The biggest single problem in most workplaces is stress. Stress can be caused by a hundred different factors — like fearfulness, feeling overwhelmed, lack of autonomy, aggression — but it likewise can be reduced significantly by a number of well understood techniques.
The most important single thing that management can do to increase the well-being of the workforce is to stem factors leading to stress. As perhaps the most important example, we should agree to a complete end to any attempts to control people’s behavior through fear, such as threats about being fired, demoted, or forced to take on unwanted tasks.
The single best thing management can do is to foster trust in the workplace. John Helliwell’s research shows that workers are willing to make considerable economic tradeoffs to work in companies where there are higher levels of trust (see What to do about the disengaged workforce). His work showed that ‘a firm managing to provide better jobs (as measured by some package of the non-financial job characteristics connected to higher levels of life satisfaction) would be able to reap rewards in some combination of dimensions: lower quit rates, lower monitoring costs, easier (and hence less expensive) hiring, and more effective effort from employees at all wage levels.’
But companies can also attack stress head on, and help workers cope. One promising area is meditation, which starts with a bad rap, but offers a great deal in stress reduction, as Mirabai Bush relates in a piece about her company’s efforts in teaching meditation within the corporate setting:
Teaching Meditation Techniques to Organizations - Mirabai Bush via the NYTimes.com
At first, resistance was everywhere, but so were the possibilities. A litigation lawyer thought that if he became more compassionate toward the opposition in his cases, he couldn’t be a zealous advocate for clients. But he found that being calm, clear and compassionate gave him better insights and better timing.
An environmental leader thought that if others knew he practiced meditation, they wouldn’t take him seriously — and would write him off as a tree-hugger without scientific rigor. Instead, he found that he became more resilient, and less overwhelmed by climate-change predictions, and that he collaborated better with colleagues.
Magazine editors thought that they would miss deadlines; in fact, they learned to focus on priorities and work better in teams to meet the deadlines in new ways. Data-driven Google engineers questioned the value of developing capacities that can’t be quantified, but many of them learned better ways to communicate. One engineer told me his wife had noticed a change in the way he listened to her. She asked him: “What happened to you?”
[…] Neuroscientists have confirmed much of what we were experiencing: that meditation improves attention, reduces stress hormones, increases appreciation and compassion for others and helps us recover faster from negative information.
Personally, this work has made me feel more connected to the world. Watching the responses of so many people — from an economics professor to Army soldiers — I’ve come to believe that it’s a basic human need to be calm and clear, to be aware of ourselves and others, to be kind and collaborative, to be fully present in each moment.
When you take away the residue of stress, even if nothing else in a person’s work setting is changed, things slow down. There is time to think, time to reflect before acting.
As T.S. Eliot styled it, we can be ‘at the still point of the turning world’, and then get back into the dance of work, but breathing a bit deeper, and seeing a bit farther.