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.
More proof that stress in the workplace — particularly the stress caused by workplace powerlessness — is killing people, one petty indignity at a time:
Jonah Lehrer, Are Your Co-Workers Killing You?
[…] the only thing worse than an office full of assholes is an office full of assholes telling us what to do. Furthermore, this model of workplace stress being driven by the absence of control has plenty of empirical support. The most impressive support comes from the Whitehall study, an exhaustive longitudinal survey launched in 1967 that tracked some 28,000 British men and women working in central London. What makes the study so compelling is its uniformity. Every subject is a British civil servant, a cog in the vast governmental bureaucracy. They all have access to the same health care system, don’t have to worry about getting laid off, and spend most of their workdays shuffling papers.
The British civil service comes with one other feature that makes it ideal for studying the health effects of stress: It’s hierarchical, with a precise classification scheme for ranking employees. This hierarchy comes with dramatic health consequences. After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, the Whitehall data revealed that between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top. Even after accounting for genetic risks and behaviors like smoking and binge drinking, civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order still had nearly double the mortality rate.
Why were people in the lower ranks of Whitehall dying at a younger age? The Whitehall researchers, led by Michael Marmot, eventually concluded that the significant majority of health variation was caused by psychosocial factors, most notably stress. People of lower status in the Whitehall study experienced more negative stress, and this stress was deadly. (To take but one data point: Fully two-thirds of an individual’s risk of stroke was attributable to the person’s socioeconomic status.) However, the Whitehall results aren’t a straightforward analysis of stress, at least not as it’s usually defined. After all, people in leadership positions often describe their jobs as extremely stressful. They work longer hours and have more responsibilities than those at the bottom of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Consider the self-report of Nigel, a high-status administrator: “There were 2,000 people, and I was responsible for all the personnel aspects, contracts, and all the common services … It had every sort of challenge that you could ever wish to meet. A very active job and a lot of stress, but a very enjoyable job, and you got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from doing a good job.”
Notice the reference to stress; undoubtedly Nigel thought of himself as a person under lots of pressure. In contrast, here’s the self-report of Marjorie, a lowly typist: “I went to the typing pool and sat there typing documents. Which was absolutely soul-destroying … The fact that we could eat sweets and smoke was absolute heaven, but we were not allowed to talk.”
The recurring theme in the self-reports of people like Marjorie isn’t the sheer amount of stress – it’s the total absence of control. This led to the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands. “The man or woman with all the emails, the city lawyer who works through the night has high demands,” Marmot writes. “But if he or she has a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.” The Whitehall data backs up this model of workplace stress: While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous.
In a typical turnabout, I see the results of this study as showing that stress in the workplace leads to higher mortality, while the author of the piece — or the editors — make the backwards analysis:
Anahad O’Connor, Friendly Workplace Linked to Longer Life
Researchers at Tel Aviv University [Arie Shirom et al] found that people who felt that they had the support of their colleagues and generally positive social interactions at work were less likely to die over a 20-year period than those who reported a less friendly work environment. Over all, people who believed they had little or no emotional support in the workplace were 2.4 times as likely to die during the course of the study compared with the workers who developed stronger bonds with their peers in other cubicles.
To study how office politics influenced health, the researchers recruited 820 adults who visited a local health clinic in 1988 for routine checkups, then interviewed them about their jobs, asking detailed questions that delved into whether they found their supervisors and peers approachable, friendly and helpful to them. The subjects worked in a variety of different fields — like finance, health care, insurance and manufacturing — and ranged in age from 25 to 65. People who were suspected of having physical or mental health problems at the start of the study were excluded.
Over the next 20 years, the researchers were able to follow the participants and monitor their health through their medical records. That gave them the chance to look for risk factors that could influence the results and allowed them to control for things like blood pressure, obesity, drinking habits, smoking, anxiety and depression.
By the time the study ended in 2008, 53 of the workers taking part had died; most of them had cast their work support networks in a negative light. Though correlation doesn’t equal causation and it is difficult to tie the causes of those deaths to specific factors in such a study, the researchers discovered some findings that surprised them.
One thing they noticed was that the risk was only affected by a person’s relationship with his or her peers, and not with that person’s supervisors. The way people viewed their relationships with their bosses had no impact on mortality.
The researchers also found that a person’s perceived level of control at work also influenced risk. But it had differing effects for men and women. Men who reported that they were allowed freedom over their daily tasks and could take more initiative at work had a lower risk of dying during the study period. But women who reported more control had an opposite outcome: Their risk of death over the course of the study rose by 70 percent.
This lines up with so much that we know about the value of friendliness to counter stress, like Oscar Ybarra’s work that demonstrates that friendliness can counter the impacts of stressful situations, like testing, and actually boost performance.
Or again, Alexander Pentland’s study with the employees at a Bank Of America call center, where restructuring breaks to allow more social interaction and denser social connections had enormous benefits, including less reported stress.
The bottom line: management has a huge incentive to decrease stress in the workplace, since the benefits to performance as so significant. And it steals years from working people’s lives.