It seems a life-time ago when stress management courses were de rigueur and people, including me, were making a living from them. (Now it’s either resilience training or mindfulness but that’s another story).
There was plenty of research about to back up what we were doing. The famous Whitehall studies which showed that the more senior you were the less likely you were to die early. In industry after industry it was the same story. Employees at the bottom of the hierarchy suffered more ill-health than more senior ones.
One of the factors contributing to this was the amount of control people had – over decision-making and the way they spent their working day. The more control or autonomy people felt they had, the less stressed they tended to be.
Now a recent study in the US has confirmed once again that people in stressful jobs with little control at work were more likely to die.
The research followed more than 2,000 Americans in their sixties over a seven-year period.
Those in low demand jobs reduced their death risk by 15% and those who were able to set their own goals and had flexibility at work were 34% less likely to die.
They also found that the people in the higher risk jobs were heavier. Comfort eating? Less time for exercise?
26% of those who dies were in front-line service jobs and 32% worked in manufacturing – both sectors with high demand and low autonomy.
55% of the deaths were from cancer (linked this week with high levels of anxiety and depression), and 22% from circulatory system diseases.
Erik Gonzales-Mulé at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University said employers didn’t need to reduce demand on their workers but should allow them more flexibility in how jobs were done. “You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals. set their own schedules, prioritise their decision-making and the like”.
I’m having deja vu here.This is like re-inventing the wheel. We knew all this decades ago. Remember autonomous working groups? Have American businesses forgotten about US contributions to organisational psychology and research on motivation? In America most workers still don’t get sick pay or maternity pay and have minimal holidays.
Japan has its own problems with employees working too hard (see recent post)
And we aren’t much better in some respects in the UK with the worst sick pay in the EU!
Recently experts and members of parliament have expressed concern about working conditions in call centres and on-line distribution centres. Sports Direct and Asos have been criticised for having Victorian working conditions. Some of these places are like “warehouses” on the edge of towns with no windows for natural light, just like giant container units.
Perhaps I should brush off my old notes and get back on the road again. Why do businesses never learn how to get the best out of people?
After 5 minutes they were given a 40 second break during which they were shown a view of a rooftop surrounded by tall buildings. Half of them saw a plain rooftop the other half a roof covered with a green flowering meadow.
Both groups then resumed the task. After the break concentration levels fell by 8% among those who saw the concrete roof as their performance grew less inconsistent. Those who saw the meadow showed a 6% increase in concentration and a steady performance.
The researchers suggest that having a green break – whether a walk in the park, looking out the window or even just a screensaver of this kind – is beneficial in improving performance and attention in the workplace.
The measure used: “Sustained attention to response task (SART)” had previously been mapped against brain imaging so they knew that the brain responds in predictable ways in these situations. People need to be able to both maintain focus and block out distractions to perform well.
The underlying theory is called Attention Restoration theory which suggests that natural environments have benefits for people. Nature is effortlessly fascinating and captures your attention without your having to consciously focus on it and thus allows you to replenish your stores of attention control.
The 40 seconds was based on a trial during which that was the average time people looked at the meadow scene. Whether such a micro-break is the optimal length is not known.
Other aspects of this research suggest that people would be more likely to help each other after a green break. It all sounds very positive and builds on previous research which shows that having access to nature helps reduce stress levels.
Source: HBR September 2015
Alas the fear of losing your job makes people attend work more diligently (even when they shouldn’t) and the resulting “presenteeism” masks rising levels of mental health problems.
The Engineering Employers Federation (which I used to know well as at one time I was their stress management expert in the North West) surveyed 350 companies involving 90,000 workers. They found that only 1 in 10 companies provided training for managers on mental health issues. So they found a market for it – if companies were really interested.
Two fifths of the companies said long-term absence rates were increasing even though absence overall was low at 2.2% i.e. 5 days per employee a year on average. In fact half of the workers never took any time off sick.
Back problems (musculo-skeletal) are still the main cause of long-term absence overall but for a quarter of the companies stress and mental health disorders were the main cause.
These are still considered the most difficult to deal with in adjusting work to meet the employees’ needs.
The EEF’s Chief Medical Adviser says GPs should be given the tools to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way they deal with other medical problems.
What about companies taking more interest in their employees’ wellbeing and making an effort to combat the causes of work-based stress?
We don’t want to go the way of America where stress is considered the norm and work-life balance is now work-life merge (thanks largely to high flying female executives).
See other posts
Many of us experience stress in life, whether this is in the short term from one-off projects, or long-term stress from a high-pressure career.
Not only can this be profoundly unpleasant, it can seriously affect our health and our work. However, it is possible to manage stress, if you use the right tools and techniques.
What is Stress?
A widely accepted definition of stress, attributed to psychologist and professor Richard Lazarus, is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
This means that we experience stress if we believe that we don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to handle a situation. In short, we experience stress when we feel “out of control.”
This also means that different people handle stress differently, in different situations: you’ll handle stress better if…
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