“Mental stress costs businesses more than $10 billion per year”
So booms the headline of a report from Safe Work Australia. In the USA, we are told that workplace stress is estimated to cost businesses around $300 billion a year.
Job stress is the major type of stress in developed countries, and levels have been creeping up and up for decades. ‘Stress leave’ is now an accepted term in most workplaces. And stress is a serious problem. According to the World Health Organization, it is “the health epidemic of the 21st century.”
Stress causes physical pain, and other problems. It interferes with our sleep, causes fatigue, and makes us skip meals. It essentially wears down our body and our brain. According to the 2012 American Psychological Association (APA) study, Stress in America, highly stressed people:
Or, as Psychology Today succinctly puts it, “Stress Kills.”
While workplace stress is a major problem, and one which we will discuss in future posts, right now I want to focus on the headlines rather than the story. Look at the headlines I mention at the top of this article. What do they tell us? They tell us that workplace stress costs money – a lot of money. The causes of these costs are quite clear – absenteeism, reduced productivity, employee turnover, workers’ compensation – but that’s not my issue. My issue is with the message itself.
If stress is “the health epidemic of the 21st century” and if workplace stress is one of the most common forms of it, the fact that it is costing businesses a lot of money is, to me, far less important than the fact it is ravaging people’s lives. This is not an economic problem. It’s a health problem. It’s a wellbeing problem. It’s a human problem. If ethics is about the kind of lives that have value and meaning, it’s an ethical problem.
Having suffered from severe workplace stress myself, and having seen the impact it has had on friends and family, I understand the personal impact of stress. To hear that it is costing businesses a lot of money makes me acknowledge that this is an issue, but it is not the issue. The issue is the impact stress has on people’s lives, on their health and wellbeing, on how they feel about themselves, and how they treat and are treated by the people around them.
Reframing a personal, human issue as an economic one is, to my mind, part of the problem. We know that 87% of the world’s employees are not engaged with the work they are doing, yet this is seen primarily as a business productivity issue. Think about how it feels to go to work every day and to sleepwalk through what you’re doing, not caring about it, just putting in the hours until you can go home. (For many of us, this will require no great leap of imagination.) Think about the impact this has on you – on your life, on how you interact with other people, on the energy you have available for other things. The issue here – be it about stress or disengagement – is not how much money businesses are losing; it is about the impact on people’s lives.
Too often in our work, we are reduced to mere task-performers. We are treated as though our paycheque is our primary or our sole motivation – do the tasks, get the money. Since human beings are complex and vulnerable creatures, with rich emotional and intellectual lives, and deep psychological needs, being reduced to robotic task-performers has a significant and damaging impact. Being reduced to mere task-performers is part of what causes such massive levels of stress and disengagement. Yet in the reporting of the levels of stress and disengagement, it keeps happening – human beings are implicitly treated as things that are there to perform the tasks of the company (productivity) or to drive corporate revenue.
There needs to be a major change in the way human beings are viewed from a company perspective and the way they are treated by companies. When even such personal problems as stress and disengagement are being severed from their human context and put in purely business terms, we have a major problem on our hands. We need to fundamentally reconnect the work being done with the human beings who are doing it. This is no small task. We will try to spell out what this looks like and how this can be done in future posts.