Work Stress: The Elephant in the Room

As the New Year begins, I am hoping for a renewed emphasis on addressing work-related stress.

In this post, I both applaud and raise questions about how organizations are taking steps to reduce stress and the negative impact it is having on American workers and their families.

I admire the work that the Center for Work Life Policy does.  Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank, where she leads the “Hidden Brain Drain” Task Force.

In a recent online article she wrote for Forbes.com, Sylvia mentions that the pressures of the recession are having a measurable effect on the physical health and mental well being of many workers.

I don’t think this is shocking news to anyone; but it is important to keep talking about it. Work related stress is a problem of epidemic proportions.

Although Sylvia tends to focus on data that comes from vice presidents and managing directors (what she calls the “Cream of the Crop”), I believe that these stress-related trends impact all workers.

After all, workers at every level are getting hit with pressure to do more with less and to work so many hours that their personal lives are imposed upon. I hear this from my clients every day and my clients represent a broad range of people from executives to project managers to technical writers to health care workers.

The Forbes.com article gives examples of the how stress is not only causing illness, but likely causing negative dynamics within families,

…as they [workers] deal with brutal hours in tension-filled offices, many high performers can’t prevent the strains at work from spilling over into their home lives causing ill temper and spawning squabbles.

Sylvia mentions what some smart companies are doing to try to break the vicious cycle of stress. Indeed, these ideas are not earth shattering, yet they are worth repeating.

One interesting example came from an EVP & Corporate Comptroller at American Express (AXP). Her name is Joan.

In the spirit of getting at the real issues, I’d like to challenge a few of the ideas. Read on.

Joan’s AMX group developed a four-part initiative to reduce stress (listed below). I’ve added my take to each. See what you think and let me know your thoughts.

Step One: Everyone had to be on their way home by 6:30 pm

My take: This seems reasonable enough – I like the idea of an expectation that everyone will go home at a reasonable hour. Yet I wonder about those people who have children or family members that need care. Do they have flexibility to leave earlier on some days or work from home sometimes? Is there an unspoken “rule” of staying until 6:30 pm?

Step Two: No emails after 8 pm

My take: At first glance, I applaud this idea. I know too many people (including myself) who work on email until the wee hours of the morning.  But WAIT – 8pm?  Is there an unspoken assumption here that one must be accessible until 8 pm every night?  So I should leave the office by 6:30 p.m. but I also will be on email until 8 p.m. When does the family have dinner? When do I talk with my kids and hug my partner?

Hmmm…just wondering about the unspoken messages here.

Step Three: No email on weekends or vacations.

My take: Sounds good. Vacation time is crucial for rejuvenation and accessing new and creative ideas.

Step Four: When you take vacation or personal time, you have to delegate authority.

My take: Makes sense. Of course this is important, but I also need to have the resources to be able to delegate to.  If my staff is completely stretched like taffy already, my delegating to them may create an unreasonable workload for them to manage. This “delegation” idea is smart on the surface, but it may not be achievable in reality.  Remember, everyone is supposed to go home by 6:30pm and stop emails at 8:00pm too.

And what about those people who don’t have anyone to delegate to? There are plenty of people who manage projects but don’t have a staff. What is the protocol for them? How do they delegate?

—————————————————————

Let’s keep generating good ideas about managing work-related stress. It’s a big step to talk about it and generate new ways of handling the negative consequences.

However, we must also be open to looking at our approach with an open mind.  Are we still perpetuating the vicious cycle with unspoken messages? Are we asking the right questions? Is it “safe” for anyone to raise these issues or is it taboo?  Will the worker who says “this isn’t working” be frowned upon?  How much freedom is given to each employee to determine and live by their own boundaries?

Can we acknowledge the elephants in the room?

After all, if you want great employees to stick around when the economy starts moving forward again, it’s wise to think about this. Otherwise, they will be out the door quicker than you can turn on your blackberry once more jobs are available.

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5 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Terry Del Percio, Pamela Miles. Pamela Miles said: RT @WorkIntegrity: Work Stress: The Elephant in the Room: http://wp.me/pmXxX-3H […]

  2. Great thoughts to begin the new year. Thanks for sharing.

    While I like the intention of the idea behind rules like, “leave by 6:30pm” or “no emails after 8pm,” I believe that the key to balance in today’s workplace is empowering employees to set parameters for themselves that work for them.

    For example, I might benefit from leaving the office by 4:30pm each day to make it to a yoga class, and I would gladly work an hour later that evening/night.

    The key is to give employees the freedom to make such choices, and not feel pressured to work during their personal time. In other words, if I leave at 4:30pm for yoga, I shouldn’t feel like I need to check my email right before and right after class.

    If individuals can work toward this, I’d like to believe there can be a change collectively!

  3. Hi Kamna – I completely agree with you. I think it’s extremely important to give employees the freedom to create their own boundaries. Only leaders and managers with a strong sense of self tend to be able to do that. It’s about TRUST. If, as a leader/manager, you have developed trust between the people on your team, they will most likely respect the work and work hard to reach the goals. If there is no trust; they will not care very much.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I do hope that we can create a collective change! It’s so important. And I believe that businesses will thrive as a result.

  4. I must say that this post got me thinking.

    I’m sure that the company in the article had good intentions – but we all know what road is paved with good intentions.

    In my experience it has never been “the organization” that created unrealistic work hour expectations. Nope. it was my manager. Without changing jobs, I have had drastically different work expectations simply by getting a new manager.

    Companies intent on making the changes outlined here might want to begin with managers rather than creating blanket rules for all (a great way to avoid having difficult conversations with unrealistic managers.)

    As the new year begins, organizations might ask themselves “Why are our people working so hard?”

    As for individuals… it might be a good idea to ask ourselves… “Why am I working so hard?”

    The answers could be enlightening!

    • Dottie – You make excellent points here. Great food for thought. I agree with you that it’s usually all about the manager. It is truly amazing how different a work situation can be when all factors are the same except for that one person. Outstanding workers can go to “needs improvement” in a matter of days, and schedule flexibility could be great for both the employee and the company until a new manager comes along and feels threatened by the idea of flexibility.

      You ask great questions. I would add another. Every manager should ask: How can I make this environment work well for EACH person on my staff so that both the company and the person gains value? Employees who feel valued and appreciated will always give more than they get.

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