De-stressing the Workplace
Responding to the headlines about employee protests, suicides and deaths from overwork, some proactive Taiwanese enterprises have gotten the message that the well-being of workers is crucial for company health.
De-stressing the WorkplaceBy Ming-ling Hsieh and Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 473 )
"Good employee assistance programs (EAP) serve as a bridge. They allow anyone to connect wherever they want, and are also buffer zones for communication between employees and their companies," declares Carol Huang, supervisor of the Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) Services Center under the Hsinchu Life Line Association.
Huang used to work for the human resources department of a big multinational company. She switched to the EAP Programs Services Center when it was established nine years ago, at the initiative of the Council of Labor Affairs. One of the first companies to use the center's services was TSMC, the world's largest dedicated IC foundry. Since then, more than 60 companies from various industries representing 160,000 employees, including smartphone maker HTC, the Taiwan Stock Exchange Corporation, Johnson and Johnson Taiwan, and Asia Cement, have started making use of the center's services.
The center provides counseling or referrals to employees with all sorts of personal problems. If, for instance, a female employee is beaten by her debt-saddled husband, Huang will not only provide emotional and psychological counseling, but also refer her to financial and legal experts for further advice. She will also arrange assistance within the company to help the embattled employee get through this difficult period, probably by reassigning her to another position or adjusting the job description.
"It's like running a relay race. The company is the first leg, we are the second leg, and expert resources in society are the third leg," Huang explains.
Over the past few years a growing number of enterprises have begun to offer such a bridge or platform to ease employee stress.
Stress is the price we pay for the frenzied, high-strung pace of modern life. Since people today spend more than one third of their day at the workplace, it goes without saying how big a role interaction with and reliance on the corporate environment play. Since there have been many incidents of employee suicide, sudden death from work-related stress, and protests by laid-off workers, more and more companies have realized how important it is to help employees address psychological problems and life issues.
The point is that when companies help employees solve personal problems, this will ultimately also boost corporate productivity.
Taipei Metro: Fulltime Counselors Gain Employees' Trust
The Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (TRTC), which runs the capital's subway system, is a case in point. When people throw themselves in front of a subway train to commit suicide, this is a traumatic experience for both train operators and station personnel. In order to help employees recover from trauma caused by subway suicides and return to work more quickly, TRTC has designed a two-hour seminar on "psychological preparation for emergencies and accidents" as part of its new employee orientation. Should a death or injury occur in the system, the Operation Control Center immediately dispatches a substitute train operator. At the same time, counselors and legal office staff are summoned by mobile phone to the scene of the accident to escort the affected employees. After a paid leave of three days, the employees are required to participate in follow-up psychological and workplace mentoring.
Thirteen years ago when the Taipei Metro saw its first suicide, it took the affected employees half a year to recover from the traumatizing experience. Thanks to the comprehensive counseling services that have since been implemented, the recovery period has been shortened to just two weeks.
The company also offers customized courses for employees who have been working the graveyard shift for many years. Rail maintenance workers, for instance, who start their shifts at 10 p.m. and work through the night until 6 a.m., can learn how to minimize the adverse effects that the graveyard shift can have on health and personal life, through a booklet compiled by the company's counseling office, as well as experience-sharing sessions with colleagues. The issues that are addressed include adjusting sleeping habits, a regular and healthful diet, and maintaining family relationships and social ties.
Chen Hsiao-ping, a Taipei Metro counselor, notes that if companies do well in this area, new employees are less likely to immediately quit their jobs because of poor adjustment.
"When the mental state of employees is more stable and healthy, absenteeism declines," says Sheng-tai Cheng, head of the human resources division at TRTC. Cheng, who has been with the company for 20 years, believes that the emotional well-being of employees has a direct effect on company operations.
Companies, Experts Join Hands to Tackle Health Killers
In order to face psychological problems caused by stress in a fast-paced life, companies can create a win-win situation by improving the overall environment and system.
First, management needs to decide whether it wants to draw on external resources or establish an in-house support system. Both approaches have their pros and cons.
TRTC has established a counseling office, staffed with three fulltime counselors, directly under the human resources division. Over the past 13 years, the counseling office has gained the full trust of the employees. The counselors also thoroughly understand the company and often develop tailor-made programs for specific employee groups. For instance, marking its 17th anniversary, the company developed a course on "workplace well-being skills" aimed at veteran employees with more than ten years on the job, to help them manage burnout.
Epistar Links Up with Life Line
Many companies in the Hsinchu Science Park cooperate with an external organization. LED manufacturer Epistar Corporation established an in-house "employee relations office" three years ago. Currently, the office has a staff of four, and organizes "soft" events such as receptions for new employees and informal discussions between management and workers. Aside from helping newcomers adjust and fostering vertical communication, the office also cooperates with the EAP Center of the Hsinchu Life Line Association. When employees have problems, they can directly turn to the association for support or ask the office for a referral.
Such a dual-layer employee support system has its advantages. Employees are more willing to seek help within the company, because they are more familiar with in-house staff and have developed a trusting relationship with them. But on the other hand, the company can fall back on the EAP Center's professional resources for more specific issues such as psychological counseling or legal or financial advice.
Earlier this year the Council of Labor Affairs set up the "Happy Call" hotline for companies that want to set up employee support systems, but do not really know how to go about it. Companies can call the hotline to get free advice and apply for a six-hour face-to-face session with a consultant to discuss details.
When designing such support systems, a company should focus as much on prevention as on emergency response or fringe benefits.
Yang Ming-lei, associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Educational Psychology and Counseling of Tamkang University, warns that employee support systems should not merely be regarded as fringe benefits that are only granted if the company has surplus money on its hands. The TRTC's Cheng believes that companies should view employee assistance programs as their "responsibility." Therefore, the company's needs should be analyzed based on its nature, stage of development, and employee composition, and then be prioritized so that resources can be used most efficiently.
Chen Hsiao-ping of the Taipei Metro is convinced that "prevention is better than cure."
She explains: "Compared to working frantically when a big problem arises, it's far more important to find out what the employees care about, what they need and what causes them to react negatively."
Life Line's Carol Huang suggests that when planning an employee assistance system, a company should institute a safety net at three different levels – the employee, his colleagues, and his supervisor: The employee needs self-awareness and should be alert to whether he or she needs assistance. Colleagues need the ability to understand and observe when a coworker has a problem. Finally, supervisors need to develop sensitivity, and top management needs to support such efforts.
"Small mistakes should be associated with a reaction to stress," warns Yang Ming-lei. An employee's work performance is a possible indicator of his or her mental state. "What we should fear most is overlooking such signs."
Seed Employees Get Deep Down
Every year TRTC holds a course for supervisors in which they learn to identify employees' moods and emotions. The supervisors are trained to observe their employees and detect problems at an early stage, based on changes in appearance and demeanor, abnormal behavior, absenteeism and overall work performance. This allows supervisors to serve as seeds who help recognize and prevent employee problems.
Wang Yu-ting, manager of Epistar's employee relations office, began this year to ask supervisors to recommend more than 100 suitable employees for a three-day "mentor" training program. Potential candidates need to have an enthusiastic personality and be able to keep things confidential. These novice mentors help new employees to get familiar with the new environment and to solve problems they encounter in everyday life. They also help Wang by identifying employees that seem to have problems and referring them to her. These mentors meet at regular intervals to share their experiences.
"Mentors are not alone. I am behind them," says Wang. Starting out in quality assurance, she was transferred to the employee relations office thanks to her outgoing personality and good relations with her coworkers.
Lastly, with the deft use of internal management resources, companies can find ways to show consideration for employees in difficult circumstances without being intrusive.
TRTC counselors, for instance, systematically check the human resources division's bereavement leave record and send a small sympathy card to the bereaved employee expressing condolences in a low-key manner, while letting the employees know that the counselors are there for them. During the various natural disasters over the past few years, Cheng asked the human resources division to check the personnel files to find out who hailed from the disaster-stricken areas. Supervisors were then notified who in their team or unit was affected, to ensure they showed understanding if employees took leave frequently, and that disaster victims were treated with particular care and attention.
Carol Huang also warns against spreading employee assistance programs across several units within a company such as human resources, employee relations, the employee welfare committee, environmental safety, and occupational health nursing. If such resources are instead integrated under one roof, companies can more efficiently assist the physical and psychological health of their employees.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz