Here’s to Your Health

How professionals perceive (and cope with) work-related stress


Illustrations by Remy Labesque

It’s a holiday weekend‚ and I’ve set aside time to write about the blurring of work and personal life and its impact on our health. The irony is not lost on me‚ but I must admit that I’m excited to have four days in which to get work done‚ so I can finally feel caught up—as in less stressed‚ more in control‚ balanced. Or at least that’s what I tell my family when they ask why I’m working while they play Scrabble and eat leftover turkey. “Just a little more‚ and I’ll be done‚” I promise.

Of course‚ we’re never really caught up‚ are we? That Blackberry keeps buzzing. The emails‚ text messages‚ calls‚ and meeting notices keep coming. Deadlines never cease. Taking work home is more common than not. Many people log in after dinner‚ take calls from different time zones in the wee hours‚ or check their email and catch up on work on the weekends and even on vacation. In today’s business environment‚ this level of effort and sacrifice is often expected‚ if not required. Thanks to technological advances‚ employers can now reach employees just about anytime and anywhere. This intensifies the pressure on everyone to be available when needed. The line between work and personal life has definitely blurred.

This 24/7 always-on connectivity is stressful. Stress saps our mental‚ physical‚ and emotional health in small and chronic ways. Stress can even be fatal. According to WebMD‚ 75 to 90 percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. In fact‚ the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines stress as a hazard of the workplace‚ noting that stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually. Stress hurts us and those around us.

The long list of the deleterious effects of stress on our bodies and minds (see “The Health Effects of Stress” on opposite page) makes me consider forgoing my worldly possessions and becoming a monk. But dropping out of life as we know it really isn’t an option for most of us. And we can’t change the demands of a global economy overnight. So we need to find other ways to cope. In my quest to figure out how‚ I conducted an informal survey of co-workers‚ friends‚ and family (including a lively discussion one night around the dinner table). I asked people how they felt about being constantly “on call” and tethered to work. The results surprised me: Although my sample size was small and my methodology unscientific‚ I noticed that people’s coping mechanisms were directly related to their attitude‚ work style‚ type of work‚ age‚ position‚ and company culture.

Attitude

People expressed diverse attitudes about working after business hours. Some said that “it’s exciting and engaging.” Some resented the “intrusion into my personal life.” And some were resigned to the fact that “this is the way it is nowadays‚ and you just have to accept it.”

Those who accept the increasing demands of today’s competitive environment shared thoughts that shifted my perspective about how I measure my time and quality of life. They enjoy working hard‚ multitasking‚ and feeling connected. “Do you feel like you don’t get a break?” I asked a lawyer friend‚ who like me worked during the holiday weekend. He pleasantly responded‚ “No‚ I get breaks every day. They’re just small ones.”

Work Style and Type

An individual’s work style and the type of work he or she engages in also plays a role in one’s stress level. For some‚ staying on top of tasks actually reduces their level of stress. These interviewees said that constantly scanning their mobile devices and checking in during vacations gives them a sense of control and connectedness that generally makes them feel less stressed. They preferred constant vigilance—even off-the-clock—to returning to the office to find a sea of emails and emergencies.

Conversely‚ others prefer to turn off work at times‚ finding the always-on lifestyle to be stress-inducing. These individuals prefer to draw stricter boundaries between work and home. Although they may face a barrage of work upon their return‚ they prefer having uninterrupted downtime to relax and recharge.

Naturally‚ some types of work are more conducive to shutting off than others. During our dinner discussion‚ a doctor said‚ “I don’t have a choice. When I’m on call‚ I can’t turn off my Blackberry or pager. Even when I’m not on call‚ I’m still on call‚ so to speak.” Deadline-driven work‚ work requiring long periods of concentration‚ or work involving international teams‚ for example‚ can also affect how people work (regardless of personal work style) and the stress that results. “When I got a Blackberry‚” said a corporate tax consultant‚ “I thought it would add a lot more work and stress. But it’s actually enormously less stressful to have a sense of what’s going on. It eliminates that sense of panic. I think of it as catastrophe avoidance.”

Age

It’s not surprising to find that age factors in to how people respond to stress. I spoke with individuals ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s. For those in their early 20s‚ 24/7 connectivity is all they have ever known; however‚ they may have difficulty discerning a crisis from an ordinary event. Their inexperience can be stress-inducing if they feel they must respond promptly to everything. That said‚ younger people are also more comfortable with technology. Some older people find using technology itself stressful.

Generally‚ people in their mid-30s to late 40s manage information-overload and technology with comfort and ease‚ plus the wisdom of knowing what needs urgent attention and what can wait. Simply understanding the difference—and having the confidence to decide how they let work and personal life blur—seems to ease stress for them. “I haven’t been in the ‘real’ business world without work and personal life blurring‚” said a visual designer. “Emotionally‚ it’s rough‚ because I feel obligated to think about work nonstop—when I put my iPhone in my bag while I’m working out‚ when I hear my email alerts go off‚ even when I’m checking Facebook to pass the time. And just when you think you’re in ‘relax mode’ at 2 a.m. on a Saturday‚ you get an email about your timesheets!”

An account director adds‚ “Maybe I’m less motivated now that I’m in my forties‚ or maybe it’s just that I care more about my personal life at this stage‚ but I don’t respond to everything right away like I did earlier in my career. If it’s truly important‚ I will‚ but otherwise‚ I let it slide and I don’t stress about it.”

Personal Choice and Position

Choice—the feeling of being in control versus being controlled—plays a large role in how people view work-life balance. Those who believe that they are in a job because they want to be there (and could leave anytime) are less stressed than those who feel forced to work. Those who say they’re trapped in their jobs because of the economy express more stress and resentment over the intrusion of work into their personal lives.

A person’s rank or position in the company also can affect his or her feeling of control. While higher-ranking positions may actually mean more work and longer hours‚ those positions also come with more authority‚ autonomy‚ and money. The ability to control the flow of work and communication may help in the management of stress. “For me‚ my Blackberry is a tool‚ not a ball and chain‚” says a real estate developer. “I choose what to pay attention to. If I feel like I have a choice‚ then it’s okay.”

“While technology can help us distinguish between plugged-in states [plugged into work versus plugged into social networks]‚” adds another visual designer‚ “it’s the exceptions to the rule that make this separation easier in theory than in actuality. I think there is a tension between being online in our connected social networks and the expectations and responsibilities placed upon us by work to remain plugged in: choice versus obligation.”

Corporate Culture

A company’s culture and ethics have the most influence on stress levels as professionals try to balance their work and personal lives. Companies that recognize the negative health impact of longer hours and higher stress are starting to implement work-life initiatives‚ such as flexible working arrangements‚ childcare programs‚ eldercare assistance‚ broader family leave policies‚ educational leave and sabbaticals‚ community service time-off‚ employee assistance programs‚ health seminars‚ and fitness facilities or fitness membership assistance.

Many people I spoke with for this article work for frog design‚ which offers flexible work hours and tools for working remotely with relative ease. More important‚ there is a culture of trust and respect that employees will manage their time and workload and‚ unless that is abused‚ there is no time-clock to be punched‚ per se. We all work long hours‚ but our corporate culture makes us feel like this is by choice.

Other people aren’t so fortunate. One business consultant told me that her company’s rule is that employees are at their desks from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.‚ but that most people stay until at least 7:30 p.m.—and apologize to colleagues if they need to leave earlier. She is also expected to monitor email at night and over the weekend. Personal appointments during the workday must be pre-approved‚ and she feels that they are generally discouraged. She is left with less and less time to manage her personal life‚ and her stress is palpable. “My company says they value work-life balance‚ but their actions do not show it‚” she sighs. “Don’t they know that I’d be a better employee if I wasn’t so stressed out all the time?”

Some companies seem to split the difference. Says one lawyer: “The average partner in our firm dies at age 67. So our company now gives us a $2‚500 bonus to get an annual physical. We still work around the clock‚ but at least we are trying to detect health problems earlier.”

Effecting Change

While preparing this piece‚ I found countless articles about “How to Manage Stress” and “How to Achieve Work-Life Balance.” Many of their tips we already know. Exercise more. Eat healthy. Prioritize. What I found refreshing was their research into the health effects of stress—and the costs and productivity losses it causes employers. The staggering numbers‚ such as OSHA’s $300 billion estimate‚ are prompting employers to truly support the notion of work-life balance.

The always-on‚ hyper-connected workplace is not going away‚ but corporate efforts to manage stress are gaining momentum. In the meantime‚ we can examine how our own attitudes influence how we feel‚ find a work style that suits us‚ use our maturity and experience (or find a mentor) to help pace ourselves and feel more control over our choices‚ and finally‚ talk to our employers about being flexible and effecting change.

I started this article on a Saturday‚ and I am writing these final words from my living room after working a full day today. But I’m not stressed about it. It’s what I need to do to keep the great job that I have. I can turn off the computer after I send this. And I’m fortunate to say that that’s my choice.

Barbara Pantuso is a director of program management at frog design’s New York studio.
www.frogdesign.com

Work – Life

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