The usual wrong conclusion


A press release from earlier this summer (Seventy-five percent of U.S. employers say stress is their number one workplace health concern) offered the unsurprising statistic that a huge majority of businesses consider stress their No. 1 priority.

Three-fourths (75%) of U.S. employers ranked stress as their top health and productivity concern, but employers and employees disagreed on its causes, according to surveys by Willis Towers Watson. Employers and employees had just one factor in common in their top three choices: inadequate staffing, which employees ranked number one and employers ranked number two. Opinions diverged after that — on some points, dramatically.

So far, so good – identifying workplace stressors is a positive step.  Some of the report’s identified sources of stress can be reduced.

Employees and employers seem to agree that low pay and inadequate staffing are big stressors. But what exactly is an employer supposed to do with that information? Is there a business anywhere that can simply decide to hire more people and pay everybody more? Highly profitable companies may have that option, sometimes, if they aren’t under great pressure from shareholders.  I’m not at all sure that there’s anything most businesses can do.  This seems to be a social and political problem more than a business issue.

“Lack of work/life balance (excessive workloads and/or long hours)” was employers top stressor, but only No. 6 according to employees, ranked behind the long hours and low pay, along with company culture, unclear job expectations and excessive organizational change. Employers were also much more concerned than employees about technologies such as cell phones and laptops that keep employees “on duty” more of the time.

Perhaps employers focus on their employees’ work/life balance because they believe they are powerless to increase their compensation, thanks to competition.

The reason I titled this post, “The usual wrong conclusion” is that it is almost entirely focused on the idea that stress management only means eliminating the stressors. To be fair, the press release acknowledges that “the demands of work and life will always cause some stress for some employees.”

Well, I’m not sure we would call our jobs “work” if they didn’t challenge us.

Here’s the bright nugget in the midst of the survey: One of the two ways employees tend to choose to deal with stress is “connecting with friend, family members and colleagues.” Bravo. That’s one of the three kinds of “connecting” that enable us to take on challenges and thrive.  I call it “connecting out” and it’s also called social support or fellowship. Many, many research studies show a strong correlation between social support and resilience.

The second preferred employee option is mixed – “activities such as exercise, stress-reduction techniques or sedentary activities including indulging in comfort foods or watching TV.” Exercise, particularly activities that activate the vagus nerve, such as yoga and tai chi, help turn down the damaging stress response. They help us connect to ourselves and the world, staying more present and grounded. I call this “connecting in.”

However, as relaxing as watching TV or eating comfort foods might be, they are certainly not helpful to balancing stressors. Quite the opposite, especially high-carbohydrate foods – which are quite tasty when you are stressed and not sleeping enough.

There’s a third kind of connecting that isn’t directly addressed in this report, which I call “connecting up.” In addition to our relationships with people and creation, we all need to be spiritually connected. Wait, before you assume I’m talking about religion, I’m not. Religion can be a source of spirituality (and it is for me), but what I mean in this context is any activity that helps you find meaning. Spirituality has to do with values such as honesty and kindness, which we typically take on faith rather than logic.

I can’t help but speculate that perhaps the reason low pay and under-staffing are huge employee concerns is that the concentration of wealth in the modern world has been accelerating. Would people perceive their pay as too low and their workload excessive if inequalities were not so great? I doubt it.