Progress and workplace stress

By Jeff Bowman

While in Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit a little place named New Lanark, made historically significant by Robert Owen in the very early 1800’s. Owen is considered to be a pioneer in social reform and the treatment of workers during the later part of the industrial revolution in Scotland. He owned a cotton mill, and introduced certain rules and regulations for employees including mandatory education for children under 10 years old, hours of work, performance indicators and fair wages. In essence, he was an early Human Resources Specialist who had a deep understanding of human capital investment.

Changes to working conditions and labour laws have  changed dramatically since his day.  Today we have minimum wage, mandatory retirement, occupation health and safety programs, and the list goes on.

Despite the fact that we have more laws governing the workplace than ever before, it still remains a source of high stress for employees. Stress which leads to illness, and in extreme cases high blood pressure, heart attacks and death. The Japanese even have a term for it, Karoshi – death from overwork. Here are some statistics below from 2004, but I would bet the numbers are constant or even worse in 2010 after the recession.

62% of Americans say work has a significant impact on stress levels. (APA Survey 2004)
45% of workers list job insecurity has a significant impact on work stress levels. (APA Survey 2004)
61% of workers list heavy workloads as a significant impact on work stress levels. (APA Survey 2004)
One in four workers have taken a mental health day off from work to cope with stress. (APA Survey 2004)

73% of Americans name money as the number one factor that affects their stress level. (APA Survey 2004)

9% of employees have reported stress resulting in violence in their workplace.

50% of American workers have reported “desk rage” – yelling and verbal abuse – at their jobs.

Where did things go wrong? Is this really progress?

We are all concerned about our jobs. Will our work be moved offshore or will we be replaced by robots or even someone younger? The stress is never-ending.  Add to the mix, a manager who is only interested in productivity and/or a Board of Directors who want increased profits, and you have the same basic conditions that led to social workplace changes in the beginning.

Have we really advanced that far?  Certainly the intolerable and unsafe working conditions do not exist here in North America anymore, however the stressors are increasing leading to increased sick leave and workplace violence.

I was sent an e-mail yesterday with a quote from the ex-CEO of Coca Cola Bryon Dyson.

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the Air.

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four Balls – Family, Health, Friends and Spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these; they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for it.”

Every manager should take this to heart.  I have had the distinct displeasure of working with such a President in the past, and it was actually a key consideration in my opening my own company. As a business owner, I know that I should relax a little more, however I find it unacceptable to drive others as I would drive myself.

The stress cycle has to end somewhere.  Stats indicate that the workplace is still the highest area of stress.  Perhaps we need to take another hard look at how businesses are run and the value of investing a higher degree of respect in our human capital. Fair and proper treatment of employees really does begin at the top and has to be ingrained in the corporate identity.  A little compassion goes a long way.

What are your stressors at work?

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Filed under Human Resources, Jeff Bowman, Managing, Manufacturing

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