Stress on the job – & why culture matters

High blood pressure, insomnia, heart attacks, anxiety, depression – these are just a few of the real costs of workplace stress. And according to a new book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, outcomes such as these make the workplace the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. In “Dying for a Paycheck,” Pfeffer makes the point that it is underlying management practices that are the culprit, and no amount of spending on wellness programs can make a difference if those don’t change.

Every day in my work (supporting wellness programs!) I meet people who suffer from high blood pressure, or who tell me about the stress of their jobs. These are not generally the people in top management; these are the people on the middle and bottom rungs of the organization. Where does that stress come from? Often it’s about a lack of control – when employees are subject to many demands, but can’t exercise control over them, research shows they are at increased risk for heart attack and hypertension. The American Institute for Stress published statistics about other sources of workplace stress from a 2006 survey of EAP providers:

  • Workload 46%
  • People issues 28%
  • Juggling work and personal lives 20%
  • Lack of job security 6%

Pompei (60)Stress reduction programs and personal choices such as meditation, exercise or disconnecting from email can only alleviate symptoms. The root cause of much workplace stress — corporate culture — is not something that any one individual can change. People are willing to work hard, and even to work long hours, if they see the work as meaningful. In a MIT Sloan Management Review article, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden write that meaningfulness is more important to employees than salary, advancement, or even working conditions. Meaning is something that people often discover for themselves. Good leaders can’t make it happen, but research shows that poor leadership can almost certainly destroy it. What makes people feel that the work is meaningless?

  • The work isn’t aligned with their personal values
  • They feel that they’re being taken for granted
  • They perceive unfairness in the workplace
  • They are asked to do pointless or risky work
  • They don’t have supportive relationships at work

In 2010, Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappo’s, wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness,” which became a bestseller. His message was that corporate culture can not only support a company’s success, but may even be a prerequisite for it. Since then, Delivering Happiness has morphed into its own business as a coaching and consulting organization. Their research shows that there are three main elements that lead to employee happiness and greater engagement:

  • Connectedness
  • A sense of progress
  • A sense of control

Think about how much time you spend at work every day – eight, ten, twelve hours? Why would we want to spend that much time each day not feeling connection and empathy for others? We need to have friends at work – people to bond with, people who have our backs. In fact, DH research shows that “having a best friend at work increases engagement seven-fold.”Close-up of human hands clasped together in unity against white backdrop

Seeing progress in the work is also important. Personal progress needs to be measured and affirmed more often and in different ways than just an annual review. In addition, having a sense of the role each of us plays in the growth of a project or of the organization also leads to greater commitment and engagement. People want to feel that they are making a contribution.

Control may be the most important of the three elements. When people sense that there is transparency in the organization, that their ideas are respected, and that they are empowered to make decisions, it builds trust and motivation. Trust is incredibly important in itself because without it, no one will speak up about problems or safety issues; fear, disconnection and hostility often increase.

Changing the corporate culture begins with the emotional intelligence of its leaders. Can they embed and support policies within the organization that lead to connection, progress and control? Can they see the organization as a community in support of a mission – a community where people spend at least a third of their lives?

My suspicion is that most of us don’t work for organizations that are excelling at delivering happiness. I have no fear that my job in workplace wellness will be ending any time soon. Long ago, Aristotle wrote that, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” At the very least, maybe that is something to strive for.

 

 

 

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Lessons from an amateur parent

Parenting, for all its joys (and they are abundant) is an endeavor fraught with the potential for second-guessing. When children are young, we ask, “Am I a good enough parent? Will I screw it up? Do I do too much for them, or am I doing too little? Am I too tough, or am I not tough enough?” Later, when they’re all grown up, the refrain becomes, “Should I have done things differently? Would he be happier if I had done X, would she have an easier time if I had done Y?”

 

You begin your life as a parent fooled by the child’s complete dependency into thinking that you are in control; in reality, almost nothing is in your control. Andrew Solomon, in his book “Far From the Tree” says that we think we are reproducing – making a newer, better version of ourselves – when, in fact, we really are producing someone completely different, whose life story is her own to realize.

 

Solomon’s book focuses on families whose children have what he calls “horizontal” identities, which sometimes become more important for them than the “vertical” identity of the family. In chapters covering children who are deaf, who have Down’s syndrome, autism or dwarfism, for example, he writes about how, for them, the community of people who share their deaf or autistic identity might be more comfortable or necessary than that of the family. He shares the experiences of dozens of parents who have had to completely change their expectations of what their child would be like.

 

While Solomon writes that many parents “are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs,” we don’t have to be talking about very extreme instances of disability or difference to know what he means.  Those parents just realize sooner than the rest of us how little control they have over the outcome of their child’s story. The beauty of life is that each of us is a unique individual, but that can make us feel like mysteries to each other sometimes, or as Solomon says, “Parenthood catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.” Instead of trying to make the stranger into a copy of ourselves, we need to be brave enough to accept the child as he is.SF trip.Monterey_26

 

When I was growing up, especially as an adolescent, I didn’t think my parents could see me for who I was at all. I chafed under the strictures of the family, craved independence, felt that I belonged someplace else. During my teens and twenties, I would get irritated when I would hear my mother talking to someone about me, partly because she would sooner brag about me than praise me to my face, and partly because she would invariably get some detail of the story wrong. I moved to San Francisco when I was eighteen, where at the time, the local radio station would sign off from the news by saying, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!” That slogan seemed to perfectly convey my own mindset: “Yes, I will write my own story, and it will not be anything like my parents’ story.”

 

Fast forward to the present. Now I’m not just a daughter and sister, but also a wife and mother. Yes, I have my own story, but I realize that it is inextricably interwoven with the versions other people tell. I can’t ask my mother to get my story right, or not to tell it, because she has her part in it, just as I have my part in my kids’ stories. I try not to cast myself as the hero or the villain of their stories — all I can do now is give them the love and freedom to tell their own version.

 

I’ve discovered that I can live with the stories as they tell them. When my daughter calls on our anniversary and says, “Thank you for getting married,” or my son acknowledges how much of an influence his father is on him, it tells me that they are comfortable with the identity they got from us, even as they so beautifully establish their own.

Go out and play!

Plato wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing allows us to take risks, to laugh at ourselves, to fall down, and to get back up. We discover truths about ourselves, as well as others.

Earlier this week, my yoga teacher announced at the beginning of class, “We’re just going to play today.” It was the last class there for most of us, since the yoga studio was closing at the end of the week. We all felt a little bittersweet about it, and by making the class more playful, our teacher helped us focus on the sweetness and joy rather than the sadness at the ending.

We went on to practice a lot of partner postures, flying postures and other fun stuff. We had to trust each other and give up some control in order to balance in the air on someone’s feet. Some of us found that easier than others, but there was laughter all around as we played together. And yes, I did learn more about my flying partner in that hour than I ever had by practicing yoga next to her.

Playing helps take us away from the stresses of “real” life, but it also prepares us for them. The first time I tried the trapeze, years ago, I was terrified. You have to stand with your toes hanging off the edge of a platform, high in the air, and lean forward to grab the swing with the assistant only holding onto your harness with a finger. I had to trust myself to reach for the swing as I stepped into the void, and know that there were only two possible outcomes. Either I would be successful, get a grip on the swing, pull my legs up over it, and fly through the air (with the greatest of ease?). Or I would miss the bar, fall into the safety net, and..….be okay. The only thing at risk was my ego.

Why do you think we use terms like “take the plunge” and “leap of faith” to describe life’s risk-taking? Those physical chances we take during play – diving into the deep end of the pool, and jumping off the trapeze — teach us that we will probably be okay even if we fail. By continuing to play as adults, we keep ourselves flexible (mentally and emotionally, as well as physically) and more able to deal with changes that come along.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Do we play enough? NO! Even kids don’t play in the traditional sense nearly as much as they used to. And adults are often so oriented to work and worried about the future that we forget to incorporate play into our lives. Deep down, though, we all want and need to play.

How can you start playing again? Try a Laughter Yoga class, where you can just be goofy and creative for an hour or two. If you’re near Washington D.C., check out an organization called “Spacious” that connects people around fun and play. Bring the Instant Recess program to your workplace. Play in the snow, dance in the street, go on a roller-coaster, ride a wave, or even try the trapeze. Re-discover that baseline joy that comes from letting go and trusting that everything will be okay.

Living with uncertainty

“Stress levels increased since 1983,” read the headline in USA Today last week. Not surprised? What’s interesting is why stress is higher for some people than others.

Sheldon Cohen and Denise Janicki-Deverts analyzed three national surveys (1983, 2006 and 2009) that used the same measure of stress. In all three, women’s stress was consistently higher than men’s, younger people had more stress than older people, people with less education reported higher stress than those with more, and people with lower incomes showed more stress than people with higher incomes.

What was different between 2006 and 2009 was that the increase in stress after the economic downturn was almost totally driven by middle-aged, college-educated, white men who were employed full-time. Cohen and Janicki-Deverts theorize that this finding could be related to the “threat of job loss, actual job loss, or loss of retirement funds.”

But what I see is that this could also be about loss of power and control. It’s not news that people who are lower in a hierarchy have more stress than those on top. And since it’s also still true that most of the power in our society is held by white middle-aged men with college degrees and full-time jobs, in some senses those people had the most to lose when the economy turned sour.

The stress levels of women, the young and the poor didn’t increase significantly because their position in the hierarchy didn’t change much. But for white, middle-aged men, the downturn may have been the first time they felt themselves to be on shaky ground. All of a sudden, there were no guarantees.

The Company Men”, a film about the economic downturn, portrays this theme convincingly. The main characters, who thought they had it made, suddenly were experiencing the uncertainty that other groups have traditionally lived with. Depending on their access to coping strategies, they either weathered the storm or were destroyed by it.

Our new reality is that many of us will be living with uncertainty for a long time. So how do we inhabit that reality in a way that doesn’t wear us down and make us sick?

  • Recognize what you can control and what you cannot. The stock market is out of our control. So are the actions of other people. But we can control how we react to events. Focus on what’s present right now instead of worrying about what can’t be predicted or controlled.
  • Be careful of how you talk to yourself. Too often, we limit ourselves by having a negative narrative going on in our minds (I’m not good enough, I’m too old, I’ll be next to lose my job). Practice replacing those negative thoughts with positive statements.
  • Believe in yourself. Easier said than done, right? It takes practice to change how you think of yourself. But if you remind yourself of the way you’ve handled situations in the past, and all the things that you are capable of, your ability to believe and trust in yourself will increase.
  • Write about it. James Pennebaker and others have shown that people who write about their feelings every day for several days can improve their moods and feel better emotionally.
  • Have a sense of humor. It helps us change our perspective on life events and sometimes even turns a potential stressor into something less threatening. Know what kinds of jokes, movies or comics are sure to make you laugh, so that you can turn to them when necessary.
  • Consider the idea of change as opportunity. As Claude Bernard once said, “Man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown.”

 

Knowing when to surrender

While doing child’s pose yesterday in yoga, our teacher said that the pose is also called “wisdom pose”. I had never heard this before, but as I thought about it, it made sense. In child’s pose, we need to relax and surrender to gravity, to make ourselves vulnerable like children. And in life, it often requires a lot of wisdom for us to fully surrender and let things be.

Do you ever think about how much energy you use up fighting things? From the mundane fights (traffic, kids’ bedtimes, the cable company) to more important fights (interpersonal conflict, problems at work, health issues), so much of our time is taken up with struggling against things that we sometimes feel like we’re not moving to anything.

Part of what drives us is the need to have and keep control of things in our lives. A feeling of control is important to managing stress; but so is realizing when something is out of our control, or deciding that control just isn’t worth the price it requires. So there might be times when it’s appropriate to “give in”, such as when maintaining a relationship is more important than winning an argument, or when the outcome is clearly more important to the other person than it is to you.

Exercising control is often a response to fear as well. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of facing difficult emotions – all can lead us to fiercely hold onto positions that really aren’t serving us. Bertrand Russell said that “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” And sometimes surrendering control, allowing events to happen and feelings to rise, is the beginning of conquering fear.

Sometimes when we are over-efforting, micromanaging every detail, too focused on the outcome, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. If we take a step back to see things as they are, and just stop trying so hard, we might be more successful in reaching our goals. Soren Gordhamer writes that “we can often make more progress and with less stress not by trying harder but by trying softer. By doing so, there is an ease to our effort…”

Top athletes and other types of performers know how to try “softer”, although they may call it by a different name. They train and practice for hours, but when called upon to perform, they have to let go of thinking through every move, step, or note and just let things flow through them. They have the wisdom to surrender, and to trust what is inside of them.

I just read about a study of centenarians showing that the people who live longest are the most optimistic and carefree, relaxed and upbeat, and notably non-neurotic. They are the people who let go of their stress rather than internalizing it. I don’t know if they are practicing child’s pose, but something tells me that they are also people who have learned the value of surrendering.