I often hear people tell me that they feel their work is getting in the way of their life. And they're only partly joking. In fact, several recent research studies find that the workplace is pretty unpleasant for many people. Large numbers of men and women are severely stressed or depressed at work, often to the point of being unable to function and becoming sick, emotionally or physically. The numbers are at the highest levels, ever. Conventional explanations point to career uncertainties in today's economy, or heavy workloads. Those are obvious contributors, but I think such explanations miss a deeper, more systemic problem that's pervasive throughout the workplace culture of most organizations today.
In brief, it's that management practices, the workplace relationships that result from them, and the overall business model is stuck within a 20th century mindset and worldview. And that's dysfunctional in today's world of chaos, interdependency, and transparency. Today, collaboration and openness are essential for generating and sustaining success, both in work and in life outside of work. The new world environment includes clear shifts in what people look for and want from their careers; and from the organizations to which they'll commit their creative energies. These new realities are pushing companies to transform how they do business and how they treat people working within them. The push is towards supporting new learning, creative innovation, and long-term vision that promotes sustainability as well as contributes to greater well-being via the product or service.
What Happens At Work
With those emerging shifts in mind, some of the new findings shed light point to what may help support these transformations in people's life at work and within business leadership. Consider a new survey from the consulting firm rogenSI. It reports that about 25% of the global workforce is depressed. The primary source is people's experience at work. In fact, 92 percent of those surveyed linked the state of their mental health to their job.
That's no surprise, really: A ComPsych survey finds that two-thirds of employees report unprecedented levels of stress. And 29% report feeling so stressed that they're often unable to be effective at all, during the workday. Of course workload is a factor. But the impact of other sources has been increasing. They include negative, unsupportive and undermining relationships on the job, including those with peers; destructive interactions with management; and the negative impact of a management culture that's stifling or unrewarding of talent.
Another study finds that work actually makes many people physically sick. It's not so much the long hours but conflicts with others, each day at work. Also contributing to sickness are confusion, ambiguity or negative competition around roles; in addition to insufficient resources or other organizational constraints. A recently promoted senior executive described the latter, telling me that her new role didn't include the staff and other resources she needed to be effective.
Overall, continuous intense pressure and heavy workloads fueled by negative management practices will generate fear and anxiety, especially when employees lack the flexibility or resources they need. These are unhealthy Catch-22 situations, and the research shows the consequences: a close association between physical symptoms and each of the above factors. Moreover, research finds a link between your level of stress at work and the length of your life. In a literal sense, your work may be killing you.
Chronic stress takes an emotional and physical toll, and working within a negative, unrewarding workplace and management culture are prime contributors. Researchers find that such factors are the single most important factor related to length of life, especially the absence of positive support and collaboration in relationships with co-workers. Another study found that the level of engagement and connection in people's workplace relationships with co-workers and in performing their workplace roles corresponded to whether they felt they were thriving, struggling....or suffering.
Most of these destructive features coalesce around trying to succeed and have impact within a workplace culture that either undermines what you need to be successful, or is stacked against you to begin with. When I first wrote about the link between career success and emotional conflict in Modern Madness a couple of decades ago, I found that the main conflicts people typically experienced were enervating trade-offs and feelings of self-betrayal -- especially around personal values and ideals that clashed with the behavior and attitudes necessary for career advancement. Much of that is still true, but those conflicts have been mostly supplanted by two major changes: In the world that organizations operate in; and in what people look for in their careers today.
The Crash of '08 helped unraveled the old model of career pressures to cope with unhealthy work and role behavior in exchange for financial reward and steady career advancement. That's now gone. Much of the mental and emotional distress people experience today reflects the disruption that we're now in the midst of. Robert Reich has described the heart of the current unraveling, writing that,
In that old view, being rich was proof of hard work, and lack of money proof of indolence or worse. The old view was anyone could make it in America with enough guts and gumption. The old view was also that great wealth trickled downward -- that the rich made investments in jobs and growth that benefited all of us. But that view, too, has lost its sheen. Nothing has trickled down.
At the same time there's rising awareness that many alternative paths to success and fulfillment are sprouting all over the place. That can leave one chagrined about what's happening - the current decade's version of "Mr. Jones" in Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man." For example, recent stories in the media question the value of college and it's relevance to a successful, fulfilling life. And New York Times columnist Tom Friedman described an emerging, relevant theme of younger people who see themselves as a pro-active personal vehicle of innovation and success; of their own development -- what he calls "the start-up of you." A great illustration of the new paths and attitudes that are breaking free from the old model was a recent story in the New York Times Magazine about Lex Luger, a young, highly successful music-maker who dropped out of high school, driven by his love of what he wanted to do, his pro-active attitude and his talent.
The consequences of the new world environment for careers in organizations is that people respond with energy and commitment when their workplace is highly collaborative and supports continuous growth; when it enables them to have impact on something beyond just financial reward. And, when the company pursues long-term, sustainable business strategies. People who build success and well-being within such organizations are highly proactive within the "nonequilibrium" world they're immersed in. These are among the features I've described as part of the rising 4.0 career orientation.
If employees are more likely to be engaged and productive when their work provides a greater impact than simply helping increase profit, companies are also more successful when they building a culture of collaboration and transparency; when they create a flexible, long-term vision of the business. All this is a far cry from the old top-down, command-and-control world of yesterday. In short, companies that are able to retain the best workers build a business model that integrates sustainable practices, commitment to high value in their service or product, and contributes to the common good.
Moving Towards Transformation
There are hopeful signs of the kinds of changes that will support positive, healthy practices for both organizations and their employees. Some are found in research findings; others in examples of new business perspectives. Some examples:
• Studies find that well-being is highly related to a sense of positive connection and engagement at work, and to being able to provide service of some kind through your contributions to the enterprise. In fact, only 7% of well-being was attributed to income. In addition -- the flip side of the finding that an unpleasant workplace can shorten your life -- positive relations with co-workers and a supportive, positive management behavior is associated with a longer life. The perception of emotional support at work was the strongest indicator of future health.
• Increasing movement towards a business model that prioritizes well-being over growth, in which a company's products, services and brands support maximum flourishing for customers, workers and society. For example, Dov Seidman calls it the rise of the "new normal," marked by high degrees of transparency, interconnection and interdependency. Successful companies embrace these perspectives, rather than ignore or resist them. Short-term mindsets become displaced by long-term perspectives.
• The best businesses realize that they are more than just engines to make money, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, writing that they are "also vehicles for accomplishing societal purposes and for providing meaningful livelihoods for those who work in them." The most successful companies consider whether or not they are building long-term institutions of society. They invest in the future while paying attention to the needs of society and people.
The upshot of these encouraging signs is that employees will feel their work is meaningful and will be more engaged when it has some wider benefit other than simply increasing profits. But that's part of a larger shift in leadership and business perspectives that represents, in effect, an evolution of the "DNA" of the organization's culture at all levels. For the individual worker, that means healthier interactions with co-workers, subordinates and bosses, and a diminishing sense that your work is "interfering" too much with your life.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.
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