Stressed Out by Work? You’re Not Alone


If you had asked any worker since the Industrial Revolution whether he or she was experiencing stress on the job, the answer would likely have been in the affirmative—and emphatic. But workplace experts say something unusual is going on today. Global competition, downsizing and the constant state of being electronically tethered to the office are combining to create a perhaps unprecedented level of stress.

“Absolutely, there is no question about that,” says Wharton practice professor of management Stewart Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. “If you look at the span of the last 50 years, we know people are working more, that more of their waking attention is devoted to work and work-related decisions, and it’s a challenge because the ubiquity of technology has enabled 24/7 communication. For most of us, we didn’t grow up with these tools and are still adjusting to what it means to create meaningful boundaries between work and the other places in our life, so that’s a new skill.”

Indeed, the pressure is greater than ever, especially in the U.S., says Hendrie Weisinger, co-author with J.P. Pawliw-Fry of a forthcoming book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. Contributing factors include global competition, longevity, social media and materialistic values, he says. Plus, he adds, there has been “a change from a manufacturing business culture, which emphasized production output, to a business culture that has become more interpersonally oriented, thus making one’s success dependent on what others do. And you cannot control others.”

If more work means more stress — and most experts say it does — it is spinning off some disturbing trends. For one thing, it’s not helping productivity. Stressed workers are less engaged, exhibit higher absenteeism and are generally less productive, according to a recent Towers Watson survey of 22,347 employees in 12 countries, including the U.S. More than half of the respondents cited inadequate staffing as the major cause of stress.

A more grim consequence of pressure in the corporate workplace may be playing out. A spate of suicides has gripped the attention of the corporate realm this year: two top executives at telecom and insurance firms in Switzerland, a JPMorgan banker in Hong Kong and another in London. At French telecom company Orange this year, 10 workers have taken their lives, most for job-related reasons, according to the company.

But it is far from clear that suicide is up more in the C-suite than in other workplaces. Doctors in the U.S., farmers in India, college students in South Korea, professional athletes —many groups are being isolated and examined for a relationship between extreme stress and suicide, and so whether the wave of corporate suicides is significant, statistically speaking, depends in part on how the numbers are parsed.

Inadequate staffing was cited by 53% of workers as the major reason for stress, while only 15% of senior managers thought this was so.

Some interpret them as only the most visible sign of increased workplace stress, and Friedman thinks the problem is acute. “Most people at the highest profile companies are still running marathons at a sprint pace and they don’t see a way out,” he says. “There is a sense that there is no time to breathe, the pressure is too intense. In talking to a number of major companies, it seems there is a desperate need and a real search for answers, which is hugely important.”

Stress, Health and Emoticons

“Anything in the work environment that is going to frustrate motivation or people’s ability to get their work done, in particular in ways they feel are unfair or in which they have no control, will lead to the negative emotions that cause stress,” notes Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade. Eight in 10 people reported being stressed out by work, according to the American Psychological Association’s Work Stress Survey released in 2014, with the number slightly higher in the Northeast. The survey found 42% of adults saying that their stress levels had increased in the past five years.

Stress, says Barsade, is contagious. “One of the things that is so insidious about it being contagious is that people almost never know it is going on. When they catch the emotion from the other person, they own it, and they really think they are stressed,” she notes. “It’s not, ‘my co-worker is stressed, I feel for her’; they feel they are stressed, too. You can transfer more stress and fear across a group than it would otherwise feel.”

Like other things that are contagious, stress is also not healthy. Scientists believe chronic stress reduces the body’s production of telomerase, a protective enzyme that helps to rebuild the protective casing at the end of a DNA strand. With less telomerase, cells are more likely to die, and set off the body’s aging process and associated health problems. “From a health care perspective, stress is bad for business and bad for the economy,” says Friedman. “And it’s bad for our social bonds. When people feel resentment and strain, the physical and psychological problems are disabling. The most obvious problem for most businesses is retention — people quit. It’s definitely happening.”

Stress has a demonstratively uneasy relationship with productivity. Towers Watson’s 2014 global survey showed employee disengagement going up with stress. Of those employees claiming high stress levels, 57% said they were disengaged. In contrast, just 10% with low stress levels said they were disengaged. Stressed employees took twice as many sick days as non-stressed ones. But what was particularly striking about the findings was the disconnect between what employees and managers perceived: Inadequate staffing was cited by 53% of workers as the major reason for stress, while only 15% of senior managers thought this was so Twitter . A third of managers said that access to technology outside of working hours was a cause of stress, but workers disagreed, with only 8% citing it.

Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard points to a 2014 study indicating that while use of smartphones before bed may seem like a form of keeping up, it may in fact be disturbing sleep and leading to disengagement and stress at work the next day. The study’s co-authors, Christopher M. Barnes, Klodiana Lanaj and Russell Johnson, found that exposure to the melatonin-inhibiting blue light from smart phones after 9 p.m. disturbs sleep in ways TV does not. Rothbard allows that sometimes the pressure to stay connected comes from the employer — but often it doesn’t.

“I think there is a really important phenomenon going on here in terms of what we are doing to ourselves,” says Rothbard. “There is an addictive quality to this, when we are obsessively checking this stuff all the time. We can go to a soccer game, but we are sitting there on a cell phone half the time. It is taking a toll on our ability to be fully present when we need to be.”

How do companies learn what kind of stress their employees are experiencing? “The first thing you need is information, and sometimes just labeling things can really help in the discussion,” says Barsade. Big data aims to provide some of that help.

“What has evolved in the past two decades is a culture of overwork and responsiveness 24/7.” –Stewart Friedman

One emergent company, San Francisco-based Niko Niko, has developed a bespoke software platform through which employees check in periodically to report how they are feeling. Rather than the annual snapshot of workforce mood many companies undertake, the platform allows a check-in daily, or even more frequently. “Most CEOs will tell you that people are everything, yet they have real-time data on everything about their company except the thing they say is their most important asset,” says Max Webster, co-founder and CEO of Niko Niko, which bills itself as a “mood analytics” firm.

When using the Niko Niko platform, employees get a text message or email at a frequency chosen by the employer, asking them to gauge their feelings on a particular question —for example, how the employee feels about how clearly a manager has communicated, what kind of progress was made on a project, or how much stress he or she is feeling. In response, the employee slides a screen lever to make an emoticon smile, frown or take on an expression somewhere in between. Workers can add a written response of up to 140 characters. Niko Niko has worked with about 50 firms so far.

“Our goal is to help companies get a real-time pulse on how their employees feel, and how to make the data actionable,” says Webster, whose firm was inspired in part by University of Pennsylvania positive psychologist Martin Seligman. “There is a wide range of things we help companies diagnose —stress, overwork, work-life balance. I would say employee well-being is our number-one goal. If we can make employees happier at work and excited to get their work done, they are going to be more productive and less likely to leave, which will benefit the employer.” Most companies the firm has worked with have chosen the version of the platform that grants employees anonymity.

“My first reaction is, who has access to that information and how are they going to use it?” says Friedman of platforms like Niko Niko. “The potential exists, assuming benign intent, that if big data can help us understand what kinds of conditions and experiences exacerbate the kinds of pressure people feel at work, then that can yield all kinds of useful insight into how to make things better. The social scientist in me is super excited. I just hope it is used for those purposes.”

Beating the Joneses

Friedman suggests that the dynamics of the work-home equation are shifting toward a better balance, even in a tough job market. “Companies are expecting more, yes, but we are starting to see the pendulum being pushed back as more and more people are finding ways of inventing equal boundaries and finding purpose in their work and lives generally,” says Friedman, author of Leading the Life You Want. “One of the things we observed is that young people want a different deal, and that is changing the dynamics of the labor market, especially at the high end of the talent chain where the competition is intense and companies are trying to shift to give people greater control. It’s a hard shift to make, though, because what has evolved in the past two decades is a culture of overwork and responsiveness 24/7 Twitter .”

Change would need to happen on several different levels, says Friedman. On the social-policy level, family and medical leave and support for childcare must be strengthened. At the organizational level, “it starts with focusing on results and giving people the freedom to pursue them in ways that work for their lives,” he notes. “What are the results that matter most, and how can we do that? It may require trial and error. You can say, ‘Here is what is important to me; what’s important to you?’ People are going to come up with solutions, and there will be increased commitment and loyalty.”

Some companies have responded to workplace stress with perks like free food in open gathering spaces, gyms and onsite yoga. Some amenities, like meditation and exercise, have a measurable mitigating effect on stress. But others, while they can certainly lead to better moods and less stress, can also be inert or even backfire, depending on the culture, says Barsade.

“You can’t have a situation where you don’t hire enough people to do the work, but there is free coffee and cookies at four. It has to be in an overall environment and broader culture of really caring about your people.” –Sigal Barsade

“If employees aren’t trustful of the organization or feel cynically, then those kinds of things are not necessarily going to be helpful, because employees either won’t really appreciate it, or, worse, feel they are being given these things to make up for something bad going on in the organization,” she notes. “You can’t have a situation where you don’t hire enough people to do the work, but there is free coffee and cookies at four. It has to be in an overall environment and broader culture of really caring about your people.”

Weisinger, co-author of Performing Under Pressure, to be published in February, says the increase in daily pressure comes from the state of the larger culture. “I believe we are much more of an ‘incentive-need’ country than others. Everyone in the corporate world is chasing incentives, so naturally, they feel they have to produce every day — that creates pressure anxiety,” notes Weisinger, a psychologist who has taught in executive education programs at Wharton, UCLA and others. “But why are these incentives so important? Because others judge our worth based on what we have. There is much more ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ in the U.S. than in other countries. In fact, I would say it is more of a ‘beating the Joneses’ – keeping up is not enough.”

For their book, the authors of Performing Under Pressure undertook a multi-year study of 12,000 people under pressure, and concluded that the myth that people somehow perform better under pressure is just that — a myth. The trick is that some people have learned how to mitigate the effects of pressure better than others, using coping mechanisms such as not becoming defensive in the face of criticism, staying focused on their own actions, remembering the power of confidence and enthusiasm, visualizing — even taking into account physiological factors like posture and blood sugar.

Weisinger draws a clear distinction between stress and pressure — the former being the intersection of too many demands and not enough resources, and the latter being a situation when something at stake depends on your performance. But if there is confusion about the nomenclature, there is also confusion in the workplace about just how much is really at stake on a normal, quotidian basis. And that creates stress.

According to Weisinger, managers often exaggerate the importance of a project or sales goal, and this spawns unnecessary anxiety. “It is counter-intuitive,” he explains, “but by saying this is the only opportunity we’re going to have, you are increasing the likelihood that the staff won’t do their best. The real edge comes from teaching people how to deal with pressure. Pressure keeps a lot of talent under lock that is not being used. A lot of people don’t volunteer good ideas because they don’t want the pressure.”

Barsade, too, says that culture is important. “Frankly, we often think about ‘cognitive’ culture, which is a set of cognitions employees share about how to do their work — being results- or team-oriented, for example,” she notes. “But what my colleague [George Mason University assistant professor] Mandy O’Neill and I have found is that there is also an emotional culture — the emotions employees do and should express at work.” Barsade and O’Neill found that an emotional culture of companionate love — that is, employee expressions of caring, compassion, tenderness and affection — was associated with lower burnout/stress levels. “So one way to lower the stress level is for management to create a culture where employees treat each other with affection and compassion.”

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