Employers and employees differ on the causes — and cures — for workplace stress

In a recently released report, the professional services firm Towers Watson revealed that stress is the top workforce issue (see 2013/2014 [email protected] U.S. Executive Summary Report). And the top causes of stress? According to employers, these are the factors:

  1. lack of work/life balance
  2. inadequate staffing
  3. technologies that expand employee availability during nonworking hours
  4. unclear or shifting job expectations.

Employees disagree, citing things in this order:

  1. inadequate staffing
  2. low pay or low increases in pay
  3. unclear or conflicting job expectations
  4. organizational culture, including lack of teamwork, and tendency to avoid accountability and assign blame to others.

Loosely translated, the primary cause of stress: too much work. Too much work stealing time away from family, community and other interests; too much work because employers are running leaner than ever before; and too much work because our companion devices are always with us, and there’s always one more email or status update to read.

I guess it comes as no surprise that employees and employers disagree, but take a look at the mismatch:

Screenshot 2013-12-04 08.51.47

Employers and employees are wildly at variance on the question of work/life balance. The employers, I guess, want to put the primary cause of stress on the back of their employees, suggesting that if they could just do a better job of balancing, things would be much better. And employers also want to blame the victim here about their addiction to mobile technologies.

The low pay issue is the second most important for employees, and no surprise, since pay for non-executives has remained flat for decades, and for many people it has fallen. People are stressed by financial issues.

And number three from the perspective of employees is unclear or conflicting job expectations. That’s an accusation that management doesn’t have its act together. And number 4, employees say organizational culture is divisive and not supportive.

The Bottom Line

This study shows a huge disconnect in business today about workplace stress. Management is not hearing the message from employees: “You are working us too hard. Pay me adequately. Make job responsibilities clear, and create a culture that supports, not divides.”

Clearly, a company that attacks those issues will decrease stress in the workforce. That translates to improved well-being for the people at work, and an improved bottom line for the company, since stress is closely linked to decreased performance, sick time, and turnover.

My recommendation would be for business to work on decreasing stress as a major initiative. Turned around, all of these factors arise from the cultural level, starting with the core principles and values of the company. And stress is a factor in burnout, as I wrote about recently (see Burnout is the consequence of a broken way of work).

Management rhetoric about the happiness of the customer, service delivery, product quality, or delivering returns to shareholders all too frequently suppresses the basic requirements of employee well-being, and that is wrong as well as unsustainable.

This is a deep and chronic issue, one that can’t be gamed with an employee-of-the-month initiative, and represents a systemic failure of the theory and practice of ‘human resources’. A disconnect this big brings the entire foundation of HR into question.

Engagement requires happiness

I reported on a Silk Road survey on employee engagement this past week, which showed a stark reality: employees are disengaged at work, and companies aren’t doing much about it (see New survey on employee engagement finds Millennials least engaged).

[from the Silk Road web site]

A full 86 percent of employers are feeling the negative effects of disengagement, including: unmotivated employees (66 percent); low morale (67 percent); employees who feel unappreciated (64 percent); and the inability to retain employees (48 percent).  SilkRoad surveyed 781 HR professionals in February of 2013 to reveal what happens behind the scenes in their companies as it relates to employee engagement. (see report).


  • Formal employee engagement programs are the exception, not the rule: A majority (54 percent) of companies do not have formal employee engagement programs in place, as compared to 38 percent that do.  However, 73 percent reported participating in engagement programs on some level.
  • Measurement is a weakness of employee engagement programs: A majority of employers  (59 percent) only measure employee engagement once per year.  Few companies employ mid-year “pulse” surveys (17 percent) and use social media (16 percent) to measure workforce engagement on an ongoing basis.

The numbers should be shocking, but they line up with my perceptions about the state of work today. And note that nowhere in the discussion does the idea of happiness come up.

A second post last week I talked about happiness (see The pragmatics of happiness at work: It’s just good business). It should be obvious that happier employees — meaning both happier about the work and about everything else — will be more productive and more engaged. But there is a strange disconnect in the business world: it’s fine to measure ‘engagement’ — although few do so systematically — but companies seldom measure happiness. And they may put an HR-led engagement program in place, but they are much less likely to create a ‘happiness’ program.

What would be involved in such a program? Here’s a few key ideas from what we know about happiness:

  1. Reduce stress in the workplace, especially the kind that causes people to worry about the security of their jobs, such as threats about being fired if certain work isn’t accomplished on time, for example. Bullying in general raises stress, as do activities that induce fear. Company leaders should work hard to reduce these factors.
  2. Increase the number of connections that people have in the workplace. Some companies are instituting programs to have employees casually meet others one-on-one, with the goal of making new contacts, and perhaps some serendipitous idea creation as well. A lot of research shows that people are happier at work when they have friends and trusted colleagues in the office.
  3. It’s been shown that simply having team members share their progress toward goals — like posting tasks that have been accomplished on a work media solution like Yammer, Podio, or Jive — will significantly increase happiness, even of those merely observing.

There are a broad spectrum of solutions available. Employee recognition programs can be iffy, if there are ways to game the programs. That can lead to higher dissatisfaction.

I recently reviewed Tell Your Boss Anything, which is an anonymous way for employees to provide negative feedback to their management. Just as I think that there may be a business model in employees (and freelancers) hiring agents to represent them in compensation and employment negotiations, there is a place for trusted anonymous brokers in the workplace that make it possible for employees to point out practices that make them stressed, fearful, angry, or disengaged. And I hope businesses will listen.

The fundamental dynamic of social business is listening, and a company that can’t do that will not be able to accomplish anything else, no matter how much social technology they acquire.


The pragmatics of happiness at work: It’s just good business

Much of the discussion of today’s social technologies is centered in the nature of human relationships, which is not surprising: after all, they are based on social relationships. These are tools intended to connect us together, and ultimately, shape culture.

But the strictures of business culture can often include prohibitions against discussing many facets of our lives in the business setting, even those that are human universals, like the pursuit of happiness.

I suggest that one of the side-effects of the adoption of social technologies is the relaxing of social strictures. As a company adopts a faster-and-looser model of operations — based on the displacement of strong ties by and increased number of weaker ones — many of the unexamined motivators in business can actually be discussed, and used positively.

Happiness is one such issue. First, let’s start with the almost obvious point: people who are happy are more productive, more likely to come to work, and less likely to leave a company that they feel happy in. The contrapositive also holds: people who are unhappy are less productive, less likely to come to work, and more likely to quit. So there is a strong rationale to make workers happy. It also turns out that talking about happiness helps people become happier.

However, it turns out that some of the things that are conventionally associated with happiness really don’t have as big of an impact as generally thought. Like money. After a certain amount of income, most people don’t get happier with more money.

But many things can make people unhappy in the workplace. The biggest considerations are stress. Most people do not like stressful environments where people are shouted at, threatened with the possible loss of their job, or bullied to do things that they do not want to, like taking physical risks.  These pressures can be subtle, and environments can be stressful even if the voices are low and the pressures less overt.

People enjoy living as whole people, as opposed to simply filling a role. No one can be truly happy as a cog in someone else’s machine.

There are many techniques to make work more enjoyable, and some are very simple. For example, Roger Meade learned that simply having workers share their progress — tasks accomplished — and knowing that others were aware of their progress, makes people happy. This might account for the widespread adoption of task management and work media tools were team members can share task-level progress with others. [This also has the interesting side effect of making time seem to pass more quickly, which is strongly correlated with happiness, too.] But the deepest happiness at work comes from the combination of mastery of skills, high autonomy, and the positive regard of those to whom we are most closely connected.

And it is not enough to do work that makes us happy: we need to know that it’s good for others, as well. Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy, and makes this case very clearly, and highlights some of the challenges for us:

Since humans are distinct persons but with essential ties to a community, my work must be fulfilling both individually and socially: I must do something that satisfies me as an individual and that I regard as producing significant good for others. Of course, unless I have the luck of being born rich, my work must also generate enough income to provide me the minimal goods without which happiness is not even possible. The challenge is to find satisfying work with an adequate income.

Our capitalist system makes this difficult. First, it encourages workers to sacrifice work satisfaction to higher income. People who would, say, find teaching or social work especially satisfying instead opt for higher paying jobs as lawyers or accountants. The pressure on those with artistic inclinations is particularly intense, since it is almost impossible to earn an adequate living as an actor, visual artist, writer or musician. The idea is often that the extra money will support more enjoyable leisure activities — travel, concerts, luxurious homes. But jobs, especially high paying ones, easily take over our time and our identities, and the leisure fun doesn’t outweigh the distress of not being who we really want to be.

Second, the trend toward “disposable jobs,” which expects a worker to run through, over a lifetime, a series of quite different positions to meet market requirements, destroys the satisfaction of a sustained vocation. With planning, skill and luck, it is possible to navigate the currents of capitalism to a lifetime of satisfying work. But the system itself is geared more to profit than to worker satisfaction.

So we often encounter barriers to happiness. The most far-sighted business leaders will work to decrease those barriers to happiness in the workplace, knowing that people will trade off financial rewards for greater satisfaction and a sense of belonging. The most radical step in this regard, perhaps,  is the ‘no fire’ policy, that I wrote about recently (see What does a ‘No Fire’ policy change? Everything.).

I will close with a cognitive science take on this, which approaches happiness from a more fundamental level: why do we have ‘happiness’ in the first place, biologically? George Lowenstein answers:

Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.

And in a parallel sense, business leaders should want their workers to be happy. If not for the happiness itself then for its direct consequence: it’s just good business.

Americans starting to adjust to instability, studies suggest

After years of economic hardship and unsettling changes to how we work, how are Americans coping? Two new surveys suggest that while Americans may be far less optimistic than they were in cheerier historical periods, they are starting to come to terms with the changes.

Start Now to Reduce Holiday Stress

We’re right in the middle of the holiday season, when the stress starts to accumulate until it reaches a breaking point. Start taking steps today to make some positive changes that will help you manage our stress over the next two or three weeks.

Stress Reduction Tips

While everyone experiences job-related stress at one time or another, those of us who work online have a different type of stress. We trade stressful office environments for the stress that results from spending too many hours in front of the computer with little human interaction.

Web Working Your Way Through a Personal Crisis

I’ve written previously about how I find it often more trouble than it is worth to take time off of work for vacations. But many of us in the first generation of web workers are part of the so-called “sandwich generation,” caring for kids and aging parents at the same time. The flexibility of web work to deal with a personal crisis may even be what attracted us to it. So sometimes, taking time off is unavoidable, and not for fun reasons. At those times, web work has both distinct advantages, and disadvantages. Being aware of what they are can make your management of both your personal crisis and your work better.

In the past 18 months, I’ve had to take time off of work for a variety of not-so-fun reasons. There’s been emergency trips to visit sick relatives, funeral travel, surgery for my mom, and surgery of my own. Plus, although we’ve been fortunate to not have serious disruptions from tropical weather here recently, that has happened before and will certainly happen again.

Here’s the lessons I’ve learned from those experiences about how being a web worker affects you during a personal crisis. Read More about Web Working Your Way Through a Personal Crisis

4 Tips for Holiday Season Stress Reduction

As we move into another holiday season, I’m already noticing an increase in my stress levels. During the holidays, we all face additional expectations on our time. We still have our regular work to do, but we also have holiday shopping, additional expenses, extra cooking, family gatherings, holiday parties and other activities that seem to take up more time than we have available in a regular 24-hour day.

Most of us also try to take a few days off around the holidays, which can create additional time and budget constraints. For freelancers, no one actually pays you for those days off, and you still need to meet client expectations. Telecommuters and other workers still have about the same amount of work to complete with fewer days to accomplish it. Regardless of your work situation, this still means more stress during the holidays. I have a few suggestions to help you manage your stress and come out of the holidays at least as healthy and happy as you were before the holiday season. Read More about 4 Tips for Holiday Season Stress Reduction