Wednesday, May 10, 2020

The Stress Epidemic

While nations are justifiably concerned about the potential chaos and loss of life that could come from a pandemic of bird flu, it seems another pandemic is already with us and no one is taking much notice. A recent survey in the UK reports a staggering 97% of IT professionals suffering from work-related stress.

According to the survey, the “top ten” professions for stress are:
  1. Information Technology
  2. Medicine and other Caring Professions
  3. Engineering
  4. Sales and Marketing
  5. Education
  6. Finance
  7. Human Resources
  8. Operations
  9. Production
  10. Clerical
The sources of stress are also detailed. they include:
  • Workload
  • Feeling undervalued
  • Deadlines
  • Type of work people have to do
  • Having to take on other people’s work
  • Lack of job satisfaction
  • Lack of control over the working day
  • Having to work long hours
  • Frustration with the working environment
  • Targets
None of this is very startling in itself — what survey results are? — but it does raise some interesting questions.

For a start, if work is so highly valued in our society that we have a specific “ethic” — the Work Ethic — to underscore the importance of hard work as a route to personal and civic virtue, how can so many people feel both overworked and undervalued? Surely the first would remove all possibility of the second? Or is it that they don’t feel valued because they suspect their employers are treating them like machines — to be worked as hard as possible for the least possible cost?

In the past, the so-called “professions” (medicine, the law, the church, teaching, accounting and other similar roles demanding long periods of learning to achieve qualification) were seen as vocations — personal callings — not simply jobs taken to earn money. While this may always have owed more to sentiment than reality, the fact remains that those from families wealthy enough to afford the required education and “apprenticeship” to join one of the revered professions were looking for a working life based more on enjoyment and stimulation than hard graft. But here we have medicine near the top in terms of stress, and education and finance up there as well. I suspect law is only missing because of the oddities of a sample selected by a primarily IT-based company.

People’s lack of satisfaction with their work and the absence of much control over their working day also seem to fall naturally together. Again, in the past, educated, skilled professionals worked mostly in private practice. Although they might start in a fairly lowly and regulated kind of work, they expected quite quickly to advance to a state where they could organize their own clients and schedules. Today, their equivalents have no such expectations. Even if they reach high executive positions, their days will still be more or less at the mercy of external demands. It’s no wonder nearly 40% of the people surveyed wanted to leave corporate life and start their own businesses.

What this survey, and others like it, are showing is the “industrialization” of organizations. The kind of treatment that used to be reserved for unskilled manual workers (“clocking on,” “piece work” and payment by results, enforced overtime, swift replacement of trouble-makers) is now the norm for highly educated “knowledge workers.” What Taylor started by measuring men’s capacity to load more pig-iron each day has extended itself into professional offices — even boardrooms. People nowadays may be more highly educated, better paid and working with their brains, not their muscles, but they’re still being treated much as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were: as “labor.”

Modern industrialization of the workplace has long abandoned the crude stop-watch and regimented, class-ridden traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But enforced overtime, crippling working hours, constant pressure to produce more in less time, and pay linked firmly to output are all aspects of work that the Victorians would have recognized as normal amongst the “laboring classes.” Can we truly think of ourselves as having progressed if they are just as prevalent today? Progress is more than technology. It is the creation of a better life, not just for the CEOs paid millions and the financiers of Wall Street, but for everyone else as well. So far, we seem to be standing still.

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Matthew Bennett said...

Maybe that's just the nature of business and has nothing to do with what type of work it is. If I have a business, a system for producing some outcome for profit and benefit to a client, and I want to grow that business continually, then I want maximum bang for my buck: I want my worker, my producer, my doer at 100% effort for the 40 or so hours a week I'm paying him for. And if I can find someone willing to do 110%, all the better. How you get that is another problem.

10:02 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

That's a good point, Matthew. I don't think stress is limited to certain kinds of work — though it's interesting that work practices that used to be confined to lower-level, manual work have now made their way into "knowledge working" areas.

Your example seems to me to highlight a key question for all leaders: when does "getting what I pay my people for" spill over into "getting everything I can from them, without paying any more if I can avoid it."

The first is fair. The second seems to me to be unethical and uncivilized, smacking more of greed than leadership.

4:52 PM  
healthvalley said...

Psychological stress (such as a life event like bereavement) is known to be implicated in the onset and course of major depressive disorder

Events in the brain determine whether stress is followed by depression, and a triad of neurochemical responses (to steroids, amines, and peptides) seems to be involved

Changes in stress responsive steroid hormones are important—increased cortisol may alter mood and can damage the brain, while reduced levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) may contribute since it is a natural cortisol antagonist

Brain serotonin, and other amines such as noradrenaline, respond to stress and may alter the brain's vulnerability to stress induced malfunction

Peptides such as corticotrophin releasing factor are potent regulators of the adaptive response to stress, and changes in peptides in parts of the brain known to be linked with emotional responses (such as the amygdala) may precipitate depressive illness

Understanding depression and finding new avenues for its treatment depend on combining social, psychological, and neurochemical information about stress and its consequences for mental health (BMJ)

4:20 AM  

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