This is the first of two articles on the topic of extreme productivity caused by unhealthy levels of stress at work. This month's article introduces the topic with a statement of the problem and some initial questions that organizations need to ask about the presence and level of stress in the workplace. In the second article, we will explore the effects of extreme productivity and put forth some counteracting measures.
Pablo Picasso said, "It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction." It is this strong passion surrounding work, and the blurring of the line between work and personal life, that can ultimately cause stress, disability, or illness. Today, the workplace is so highly charged that the push to work harder and faster now threatens to reduce the productivity gains companies have achieved. Over the past 10 years, companies supercharged their productivity, largely through technology tools that made a 40-hour workweek a thing of the past, a 60-hour workweek commonplace, and a 70+-hour workweek a badge of honor. The financial crisis, economic recession, and recovery of the last 7 years have led to corporate cutbacks, downsizing, layoffs, and restructuring. In response, companies are squeezing even more productivity out of fewer workers in what appears to be the "new normal."
Employees who are worried about their jobs and their financial security are trying to keep up with workplace demands amid greater personal uncertainty. White-collar workers are pushing themselves to work even more, sacrificing personal time, family connections, and potentially their physical and mental health. Blue-collar employees are working longer at physically demanding jobs, and some who are aging out of their positions fear they cannot afford to retire. To make ends meet or in response to fewer full-time jobs, some employees are taking on two jobs, which can lead to serious sleep deprivation and other health issues.
Amid troubled economic times, employers are facing their own challenges to maintain employees' full engagement in their work while reducing stress. Employees must be healthy so they can work at optimal productivity—not maximal productivity, which is unsustainable. Organizations need to consider how to best use their healthcare dollars, while promoting work-life balance, wellness, prevention, and safety. Employers that fail to meet these challenges will lose their most precious resource—their human capital—to burnout.
Addressing the impact of extreme productivity begins with acknowledging the problem. Too few employers have done this in any meaningful way. Only those that are willing to identify workplace issues and put programs in place that improve resiliency, reduce stress, and promote employee work satisfaction will realize the competitive advantage that comes from a workforce that is healthy and productive.
A Statement of the Problem
There is a strong business case for paying attention to stress—both physical and behavioral—that results from overwork. Stress is defined as an employee experiencing one or more of several elements, including working multiple jobs, long hours, or more than 5 days in a week; continual use of technology to stay in touch with the workplace during off hours; or a feeling of little control over work demands.
Stress Is a Driver of Reduced Profitability
Job stress costs US businesses an estimated $300 billion per year through absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, and direct medical, legal, and insurance fees. Forty-eight percent of US employers recognized that stress caused by working long hours affected business performance, yet only 5 percent actually took steps to address it. Many corporate heads are still in the proverbial sand when it comes to tackling the detrimental effects of stress on their human capital. Recognition of the problem has not driven employers to action.
Stress Is a Driver of Healthcare Costs
Employees who say they are under uncontrolled stress spend 46 percent more on health care, according to an analysis of risk factors and employee health claims. A 2007 nationwide poll by the American Psychological Association found that three-quarters of Americans list work as a significant source of stress. Half of those surveyed indicated their work productivity suffered due to stress. Furthermore, almost half stated they did not use their allotted vacation time and even considered looking for a new job because of stress.
Stress can literally "make you sick." In a November 2014 issue of AARP, chronic stress was cited as contributing to both minor and major health conditions—from colds, weight gain, slower healing, and sleep dysfunction to heart disease, depression, ulcers, and back/neck/shoulder pain.
If research shows that a 20-minute "power nap" can greatly improve judgment, reaction time, and information processing, why do employers and employees alike expect that working more hours will automatically result in greater productivity? The result may be the exact opposite: reduced profitability, increased incidence of disability, and disengagement of employees who are less productive—not more. As The New York Times noted, "Too many hours at the office can also wind up being counterproductive. Employees who are overtired or preoccupied with neglected personal issues are unlikely to perform at their peak. They fall behind, spend more unproductive time at work to catch up, and so on."
Stress Is a Driver of Reduced Productivity
The need for optimal productivity is even greater given data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on US labor productivity prior to the economic downturn in fourth quarter 2008. Productivity measures in the bellwether manufacturing sector declined by 1.7 percentage points during the third quarter of 2008. Observers speculate we may have finally reached the maximum we can expect from employee productivity. Indeed, we may start seeing an overall decline in US worker productivity, which has had an unprecedented overall rise since 1993.
Stress Is a Huge Risk Factor That Is Rarely Tackled
In the most recent DMEC Behavioral Risk Survey (2015), stress was listed as the top workforce risk factor by 78 percent of US employers, yet only 15 percent said improving the emotional/mental health of employees was a top priority for their health and productivity program. Further, less than half of the respondents screened for stress, anxiety, and substance abuse, and only 64 percent offered stress management or resilience training.
In a 2013 DMEC conference presentation, Christopher Anderson of Medaca Health Group in Toronto said that "Mental mistakes, or mistakes by overworked and stressed employees, increasingly drive business failure. Healthy, mentally fit employees are required to meet business goals especially in a world that is more stress-filled than ever."
At what point will our workforce surpass optimal productivity? What will this do to corporate profitability? When employees—both white-collar and blue-collar—hit the wall, who pays the price?
Asking Some Probing Questions
Given the current business environment, there are no easy answers. Solutions are far more complicated than encouraging people to take a 5-minute break. Employers must ask themselves the excellent questions that probe the heart of the issue—and prompt meaningful discussions about workable, effective solutions—unique to their environment and culture:
Have your employees crossed the line into extreme productivity?
What costs are you facing because of extreme productivity demands in terms of profitability, product and service defects, employee health, quality, workplace injuries, increased absenteeism, and more numerous safety issues?
What can you do to keep your employees from hitting the wall?
Regardless of company size or industry type, common themes related to extreme productivity demands and employee needs can be addressed by exploring employee resiliency, company culture, and employer-based outreach initiatives such as work-life programs. In addition, other considerations are lessons from the different generations, ethical issues associated with employer-initiated health interventions, and the promise of new learnings from neuroscience.
Often, the simplest workplace solutions result from good, common-sense human resource and disability/absence management best practices. To address extreme productivity, companies need to emphasize:
establishing better boundaries for employees between work and personal life;
incorporating greater employee input into how work gets done, including making suggestions, proposing solutions, and allowing for job flexibility;
recognizing and acknowledging employees' work with common courtesies, even having managers say "please" and "thank you" when asking employees to take on extra work;
acquiring top-down commitment to work-life balance and a healthier workplace;
communicating regularly with workers to promote conversation, emphasize a healthier environment, and decrease the effects of disconnection that can result from the overuse of technology;
requiring frontline managers to put work-life commitments into action, rather than expressing it only in words; and
implementing resiliency, stress management, and coping training.
Even when strategies appear simple, they are not easy to execute. Job demands, stigma, supervisor attitudes, peer pressure, and corporate culture (spoken and unspoken) can keep employees from doing what they know is good for them. Add to that personal or financial issues and the fear factor of an employee, spouse, or domestic partner losing a job, and both productivity and job pressures are impacted.
The pressure on employees to be productive is higher than ever even as we enjoy a recovering economy. Given that stress has a known impact of reducing profitability, increasing healthcare costs, diminishing productivity, and strongly influencing general morale in the workplace, the sustainability and growth of any company will be strongly affected. It is not clear why management in most companies, even in spite of a robust recovery, continues to apply tactics that increase these effects and rarely attempts to investigate their implications or implement corrective actions.
Progressive employers, however, have begun to ask some probing questions that get to the heart of the issue and seek workable, common sense, and effective solutions. As there is no "one size fits all," forward-thinking companies will need to seek answers and promote programs that meet the uniqueness of their own environment and culture. Without an understanding of these underlying extreme stress factors, future growth and profitability will ultimately be affected. Organizations cannot afford to risk long-term financial gains for short-term and unsustainable productivity gains—sacrificing their valuable human assets in the process.
Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), Extreme Productivity: Are Your Employees Hitting the Wall (2009).
Marcia Carruthers, MBA, ARM, CPDM, is cofounder and chairman of the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), a San Diego-based nonprofit trade association providing educational resources to employers in the area of disability, absence, health, and productivity. For information, visit www.dmec.org.
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