Workplace stress may be becoming an epidemic, affecting productivity and the bottom line. Dr. David Posen, Author of “Is Work Killing You?”, talks to Kim Parlee about how to tackle work stress, and why employers and employees need to address stress as a team.
So your book-- it is called Is Work Killing You? So the question is, is it?
Well, literally, it can-- I mean, heart attacks, strokes. There was an intern in London, England-- a young man, about 21-- who was working apparently for three weeks virtually nonstop, and had convulsions and died. But mostly, it kills energy. It kills engagement. It kills morale. It kills spirit. And you know what else? It kills performance and productivity.
The fascinating part about stressed out workers is that a lot of the time and energy they put in is actually unproductive. Because past a certain point, you actually get a reverse effect from long hours and too much stress and so on. So it kills a lot of things, including the bottom line. And there's a big business case to be made for paying attention to this.
So not to get prescriptive right away, but is there more to the problem? Are there specific reasons that you're seeing? I know that you've highlighted three big issues for people in the workplace.
Well, as you indicated, there are a number of them-- rapid change, technology, and so on. But I narrowed it down to three-- the volume of work, the sheer amount of work people are asked to do, and particularly with downsizing. And companies are sort of pared to the bone. And the "lucky" survivors end up having to do the work that was shared with others.
The velocity of work, the pace and the speed of work, which has increased largely because of technology, but I think also because of unrealistic expectations and, frankly, impatience. Everybody wants something right now, and so on.
And the third is abuse, intimidation, harassment, bullying in the workplace. It can be sexual abuse. It can be racial abuse. But the point is, it's often under the radar, not being dealt with. And in many cases, organizations know who the perpetrators are, but somehow they're getting a free ride. And so the patients I work with the longest are actually the ones where the biggest problem for them in the workplace is that they're being abused. So the volume of work, velocity and speed of work, and abuse in the workplace-- those I call the big three.
You talked about the young intern who literally died from overwork in that one situation. But what happens to us physiologically, biologically, when we're exposed to these kinds of volume, velocity, and abuse on an ongoing basis?
Well, the thing is, the stress reaction is built into us-- the fight-or-flight response-- to give us quick energy to fight or run away from danger. That's the classic stress reaction, goes back to the caveman. And it is mediated by adrenalin and noradrenalin and cortisone and all these stress hormones. But the thing is that you can't keep drawing on your body to give you more energy if you don't have time to stop and put the energy back in.
Our bodies are like a bank account. You've got to put money in before you take money out. And as a result, when somebody is in overdrive-- as this young man obviously was-- for weeks at a time with no recovery time, the body simply breaks down. The adrenal gland peters out. It affects the heart and the brain, blood pressure, cholesterol, everything else. And the body simply can't withstand that.
So how do you be prescriptive about the situation? The one thing I was going to say, the abuse, I think, is a pretty glaring one, although it sounds like it goes under the radar a lot from what you talked about. For people who are, say, enduring the normal stress of volume and velocity-- what do you actually do about it, I mean, if you're an individual as opposed to an organization?
Well, the interesting thing about that is that the people who are mandating some of this work are also stressed. This is a message for everybody all the way up the food chain. That's one thing. The second thing is that a lot of organizations put responsibility for dealing with this on the individual. You've got all of this work to do. We've got all these deadlines. You figure out how to reduce your stress. You figure out how to have work-life balance, and so on.
And one of my messages in my book is that it has to be a shared responsibility. This is a systemic problem. And it cannot be dealt with just by the individuals who, in many cases, are, quote, "the victims" of the situation. The organization has to step up and take responsibility, too. How much stress are they putting on these people, or how much pressure, and so on? You can be really good at dissipating stress. You can jog and meditate and eat properly and so on, get lots of sleep. But if the stress is coming at you or the pressure is faster than you can dissipate them, you'll never catch up anyway. So it's a shared responsibility.
But in terms of what individuals and organizations can do, the first thing is, contain the work hours, because the research shows, and it is fascinating, actually the optimum number of hours in a week for optimum productivity is about 40 hours. Maybe you can stretch it to 45 or 50. But anything past that, you start spinning your wheels. You're actually not getting much productivity, but you are wearing yourself out. So containing work hours.
Regular breaks-- and I talk about a break mid-morning, a break at lunch, a break mid-afternoon, and a break at dinner time breaks up your day into what are called ultradian rhythms. We have wake-sleep cycles every 24 hours. But we also have these two-hour cycles within the day. And if you take breaks kind of meshing with your regular energy cycles anyway, you'll be much more productive. Some people look at me and say, yeah, I can take a break in the middle of the morning, and I can take a break for lunch. Actually if you do, your productivity will increase.
The third thing is that I think people have to look at the workload. And there's an expression, "add one, subtract one." You can't keep piling this stuff up on people. But as individuals, at some point, people have to learn how to say no and set boundaries and limits. That's where personal responsibility can take place.
And then in terms of the velocity, I think people have to stop overusing technology. And they have to stop expecting people to be available 24/7 and checking their email at 11:30 at night before they go to bed and even responding. But the other thing is, the work-life balance-- these people have to have a life to go to after work. And work has become so open ended.
One of my expressions is that our work has become open ended, but we're limited by our physiology. There's only so much we can do. And people have to set some limits for themselves and make time for themselves for sleep, for exercise, for leisure, for hobbies, for time with friends and family. And if you get that balance, not only will you feel better, you'll function better. And performance and productivity will improve.
Great suggestions. I have one last question for you, probably more on the technology piece. And just in terms of what you've seen and who you've talked to is that I know for a lot of people, technology is something that's always on. Therefore, you're always on 24/7. The flip is, though, that it provides flexibility for some people in terms of you can leave here a little earlier and go do something else. So is there a way to kind of still get the flexibility with technology, but not be enslaved by it?
Absolutely. First of all, get technology out of the bedroom. I mean, I had two patients in one week who told me that they went to bed at night with an iPad on one side and an iPhone on the other, in bed with them. I mean, that's just looking for trouble. I call it "trolling for trouble," in fact. So use the technology, but stop letting it use you.
And so you set the hours of when it's on and when it's off. You set the hours of how available it is. Is it in your pocket, or is it on the dresser in another room? So to use it for your own flexibility and so you can leave early on a Friday afternoon, and so on, that's great. But stop looking at it at 11 o'clock at night. And in fact, the research shows that looking at screens the hour before bedtime actually messes up your sleep because it signals the brain to stay awake.
So we can set these limits, and lots of people do. And some people now are going away on vacation without their technology. And some of my patients tell me, best vacation I've had in years. We can make those choices.
My pleasure. Thank you.