior is something you want to pay attention to,” said Andrew Leuchter, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, vice chair of the UCLA Academic Senate and a senior research scientist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Nationwide, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 9.1 percent of Americans have depression. In California, the figure is 9.2 percent.

Depression was associated with a 2.5-fold increase in the probability of missing work because of illness and a 50 percent increase in lost work time, according to studies by the National Business Group on Health.

Symptoms of stress are similar to symptoms of depression such as sadness and fatigue, but the difference lies in the severity. People who are depressed will exhibit multiple symptoms continuously for two weeks or more, Leuchter said. They also exhibit other symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness. And it can become so persistent and severe that it interferes with day-to-day activities.

Stress can contribute to depression symptoms, but it does not mean it causes or leads to depression for everyone. Some people may experience a lot of stress, but never have depression while others might.

Depression is an illness attributed to factors such as your genetic makeup and your environment, Leuchter said. People with a strong family history of depression would be more likely under stressful conditions to develop depression. Others without a family history might require a lot more stress in order to develop depression or may not develop depression at all.

Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of either stress or depression will help, Mielcarski said. Quite simply, the mind and body need a chance to reset and recharge to be healthy. Stress that goes unchecked can lead to more serious problems such as unhealthy weight gain or weight loss, high blood pressure and heart disease.

“We have the ability to ignore and override early signs and symptoms and we often choose to do just that,” Mielcarski said. “But ignoring these signs is not a sustainable, healthy practice and at some point, your mental and physical health will be compromised.”

So what do you do if you recognize these symptoms? Seek support from your campus Employment Assistance Program, a doctor or even family and friends. A support network is crucial to navigating tough times.