Changing the stress cycle: stress is a two-way street

Modern life is stressful. All of us in medical professions bear particular burdens of life, and sometimes death, as we treat patients. And that stress begets more stress.

Stress at work affects relationships at home, and marriages under strain have a negative effect on productivity at work. Stress can trigger depression and substance abuse. Mistakes at work produce more stress. This cyclical stress pattern afflicts many people in medical professions.

“Stress is a two-way street between work and home,” explains a recent report of the Marriage CoMission. At least 60 percent of the marriages of all medical personnel in America end in divorce, a full ten percent higher than the national average. Strengthening marriages would help break the cycle by healing strained relationships at home, while enhancing the effectiveness of medical practitioners at work.

People who are married to their jobs often would benefit from help with their marriages at home. Corporate leaders across America are discovering a correlation between relational stress and the bottom line. Not only medical professionals, but attorneys, manufacturers, service industry executives, and human resources directors across the country are finding that couples in conflict have increased stress and anxiety, reducing their effectiveness at work. Every time an employee divorces, it affects their productivity for two to three years. [Lavy]

The Wall Street Journal reports that corporations began to implement programs to lessen the damage caused by troubled marriages, when managers “became concerned that workers were being unproductive or leaving the company because of marital stresses.” One firm offers marriage classes at corporate retreats, while another provides marriage trainers to teach skills in effective communication and “how to defuse disagreements before they escalate into fullblown conflicts.”

Some corporations in America are offering benefits like marriage retreats because stressed relations at home have a clearly negative effect on the well-being of their employees, and hence the bottom line of the company. “Relational wellness” is what the Marriage CoMission has defined as the goal of these programs: balanced and satisfying relationships both personally and professionally, which yields greater productivity and efficiency at work.

Concern for our fellow physicians was one of the reasons my husband, Dr. William Riley, and I founded The Clearing (www.clearingretreat. org), a nonprofit devoted to healing and strengthening marriages. The Clearing offers weekend workshops for couples and monthly Marriage Intensive Retreats to foster “relational wellness.”

The prospects for healing a stressed marriage are very good, if the partners are willing. Four-day marriage intensive retreats led by two therapists is a format that has proven for a decade to be successful in healing eight out of ten marriages, as documented in follow-up studies. [National Institute of Marriage]

A wealth of academic research indicates that married couples statistically tend to be healthier, live longer, have more satisfying sexual relationships, are more successful in their careers, and their children are more likely to do better academically and emotionally. The negative effects of stressed relationships and divorce have a statistical correlation to deteriorating health, more depression, decreased longevity, less job satisfaction, diminished wealth, while the children of divorce are statistically more likely to engage in high-risk behavior and underperform academically. [Waite & Gallagher].

The costs of marital stress extend far beyond the workplace and the immediate family. As the government has stepped in to pick up the pieces of fractured families, it is spending at least $112 billion each year in federal and state expenditures, or $1 trillion per decade, according to a study by the Institute for American Values. [Blankenhorn] With 1.2 million divorces each year in America, the annual cost is $30,000 in government services for each family, which we all pay for.

The cost to corporations is significant, although often hidden. Employees in the midst of marital stress are more likely to be sick or depressed (and incur health insurance costs), less effective on the job, more distracted and prone to make mistakes, and more likely to manifest substance abuse problems. Not only does absenteeism increase, but “presenteeism,” being physically present but mentally absent. One can only imagine the sum of consequences of all preoccupied medical caregivers. Stressed marriages and relationships are responsible for the loss of $6 billion in national corporate productivity, according to a recent study. When one party in a stressed marriage takes solace in an affair at work, the effect is another layer of lost productivity, aside from the other ramifications.

There are good solutions for this far-reaching problem. Every family physician advocates an annual check-up to detect problems early and prevent serious health issues from developing. Annual marriage workshops would have the same value in treating marital maladies before they become serious. Including workshops and retreats in the wellness package of benefits would be powerful preventive medicine for medical personnel. Employee Assistance Programs and HR Directors could refer employees to marriage intensive retreats, a proven way to jumpstart healing and reconciliation. Offering annual CME (Continuing Marriage Education) would be an excellent way to convey practical tools for communication to foster genuine intimacy.

Relational wellness at home fosters wellness at work by reducing stress for people in the healing professions. The 60 percent divorce rate in medical marriages is a genuine cause for concern. Marriage workshops and retreats to foster relational wellness would provide valuable benefits for employees, their families, as well as the patients we treat. Beyond that, reducing stress in marriages is a powerful way to improve the bottom line for everyone in the business of providing medical care. The ripple effect of these healed relationships would extend into the city and far beyond.

“Physician, heal thyself” is an ancient admonition that perhaps speaks to the need for the medical profession to take the lead in nurturing of healthy marriages in the workplace. If all of corporate America did likewise, we truly would improve the triple bottom line of health, wealth and happiness for the whole nation.