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Despite technological conveniences and work/life balance, employees are stressing out
Today’s workers have more technological conveniences than
ever to help them do their jobs. Employers are increasingly offering work/life
balance in the form of flexible schedules and telecommuting. So it would seem
counter-intuitive that large numbers of people feel stressed and overwhelmed at
But they do.
March 2015 survey of 160,000 employees around the world found that more than
1 in 3 employees reported feeling above-average stress. The survey by
Global Corporate Challenge (GCC), which helps companies improve employee health
and performance, was independently verified by researchers at Boston’s
April 2014 Monster.com survey of more than 7,000 employees found that 42
percent left jobs because the jobs were too stressful.
On its website, the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines “job stress” as “the harmful physical and
emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match
the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”
“The concept of job stress is often confused with
challenge,” the website states. “Challenge energizes us psychologically and
physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. When a
challenge is met, we feel relaxed and satisfied.” But when workers encounter
job demands that cannot be met, “relaxation has turned to exhaustion, and a
sense of satisfaction has turned into feelings of stress,” the website states.
“In short, the stage is set for illness, injury, and job failure.”
With managers able to reach workers at any time of day—by
e-mail or text, for instance—the fuzzy boundary between a job and one’s personal
life may be partly responsible for employees’ feeling increasingly overwhelmed.
“I have noticed I get a lot of e-mails that arrive from
people who seem to be doing a second shift from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.,” said Glenn
Riseley, founder and president of New York City-based GCC. “It’s a likely
consequence of global competition, reductions in job security and the rise of
businesses operating across multiple time zones. Employees are losing their
sense of autonomy because they feel like they have to be constantly ‘on.’ Work
in the form of e-mail has been bleeding into their off-time for the past few
years, and it’s getting worse.”
Moreover, some jobs are no longer measured by the time a
worker puts in, but by goals and quotas that may require more work than the
standard eight-hour day.
“What is a regular workday these days?” asked Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and
communications for employee recognition company Michael C. Fina. “Previously,
it was measured in time. Is it now measured in productivity? I think the
definition of work has really become blurred.”
Technology—teleconferencing, video conferencing, smartphones,
remote access to work computers—allows employees to communicate more quickly, efficiently
and broadly than ever, Riseley said. And computer technology has replaced many
of the tedious and time-consuming tasks once performed by workers.
Yet learning how to master new technology takes time and
mental energy. The grocery store cashier may find that the fancy new register is
complicated. Constant upgrades to company computer systems means employees must
re-learn these systems, sometimes yearly, or even more often.
“This modern way of living is poles apart from the way
people’s bodies and brains have adapted over millions of years,” Riseley said.
“It is totally unnatural to handle a constant and endless flow of information.
A common behavior that’s arisen is employees jumping back and forth between
tasks and having multiple priorities running in parallel over extended periods.
The result is a constant feeling of being overwhelmed.”
And the introduction of new technology may lead employers
to believe that workers should be more productive than they were in the past.
“The great promise of technology seems to be to make
tasks easier, which increases expectations and demands that we accomplish more
in the same amount of time,” said Liz Kelly, CEO and founder of employee
engagement consultancy Brilliant Ink. “This can put a lot of pressure on anyone.”
Many employees are also required to become familiar with an
exploding number of social media sites designed to reach customers, promote
products and develop a company’s brand. Some are also expected to monitor these
sites regularly and respond to complaints or reputational crises.
“If someone is miffed about customer service at a
restaurant, they can go to social media and, instantly, your [company] is in
trouble, without any context,” Himelstein said. “Maybe there were problems in
the kitchen, but that real-time feedback can be stressful.”
With the advent of telecommuting came software that allows employees to reach
their work computers from home. This has introduced a 24-7 work cycle for some employees,
tough to know when to officially shut down and move away from work for the day”
when one is telecommuting, Kelly said.
Himelstein: “[Telecommuters] have access to work all of the time, and this
‘always on’ mentality could be causing stress.”
What Can Be Done
suggests some ways that managers can help to ease workers’ feeling of being
Get feedback. Using group
discussions or employee surveys, companies should collect information on how
workers perceive the stress associated with their jobs and what specifically
contributes to that stress. Give workers opportunities to participate in
decisions affecting their jobs.
Prioritize. Conflicting job
expectations, too much responsibility, and wearing too many “hats” all
contribute to worker stress. Be clear about which duties are most important and
which can wait. Set reasonable deadlines.
stress. Stress management training and access to an employee
assistance program can help workers cope with difficult work situations.
advice. Consider hiring a consultant who can recommend ways to
improve working conditions. Consultants can examine if the workload is in line
with workers’ capabilities and resources.
added that managers should either avoid e-mailing workers after hours or, if
they do, make it clear that employees are not expected to reply instantly. “I’m
inspired at different times, so I could send off an e-mail at 10 at night,” he
said. “I tell employees, ‘If it’s urgent, I’ll let you know. If not, let’s
touch base in the morning.’ ”
Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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