The Way We Work Needs to Change

“For more than two centuries, we have absorbed, as a society and as individuals, some false ideas about our relationship to work,” proclaims Barry Schwartz. This is how Schwartz, speaker, author, and Swarthmore college professor, opens his book, Why We Work. In short, the way we work isn’t working anymore.


Society and many individuals have been snookered into believing a salary is the purpose of work. It is, after all, the predominant driver of getting a job. Yes, we all have bills to pay and experiences and “stuff” we “need.” However, the pursuit of more—money, experiences, material possessions—has led us to develop a working ethic that moves at a relentless pace. It’s stressful and unsustainable.


Our work-dysfunctions amplify when we layer on to how we view work during a global pandemic. High performers struggle with work-from-home guilt. Working moms are pulling triple duty—work, homeschooler, parent—and are exhausted. Anxiety and perfection struggles plague employees for whom remote working isn’t a fit.


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It’s an untenable situation. And the forward-thinking executives are evaluating how to adapt their hybrid work arrangements. They recognize that the way we work needs to change for distributed teams and those who have returned to the office.


The Pursuit of More

More than half of all employees check their work messages, emails, and texts from home after hours or when on vacation. 54 percent of Americans report checking email when they’re at home sick. In this pursuit of getting more done, the average full-time employee works 47-hours a week, an extra workday a week.


The telepressure to get more done is negatively impacting the health of employees.  Telepressure, a term coined by Larissa Barber, Ph.D., professor of psychology from Northern Illinois University, is the overwhelming need to respond to a message when your device or computer notifies you.


Professor Barber found that telepressure is a predictor of burnout, physically and cognitively. It also increases absenteeism at work and diminishes the quality of sleep we get.


The pursuit of more in a business sets the tone culturally. “It’s how we get things done around here,” may be a common phrase. Unfortunately, this belief reinforces the need to “fit in” and act as everyone else does. Even if the behavior is contrary to what an employee believes, this cognitive dissonance can lead to added stress.


Workplace Stress

Money and work are the top two sources of stress for people. Yet, too often, stress is falsely assumed to be bad. It’s important to distinguish the two types of stress to understand their influence on people. The two types of stress are eustress and distress.


Eustress is good stress. It’s what fuels your performance when your adrenaline is pumping. Imagine the stress you feel when gearing up to give a presentation. Eustress helps improve your performance.


Conversely, distress causes extreme nervousness, for starters. For some, giving a presentation throws them over the edge from optimum stress levels to too much stress, or overload.


Distress undermines employee performance. Managers and organizations aren’t paying enough attention to the impact the pursuit of more has on their people.


Telepressure doesn’t give employees time for work recovery; the downtime we need away from work matters. It’s a contributor to distress that leads to burnout.


The Way We Work and Stress Levels

If we’re going to change the way we work, it begins with you, the manager. To understand that there is a problem related to workload isn’t enough. We need more leaders who are willing to make a difference for their team, even if the macro-culture operates differently.


To maximize employee performance, you want to keep stress at optimum levels. Yes, this is different for each employee. It means knowing what stress load each person on your team can manage healthily. There will be times when employees start to slide down the curve (shown below) to overload. A watchful leader knows when her employees are moving towards distress.


Professors Yerkes and Dodson developed the bell curve. The premise is simple. As your performance demands increase, so, too, does your stress level. There comes the point, however, when your performance declines when you move into distress.


To help prevent eustress from becoming distress, here are some actions you can take today:


  1. Don’t email your team after 6 pm. If you need to type emails, schedule them to go out at 8 am the following day.


  1. Insist your employees to take their vacation. This doesn’t mean only taking three day weekends. If the employee has the time, insist on five days. Some company leaders are giving company-wide days-off near national or State holidays.


  1. Monitor commitment fatigue. Commitment fatigue is the exhaustion employees feel from their commitment to the team and the company’s purpose.


  1. Encourage physical exercise during the day. Hold walking one-on-one meetings with employees. Of course, wear a mask.


  1. Align work with employees’ strengths. When we have an assignment that uses our skills and energizes us, it can keep employees in the optimum stress level zone.


At the organization level, nap pods, meditation classes, and incentivizing employees to take vacations are great solutions to encourage healthier ways to work.


The contract between employer and employee has contributed to the misalignment of the way work. It is no longer an exchange of time for money. That’s only part of the new employment contract. Today, we also want to do work that is meaningful and aligns with a bigger purpose.


While these aspirational needs are essential for today’s workers, we need them to be healthy—mentally and physically. Overworking employees undermines the organization’s growth and its employees’, too.


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About the Author

Shawn Murphy
Shawn Murphy
Director of Organizational Behavior, Bluescape
Shawn is our Director of Organizational Behavior and Workplace Trends. His second book, Work Tribes is out now. Shawn's first book, The Optimistic Workplace is out now. Inc. has listed him twice as one of the top leadership speakers in America.

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