Overwhelmed at Work

Despite technological conveniences and work/life balance, employees are stressing out

By Dana Wilkie March 20, 2015

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 work.

But they do.

A 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 Northeastern University.

An 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.”

Blurred Work Boundaries

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 Boom

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, Kelly said.

“It’s tough to know when to officially shut down and move away from work for the day” when one is telecommuting, Kelly said.

Said Himelstein: “[Telecommuters] have access to work all of the time, and this ‘always on’ mentality could be causing stress.”

What Can Be Done

NIOSH suggests some ways that managers can help to ease workers’ feeling of being overwhelmed:

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.

Manage stress. Stress management training and access to an employee assistance program can help workers cope with difficult work situations.

Seek 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.

Himelstein 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.’ ”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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