61 percent of Americans reported in a recent American Psychological Association survey that their workplace was at least a “significant” source of stress for them. This likely comes as no surprise to many people, given that with increased hours, higher expectations of being always on-call due to technology, and rising housing prices, the strain of being trapped in a job that seems to have taken over your life is a familiar one. I recently gave a keynote to hundreds of business leaders who had chosen to attend a conference on wellness, and something stuck out to me. All of these bosses had gathered because they prioritized their employees’ well-being: a great thing! Presumably, the supervisors who didn’t think twice about the well-being of their employees would not have bothered to attend such an event. That said, I found that even for the leaders who had chosen to focus on this issue, I needed to define what wellness even meant– and it could be an uphill battle for them to walk the walk, rather than just talk the tak.
For many people, when they think of workplace wellness, they think of a company-supported exercise or smoking cessation program, standing desks, more healthful foods in a workplace cafeteria or yoga and meditation classes. And all of these, no doubt, can play a beneficial role in improving the health of employees. But if your actual workplace is sick, then that is unable to change the root of the problem. It’s like putting a piece of kale on a hamburger: it’s still a hamburger, and it shouldn’t be fooling anyone.
So what are the things that make a workplace chronically sick?
1) Lack of autonomy
I see it in my private practice day in and day out: bright, accomplished employees wanting to do their job well but being chronically micro-managed, and ultimately sabotaged by a lack of ability to get things done without constant checking in, which wastes time and resources. Bosses often think that they are increasing the quality of work by hovering and asking for approval for every little step their employees take, but in reality, they are only breeding frustration and resentment. Moreover, there is a major loss of productivity when you can’t so much as send an email without cc’ing your boss. Feeling trapped with a lack of ability to work effectively on one’s own can be a serious stress-inducer over time.
2) Unclear expectations
Another common work frustration that not only increases stress but wastes a lot of time and energy occurs when there are murky expectations about what an employee is supposed to be doing. Does their job description overlap in a way with someone else’s that leaves that constantly unsure of whether they’re stepping on someone else’s toes (or not pulling their weight?) Is it a daily struggle to know how much time to spend on certain projects versus others, or what duties to prioritize? Is the workflow so uneven that when there are lulls, the employee feels uneasy, ashamed that they don’t have anything immediate to work on, but feeling like they’re supposed to be doing something anyway– they just don’t know what? The less clarified one’s role is– even if the clarity is “Do whatever comes up, when it comes up; we’re a moving target and we’ll keep you posted on any given day”– the less effective the employee can be.
3) Conflicting demands
Related to unclear expectations is the all-too-frequent dilemma of having different supervisors with different requirements. Like too many cooks in the kitchen, it is very easy for a project to get mangled when two different people want it done two different ways. Worse yet, for some employees, the problem is that there are “big bosses” and “little bosses” that may each independently be asking for work without regard to the the piling-on that the other is doing. Choosing whose to take care of first can be a minefield, and it increases the sense of lack of autonomy that raises stress.
4) Constant interruptions
In the modern American workplace, and also in the modern American’s personal life, we are growing ever more used to interruptions. We view them as expected: the ding of a notification that we have an email; a text coming in while we’re in the middle of conversation with someone else; a “Sorry– let me just grab this” apology from someone who is being summoned electronically by someone else while we’re talking with them face-to-face. Over the course of an eight-hour workday, however, it is worth exploring just how much these interruptions add up, and how devastating they can be to our productivity. For many workers, it is a case of constantly having their attention compromised when they would have otherwise just been getting into the zone with a new idea or project. Sadly, plenty of us might barely even get into that productive phase at all! Instead we constantly must cope with our focus being splintered into different directions over and over again, our constant need to multi-task meaning that not only are we not really getting anything done well, but our brains are never at rest– and our stress is always on high.
5) Lack of feedback
Have you ever had a performance review that stressed you out for weeks beforehand, in large part because you had no idea what your supervisor was going to say in it? Think of the toll that that increased anxiety and distraction took on your mindset and productivity in the interim. In the healthiest workplaces, employees know where they stand: they are given clear and fair feedback about their performance on a regular basis, from praise to constructive criticism. They know specifically what they are doing well and what they continue to need to work on, and so they lack the defensive, fearful stance of someone who doesn’t know whether they’re about to be ambushed by a negative review.
6) Personal attacks or an unsafe or “gotcha” culture
More than ever before, there is a cultural moment of dialogue about the systemic mistreatment that certain individuals have faced for years in their workplaces due to characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. From implicit bias to overt discrimination, large swaths of Americans continue to face mistreatment, and given the number of hours the average American spends at their jobs, the workplace is often a significant forum for it. In some workplaces, the targeting happens to individuals who may not be typically discriminated against in other settings, but are being singled out for bullying or constant belittling. In other workplaces, no one looks out for each other at all: it’s not bullying or discrimination per se, but a constant battle to shift blame onto other people, a dynamic that goes from the top-down. One thing is certain: a workplace that feels unsafe physically or emotionally is truly toxic for mental health, not just for those being directly attacked, but those who live in fear of it spreading. They will spend their days in a hyper-vigilant state, constantly on the defensive– and certainly unable to do their best work.
7) Lack of connection to big picture
Much research on happiness has pointed to the difference between fleeting pleasure and deeper meaning; it is clear that in order for us to feel most fulfilled with our lives, we will benefit from having a sense of purpose about why we do what we do, and why it matters. At work, the same holds true. Of course, there is no job on the planet that will bring profound, spiritual fulfillment every time you are waiting at the copy machine. But in general, the more that you can connect to the bigger picture of what your work means in the grand scheme of things, the more fulfilled and engaged you will feel. It’s the difference between “All I ever do is make copies” and “It seems some days I do nothing but make copies, but I weren’t making these copies, then these pamphlets wouldn’t get made– and I know that a percentage of people who read these pamphlets end up doing X, Y, or Z, which makes a difference.” Employers can help with this by creating a culture that takes pride in the impact that their work has on the world as a whole.
8) Vacation time being “vacation” time
I’ve written before about just how damaging it is to the culture of a workplace when people feel shamed into not taking time off. All too often, American employees are leaving their vacation time on the table, and it diminishes productivity and creativity to be in desperate need of a break but unable to get one. Even worse, in many workplaces, vacation is anything but: you are still expected to be on call to handle issues as they arise, even if they are not really emergencies. (And for many employees, even if that expectation is not explicit, they feel fearful that if they do not check email frequently, their job may be in jeopardy.) Even legitimate sick days appear to be a thing of the past: think of how the meaning of “out sick” has changed over the years. It used to mean that you were free to recuperate in bed, no cords in sight. Now, it often means you are doing the same amount of work– but from home. (So you won’t infect anyone, of course! Why else would you be home and not at work? Clearly, there’s no need for actual rest!)
9) Lack of trust in management
An increasing number of American employees report distrust in their supervisors. We all know how badly a lack of trust (or a betrayal) can corrode relationships, but we often think of this only applying to family or friendship. What about when you don’t trust your boss? What happens when you have no confidence that your supervisors are looking out for you, and acting in honest, functional ways? Morale an easily plummet in these situations, increasing anxiety among workers and making them anything but motivated to perform well. Instead, they may focus only on the appearances of what they are doing, and be scared to take even healthy risks or make mistakes. This hinders creativity and problem-solving, and makes everyone more likely to be busy worrying about protecting their own interests rather than doing anything that moves the organization forward as a whole.
10) Lack of opportunities for advancement
It’s pretty obvious to those who have been there: being trapped in a position that seems to be on a path to nowhere is no way to feel engaged or fulfilled. Even the term “dead-end” job has become synonymous with hopelessness and exhaustion in our culture. Of course, it is simply not realistic that every single person in a given workplace can automatically be on the path to becoming the Big Boss– but that doesn’t mean there can’t be hope of going higher. Whether it is a change in title, an official promotion, a raise in salary, an increase in decision-making responsibilities (the proverbial “seat at the table”), or responsibility for more projects or a bigger leadership role, almost any job can have the potential to reward good performance. And when a job can’t (or refuses to), we know it can increase an employee’s stress level, likely because it makes them feel more trapped, less hopeful, and less in control over their own destiny.
What makes your workplace stressful? Let me know in the comments.