Friday, January 12, 2020

Competitive Stress

Being constantly tired and stressed is bad enough, but boasting about it? It appears that stress too is becoming competitive in our crazy world. It’s no longer enough to be stressed. Now you have to be more stressed and overworked than everyone else. Where will such stupidity stop?

According to an article on entitled “Stress showdowns”, it’s chic to be stressed. It seems that work-obsessed people are now competing in how much stress they are carrying, based on the assumption that the more stressed you are, the more successful you must be.

It’s hard to rationalize the idiocy that this reveals, but I guess that, in our hyper-competitive culture, almost anything can become the basis for rivalry. And the typical attitude of organizations and bosses, based on the Puritan Work Ethic, backs this up with an equally irrational belief that the harder you work, the better you are as a person. Besides, persuading more people to take on that kind of attitude benefits the organization by ensuring that these folk will be only too willing to work themselves almost to death without needing any greater incentive than showing-off to their peers.

Leslie Reisner, Ph.D., a Los Angeles psychologist and corporate trainer specializing in stress, who is quoted in the article, says:
Not only do many of us want the stress in our lives, we want more stress than the next guy. It’s the new way of keeping up with the Joneses.

By such twisted logic, the highest achievement comes not from producing the best results, but from being the one who was the most stressed by getting there. You can add to that the common element of boasting. If one person says he or she works 50 hours each week, you can be sure that someone else is going to claim to be working 60—and so on, up to 70, 80, and beyond. Maybe it will even be true. But, in terms of useful results achieved and from any other sensible perspective, doing 40 hours of productive, creative work is always going to beat 60+ hours in a tired, stressed, and mind-numbed state. Exhaustion is no friend to creativity or accuracy.

If stress is becoming the badge of success, that’s mostly because people love to keep score—and stress is a way of doing it that allows them to appear oppressed at the same time. Sadly, stress causes real health and relationship problems. It is one thing to brag about staying longer at work that anyone else, but quite another to be the one who dies youngest, or whose children have the most juvenile convictions, and whose spouse has the most affairs or wins the largest divorce settlement.

The MSNBC article also list other “benefits” from claiming to be significantly stressed by overwork:
  • If someone has no time for anything but work, hasn’t had a proper vacation in 10 years, and gets 1000 e-mails each day, he or she must be important. Right?

  • Stress is an easy, ready-made excuse for all sorts of bad behaviors, from being a bad-tempered and dictatorial jerk, to ignoring promises, and screwing up important work. The message is: “Don’t criticize me. I’m only being a jerk because I’m so stressed. You should sympathize.” Of course, there’s no excuse for being a jerk—not even that you were born that way.

  • All sorts of other socially undesirable behaviors, from sexual harassment to drug abuse, can be blamed on the “stresses of my job.” Politicians and film stars have played this game successfully for decades. Going into rehab has become the instant response to being caught involved in anything compromising—followed by a tearful news conference at which the “incredible demands of my job” are duly trotted out as justification for whatever mess-up has been made.
James W. Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, says a stress-based strategy is also quite a good way of avoiding extra work:
Wearing stress as a badge of honor can also serve as defense mechanism. When you show the world you are totally stressed out you’re sending out a signal: Don’t give me any more stuff to do.
So what can you do when the people around you are competing in a mindless round of one-upmanship, each one claiming to be more stressed-out and overworked than the rest? It’s easy to feel that you’ll be seen as the most despised wimp if you smile and say that you’re feeling just fine, thank you very much, and looking forward to your vacation next month.

Here are a few ideas:
  • It’s probably a fairly safe assumption that those who talk most about their stress aren’t nearly as frazzled as they claim. That’s true in almost any area of human life: the ones who boast loudest about their sexual conquests, for example, aren’t usually those who have so much to boast about. If you keep quiet and say nothing, others will probably assume that you are the one who actually has the most reason to boast.

  • Working long hours is no guarantee of doing anything useful. Some of those who stay longest at work do so because they are the least competent. They need all that extra time just to keep up. If you get good results in a reasonable working week, staying longer is unlikely to improve them.

  • Overwork and stress ruins creativity. You can be an exhausted drone or an alert, innovative worker bee. It’s your choice. Which one will work best for you?

  • If the organization favors those who make a show of working hardest, even if they become too tired as a result to do anything but pull the levers, take careful note. It’s telling you that the guys in charge are morons. I suspect they—and their business—won’t last too much longer in our competitive world. You might want to get out sooner than later.

  • If stress and overwork are badges of honor, why does our society pay some of the most stressed and overworked people (hospital interns, nurses, public school teachers, for example) such pitiful salaries? Have you ever heard of a top executive being so tired that he or she falls asleep while talking to a customer? It seems that it’s far from unknown for junior doctors to fall asleep while examining a patient.
Competing over stress is a badge of only one thing: being an egotistical, brain-dead jerk. If that’s what you want to prove yourself to be, step right up and get in line. It seems others are just as keen as you are to prove their stupidity.

I, for one, will decline the honor.

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Lynne said...

Bravo! I would like to take this article, print it out and put it on the desks of every "stressed" person that we have in our office. Seriously -- it's become an epidemic -- and you've hit the nail right on the head when you talk about the "badge of honor."

I recently made the decision to leave corporate america and start my own business for just this reason. If I choose to work long hours, it's my choice -- but I will be darned if I'll let another person try to make me feel inferior simply because I refuse to "boast" about how much I work. The proof, as you say, is in the results.

8:39 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Lynne.

Full marks for your courage and good sense in refusing to be forced into a lifestyle that you don't want. I hope your new venture is all that you wish it to be.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:02 AM  
Peter Vajda said...

"’s chic to be stressed. It seems that work-obsessed people are now competing in how much stress they are carrying, based on the assumption that the more stressed you are, the more successful you must be."

So a review of our nation's mental health statistics (my own personal "GDP and GNP" finger on the pulse of how our country is faring) and reading the increased numbers of stress-induced consequences around obesity, verbal and physical abuse, addictions to chemical and non-chemical medications, corporate crime, suicides, depression, cancer and other dis-eases, etc., etc. must point to us as the most successful(read: stressed) nation on the planet...hmmmm

10:07 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...


The USA is the most succSTRESSful nation ever, it seems.

Thanks for your comment, Peter. Keep reading, my friend.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous said...

I think this bragging, however petty, serves an important function.

If you work in an industry where overtime is expected, and where the end goal is more important than the cost, there aren't many ways for you to opt out of more work. The only way is water-cooler bragging/complaining.

I am in the IT department of a fortune 10 company. For many valid business reasons, we're completely goal and date focused: come hell or high water, a new product must be developed on time. If something comes up, can you raise a change to move the target? Yes, but don't expect to be around next quarter, because we have guys in China can do it for 1/10th of your US/UK salary. (No, you won't get fired, your department just won't get routed as many projects, so you'll have to cut staff, and eventually, yourself.)

But why do teams/departments ever need to change dates? Estimates and uncertainty.

- Projects are planned with estimates that are always read to be maximums (never ranges), and are always challenged to be improved.
- Estimates are just that, however, and are never 100% correct, and
- Estimates and plans always miss something.

The pressure to never move a date, combined with uncertainty that drives additional work, means that teams must absorb anything unforeseen (risk). Some folks absorb the time, at their own personal peril. Some, after being pushed for yet more productivity, brag about their time. Others come to their boss' office crying. Very few quit, because the pay is relatively good (in my co., around $90K), and the risk of being outsourced is higher if you're new at another firm, and it's very hard to believe it's not like this elsewhere, too.

After several years of these schedules, employees in these environments have no concept of a normal week. A 5d/45h week is so rare that it's no longer a valid gauge for people to measure utilization against. They've all already learned how to work a 7x75h schedule. Their families have typically figured out how to deal with the work/life imbalance. 45h seems like slacking off. 40 hour weeks are a joke.

The flip-side to the bragging about one's self is deriding others. In this kind of environment, peers working nine-to-five are repeatedly asked if they're just stopping for lunch, or only taking a half day.


This could lead into an interesting discussion on Karoshi (Japanese for "death from overwork")

11:09 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon.

This is an excellent example of exactly how "creeping overwork" happens.

I mention in my original article that bragging about long hours can be a way of trying to stop being given yet more work. It's also a coping mechanism for some of the stresses that happen when the work piles up just the same.

In time, overwork becomes habitual. As you say, the idea of a "standard 40 hour week" becomes so remote as to be irrelevant. And people do adjust to the new realities.

Here's the crunch though. Maybe you can adjust to 45 hours, even 50 or 55. But the hours keep creeping up. Some will drop out, but if (as you say) the pay is good and alternative employment looks scarce, others try to tough it out. They keep going until they break down.

I say that is no way for a civilized country to operate. And bragging about it isn't any answer.

7:35 AM  
Kathleen DeFilippo said...

Carmine, I wish you'd migrate your blog to a service that allows trackbacks. But if that's the only thing I can complain about, you're doing well. :-)

I loved this article; I've recently begun recovery from job stress (there'll be a post on my site about it tomorrow morning). I do want to point out, though, that not all overstressed people are that way because they're competing. At least, I never thought I was trying to out-stress anyone else. But it is difficult to get that voice out of my head (the one that says, "everyone else is working more than you are!"). And I get some funny looks from folks now when I do things like leave on time or take a lunch hour. But that's a small price to pay for being able to sleep at night and no longer having to swallow Zantac like it's candy.

8:43 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

You'll have your wish soon, Kathleen. I'm in the midst of preparing to move this blog to a better format.

I don't think that everyone is competing to be more stressed that the next guy, though some undoubtedly are. But the competitive urge is there underneath, as you so beautifully explain. Always that sly look over the shoulder in case the rest aren't approving or supporting.

It's very tough to go your own way in the world, even when you believe, passionately, that it's the right one for you. Full marks for having the courage to act from your innermost beliefs and not sell out to those who would see popping pills as merely a side effect of a successful life.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:32 PM  

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