Keas Poll on Workplace Stress and Disease Burden Provides an Education

companies health productivity
Al’s son once complained to Al’s Aunt Tillie about an overbearing supervisor.  Aunt Tillie suggested that he try to work under a different supervisor.  Tillie was one of those people – and we all know them – who could be counted on to inadvertently provide punchlines when needed.  Conversely, Al is one of those people – and we all know them – who can’t resist setting up those punchlines.  So I lamented that this suggestion may not work because, “Aunt Tillie, it’s a sobering fact that 50% of all supervisors are below average.”

Tillie replied, “I blame our educational system for that.”

Likewise, we may need to blame our educational system for Keas’ new poll on workplace stress.  To begin with, the lead paragraph from Keas — which like many other companies is “the market leader” in wellness – “reveals” that “4 in 10 employees experience above-average stress.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – (Apr 2, 2014) – Keas (www.keas.com), the market leader in employer health and engagement programs, today released new survey data, revealing four in ten employees experience above average levels of job-related stress. Keas is bringing attention to these findings to kick off Stress Awareness Month, and is also providing additional insight and tips to bring greater awareness to the role of stress in the workplace and its impact on employee health.

Wouldn’t that mean some other employees – mathematically, also 6 in 10 – must be experiencing average or below-average levels of stress?   It would seem like mathematically that would have to be the case.   However, the Keas poll also “reveals” that while some employees are average in stress, no employee is below-average – a true paradox.  Hence Keas’ selfless reasons for publishing this poll:  All employees being either average or above average in the stress department means we have a major stress epidemic on our hands.  This perhaps explains why Keas is “bringing attention to these findings.”

In a further paradox, Keas also uses the words “average” and “normal” as synonyms, even though they are often antonyms:  All of us want our children to be normal but who amongst us wants their children to be average?

But Wait…There’s More

There appears to be a dramatic difference in stress according to gender:

The weight of stress on women – More than 7 in 10 women (72%) experience above average levels of stress, compared to 28% of men”

This 40% translates into “72% of women and 28% of men.”   Speaking of blaming our educational system, if you didn’t notice that 72% and 28% average to 50% rather than 40%, then at your next elementary school reunion, you should give your fifth-grade teacher what-for.  (And, yes, women do represent almost 50% of the workforce.)

What is the effect of all this stress?

High stress levels can cause, or worsen, a myriad of health issues for employees including heart disease obesity, cardiovascular issues, depression and diabetes (among others)

After revealing that women are almost three times as stressed as men, Keas goes on to list what it calls “the impact on employee health,” the five diseases that stress can “cause or worsen” — four of which, despite Keas’ claims of women’s stress and disease causality, are considerably more prevalent in men.  Yet again, in the immortal words of those great philosophers Gilbert & Sullivan, a most ingenious paradox.

So Educate Us:  What Does Keas Propose Doing About This?

There’s a good chance your employees are unhealthy. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about – employers at large companies are paying 36 percent more for health care than they were five years ago- but it is something that can be fixed.

Well, the good news is:  (1) unlike, for example, a spot on your tie, unhealthy employees are “nothing to be embarrassed about”; and (2) this is something that can be “fixed.”   How?  Glad you asked.  Coincidentally, Keas offers a solution — stress management.   But how will they know stress management works? Perhaps when they achieve a Lake Wobegon society in which everyone’s stress, instead of being average or above average as the Keas poll reports now, is below average.

companies health productivity


The stress management solution they propose is simple.  To reach this elusive goal of everybody having less stress than average, you need only “actively promote health.”

If you do actively promote health – perhaps by sending a memo around saying that you are actively promoting health –your employees will become “three times more productive.”  Doing the math, this means you can lay off three-quarters of your employees without sacrificing performance.   The remaining employees will answer the phones three times faster, bag three times as many groceries, perform triple bypasses three times faster, fly planes 1500 miles per hour, and so on.

As an employer, you might question Keas’ logic and wonder whether a mass layoff could, paradoxically, make your remaining employees more stressed, thus creating a new epidemic all over again.  In that case, simply repeat all the steps in this posting, starting with fifth grade.

We’d love to end right there for dramatic effect, but at the risk of ruining a joke by explaining the punchline, we need to formalize this discussion by explaining why it is time for the wellness industry to shut up.   For 18 months we have been posting example after example of vendor outcomes — and now polls — proving the observation in Surviving Workplace Wellness that “in wellness you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it.   You simply have to read the data.  It will invalidate itself.”

It’s not just that companies are wasting their money, cutting real benefits in order to pay for these programs.  These programs distract employers from the major healthcare issues they should be focused on. Keas-style wellness sends corporate leaders on a fiscal wild goose chase, trying to save money on things that don’t cost them much money in the first place.  (Even as Keas says costs were increasing 36% over five years due to unhealthy employees, wellness-sensitive medical events were declining, and now represent only about 7% of corporate spending.)

Corporate leaders can lower their own stress levels, which will notably lower the stress levels of employees, by concentrating their energy on addressing the medical errors, overtreatment, and ineffective management of the small number of employees with complex conditions that cost them far more money than employees not eating enough broccoli.

Al Lewis is the author of Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, co-author of Cracking Health CostsHow to Cut Your Company’s Health Costs and Provide Employees Better Care, and president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium

Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness. He is Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB and author of the forthcoming Your Personal Affordable Care Act: Making Yourself Scarce in the Dysfunctional US Healthcare System. Vik and Al are co-authors of Surviving Workplace Wellness, THCB’s first e-book. 

12 replies »

  1. When we have wars, the suicide rate goes way down. This suggests that we feel better when we see others being stressed. Accordingly maybe we can improve stress in employees by causing more stress in employers and vice versa. Or perhaps the society needs more gladiatorial contests especially between employers or vicious labor strikes or boxing matches between bosses or disasters going off every which way in the front office, like broken fax machines and nasty secretaries.

  2. So why did they allow themselves to be over employed, where their cvs/profile a little overstated. It is usually more difficult to get the job done on time they cry your eyes out.

  3. To long to read and to many words to say one single thing. Boring and totally inconclusive. Try again. You earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. Do you think them in those days didn’t stress while at work with a supervisor armed with a whip… c’mon. It is a part of living.

  4. People have been dying of chronic diseases for thousands of years.

    When there were wars and famines, then the death rate spiked up.

    America is not perfect, but we are way ahead of places like Russia……where men started dying in their 40’s and 50’s after 1989– I think in large part due to rotgut vodka.

    America’s problems are utterly trivial by historical standards. People are actually supposed to die when they get old, We do want to minimize pain and we do a decent job of that.

  5. HI, Rob, that one is in our book. The shocking statistic — from the CDC itself — is that 7 out of 10 people die of chronic disease. Perhaps they would like it better if 7 out of 10 people died of acute diseases, medical errors, homicides etc.

  6. Glad you brought this up…

    If they know so little about surveying that they could sample that disportionately, you’re right- -their average could be right…but then they would be showing they know less than nothing about sampling. Or at the worst they could have at least mentioned that they didn’t survey anything remotely approaching a representative sample.

    Still, it’s hard to imagine how they could have surveyed only people who were average or higher than average.

  7. Scare tactics are the heart and soul of the modern wellness and healthcare industries. Whether it’s decrying the number of deaths from heart disease, cancer, or Alzheimer’s, the best way to get people to engage with the healthcare system is to frighten them, even if it’s only restless leg syndrome.

    Facts, such as stressors can be good or bad, and that two people can both see a situation as stressful and have strikingly different responses to it, don’t matter. It’s all about the games you can play with the data, with definitions of terms, and nondisclosure of useful information, to scare people into playing your game.

  8. Reminds me of a graphic I saw that raised the alarm about the dramatic rise of the number of people dying from chronic disease. As I thought about the work done on this study, I wondered if they considered the alternative: more people dying from homicide, suicide, accidents, infections….isn’t more deaths due to chronic disease what we want? It’s all about the zero-sum gain, where a curve (be it Gaussian or skewed) will always range between 0 and 100%, never more or less.

    Keep reminding folks about this, as distortion of the obvious as remarkable is usually done by folks trying to gain from people’s credulity and unwillingness to see beyond the screaming headlines/advertisements. Thanks for this!

  9. While I don’t disagree with the spirit of the blog, your mathematical reasoning (or jesting) is slightly flawed. First, this is a survey, thus the statistics only hold within the population of the survey. Thus, the 4/10 experience higher than average levels of stress may be a semantic issue, not a mathematical issue. Try inserting the word “reported” and you’ll see that mathematically 4 out of 10 could “report” experiencing higher than average workplace stress. Of course, this means the definition of “average” is left to the surveyee.

    But, your argument that is more flawed is on the 72% of women and 28% of men. Again, this is within the survey data. Thus, if 500 women responded and 100 men – that woudl be 360 women and 28 men, equaling 65% of the survey respondents. On the flip side, if it were 500 men and 100 women, that would be 42% (close to the 40% total). You can’t just add percentages and average without knowing the base upon which the percentage was applied. Your assumption is that there was an equal number of men and women who responded to the survey. Don’t know if that is a valid assumption or not.

    Why point this out? To show that you are guilty of logical fallacies just as Keas is. And you’re guilty of manipulating statistics to prove your point.

  10. I’m guessing that your work itself is triggering abover-average levels of stress across the wellness industry right about now 🙂 And for good reason!

  11. Interestingly, they also never define stress or the stress response. The presumption is basically, if something feels lousy or pressure-filled, it’s a stress. Stressors and the stress response are so much more complex than that. Of course, this is wellness vendor we’re writing about. Complexity, nuance, and verisimilitude are not their strong points.

  12. A lot of people would argue that the reasons that different percentages of men and women report stress is that women are more aware of their emotions and more likely to realize that something is going on, men more likely to accept stress as part of their jobs and believe that complaining is for pussies ..

    Workplace stress is a ongoing meme in the tech industry. What would you do to build a wellness program that reduces stress while promoting productivity?

    Friday afternoon paintball? Give ’em a wellness app? ; )