Switching on the nightly news recently you may have been struck by images of frazzled-looking brokers on Wall Street attempting to cope with the turbulent markets. You may have also thought, 'I can relate to that'.
According to Andrew May, author and stress management expert, Australia is not in danger of becoming a nation of workaholics - we are already there.
To make matters worse, in order to stem the financial tide it's only natural that people re-double their efforts. The risk of overdoing it at work - and the problems associated with that - will escalate. "There will be an element of 'workaholic-ism' of course, but I think the fear that is being generated as a consequence of the recent financial meltdown is already bringing on high levels of mental anxiety. This anxious response to stress is often the forerunner to a variety of symptoms, and also to depression," says Barbara Jones, director of Executive Mandala.
In a recent 23-country study, Australia ranked among the worst - alongside the US and UK - in terms of long working hours, occupational stress and poor work-life balance. Since 1964, the average working week for white collar workers has gone up by more than 10 hours.
In May 2007 the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed almost a third of Australians work unsocial hours. The average working week is now 45 hours. Thirty-five per cent of male full-time workers and 19% of full-time working women put in 50 hours or more a week. Is it any wonder that by the end of the year we're all feeling somewhat depleted?
The rules have changed
Why are we working ourselves to death? Quite simply, the rules have changed. As May explains, the speed and intensity of the modern world presents us with totally different stresses and pressures than our forebears ever had to endure.
"For our grandparents, stress was about drought, floods, war and famine. The world was different. In most cases a job was for life. People worked nine-to-five days - that is, they actually went home at 5pm. Families were likely to live nearby and could help out with the kids. People saved for a new car or a family holiday to the beach," he says.
In contrast, modern-day stress includes traffic gridlocks, e-mail overload, data deluge and ever-climbing credit limits, the struggle to find childcare, not to mention paying off that whopping mortgage. "Today's stress has a lot to do with an increasingly fragmented society. We rely on computers for work, for social lives, for keeping in touch with relatives. We're connected 24/7, always available and on call, even during our down-time. Because of this, we need a different set of rules to not only survive, but thrive in the modern world," May adds.
Holidays are now something to be stored up and collected rather than used; weekends are a thing of the past - too often, they're nothing more than a good time to catch up on the backlog of work. "Our parents grew up on the basis of eight hours work, eight hours play, eight hours sleep. Now we simply have work and sleep, very little play," adds Dr Lindsay McMillan, CEO of Converge International.
Further to this 'on-call' mentality, Dr McMillan believes we have created a work culture that encourages a 'need to know' pressure on workers. "What that means is you can be at a candlelit dinner, or at home having a conversation with the kids about school, and if the Blackberry goes off that will become the priority. We cannot ignore it and it's the fear of not knowing that adds to stress and overwork," he says.
Paying the price
Dr McMillan notes that there are three core outcomes that this high pressured life leads towards: anxiety, stress and extreme depression. "A little of the first two is healthy - a bit of stress and anxiety can actually make us perform better at work," he says. "When it moves towards extreme depression we need to be careful, we need to be cautious, and we need to seek help."
One in four people say work is their primary source of stress. Stress also causes an average of three sick days a year for every employee on an annual basis. Dr McMillan feels that simply by having business managers and leaders acknowledging this as a problem can make employees feel more at ease - "because it indicates the boss understands", he says.
The counterbalance, of course, is that because of the way businesses are often run, there's a stigma attached to an employee who makes it clear that they are struggling. "In that sort of environment you cannot afford to put up a hand and say 'I need help' or 'I'm stressed' or 'I'm depressed'. The subtext will be that you can't cope. That's where a good company will recognise the value of an EAP [Employee Assistance Program]," says Dr McMillan.
Signs of trouble
Nonetheless, there are signs an astute manager can look out for. The path to burnout is characterised by a state of physical and emotional exhaustion and symptoms can include lack of energy, irritability, a feeling of powerlessness, cynicism, and a loss of motivation.
May notes that a pre-cursor to burnout is Attention Deficit Trait (ADT), a phrase coined by leading psychiatrist Edward Hallowell.
"ADT takes hold when we get so overloaded with incoming messages and unfinished tasks that we are unable to get clarity or prioritise. This is when the workload totally takes over and you feel like you've lost all control. You can't even sit back enough to make decisions about what to do next," May explains.
While burnout is well-documented and well-known, ADT is not (see boxout on signs and symptoms of ADT). It's a modern phenomenon and May feels it is penetrating our society at a rapid rate. "It's no coincidence that psychologists all across the world report treating more and more people with these same symptoms, all in the past five years. Modern workers need a new skill set to survive in the modern era or risk being spat out the back - burnt out, wired up, melting down," he says.
Professional, independent help
While it would be nice to think that all managers have warm and caring relationships with staff, and can easily assess when a team member is down, often this is not the case.
"Unlike physical health, mental health is not always visible. As a result, it can be difficult for employers to deal with mental health issues with their staff," says Dr McMillan. Poor mental health encompasses a number of issues including stress related illness, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, alcohol and drug use and depression which have the potential to lead to suicidal behaviour.
In cases where an employee feels uncomfortable talking about such issues with their manager, an EAP is a viable option. EAP's provide independent, confidential, third party professional counselling for employees and their loved ones. "An EAP will be set up where a company recognises that we live in a complex and chaotic world, and wants its employees to be the best people they can be at work and at home," says Dr McMillan.
Dr McMillan warns that information about the EAP needs to be communicated to all employees regularly - he recommends mentioning it in newsletters and other corporate communications. Here are some other key factors to consider:
- It should be a set up with a company that has experienced, qualified psychologists
- It must have ease of contact - a phone number, a website
- It must have a single point of relationship - ie if a counsellor is engaged they should be there for the duration of the sessions required
- It needs to be accessible - face to face counselling is ideal, particularly in rural areas of Australia
- It needs to have highly effective and responsive reporting systems back to the company
Ultimately, the vendor needs to create a partnership relationship with the business
"The reporting remains anonymous," says Dr McMillan. "We have an employee base consisting of three million employees across 700 companies in Australia and New Zealand. We have a wide range of people coming to our counsellors and we take the themes that emerge out of that. There are no names, just the issues and themes. We feed that back to the HR person or whoever engaged us so they can get a feel for what the big issues are with their staff. The report becomes an important and powerful tool for HR to understand more about their employee base."
What else can be done?
Once the employer is aware of the areas it needs to focus on it can put education and training initiatives in place. Many companies are now looking at education programs aimed at creating a healthy workplace, including sessions on fitness, nutrition, and dealing with stress; others are looking at a broader spectrum and offer education on family issues, personal finance, depression, even drug addiction.
Beyond token gym memberships or Friday afternoon massages, every organisation is different and needs a tailored approach to the mental and physical wellbeing of employees.
Not surprisingly, Jones believes rules need to be set around the use of technology. "A good start would be showing people where the off button is. The current trend towards having a procedure for everything can also overwhelm," she says.
An employer can only be expected to do so much; ultimately it comes down to the individual to recognise that they are not coping - but this too can be encouraged by giving employees the tools to self-assess.
"It's best to start with management. Give them help first. Help them to get attuned to their own thinking, their own emotional responses. We can be delusional creatures - denying that we are not truly coping. My belief is that this is what brings on the bullying behaviour of some managers. When one develops the capacity for genuine self-awareness - consciousness - then, and only then, are they able to be tuned in to things perhaps not being quite right in others," Jones says.
Managing stress and avoiding burnout is truly a very personal issue. Because everyone is different - some have higher levels of genetic vulnerability to stress, and each person operates within very different and complex adaptive systems.
"Helping people to become aware of where their thinking is at, and how they are actually responding to stress stimulus and then helping them to strengthen their capacity for shifting their focus in that moment is the best answer. However, they need to be prepared to do the hard work involved in truly cultivating those different ways of responding, so that they can become an every day part of their personal leadership repertoire," Jones says.
Of course, demonstrating new behaviour is one thing. Cultivating it (sowing in order to ultimately reap rewards) is very different.
"I want to start giving organisations and management the statistics around the maladaptive coping mechanisms which are utilised - and sometimes unknowingly 'rewarded'. It needs to be faced up to, and brought to the surface. Organisations need to start talking about this instead of pushing it under the carpet," Jones concludes.
Case study: Unisys
Human Capital talks to Petra Buchanan, vice president marketing and community, Unisys Asia Pacific, about her company's program to combat employee stress and illness
Human Capital: Have you witnessed employee burnout being a problem at Unisys?
Petra Buchanan: I think it will be a problem in any type of organisation but especially one that's services-driven and is heavily reliant on individuals. We're also a quarter-by-quarter type of business that's very sales-oriented and focused. There's an ongoing pressure in the business to do well and we always need to be mindful of ensuring that people have a balanced approach to their professional life but also their personal life.
HC: How do you make a corporate health initiative more than a token gesture?
PB: In the first instance it comes down to a commitment from the business to a program that is ongoing and doesn't have an end date in sight. Secondly it's important to benchmark your activities. We did an all-employee survey which determined where our employees were struggling. Was it about managing stress levels? Was it about physical exercise or nutrition? From there we determined where we needed to focus - our two areas were nutrition and stress. We then designed programs that would encourage employees to educate themselves and participate in activities.
HC: What challenges did you face in setting up the program?
PB: Unisys has an employee base that is spread around the country. In addition, some people work flexibly and others work on client sites. We don't have this homogenous environment where everyone comes to work at 9.00am and leaves at 5.00pm. We wanted to find a way for this program to touch all employees. The Living Wellness @ Unisys program has been designed through a number of channels to reach all employees. It incorporates activities from websites, or we can push information to employees online, they get face to face activities and engagement as well as teaming opportunities.
HC: Can you provide some details about The Living Wellness @ Unisys program?
PB: We tied the program to things that will be experiential for people on an ongoing basis. We looked at things like Mental Health Week [5-11 October] and tapped into the wave of other initiatives that people might be hearing about. We're also trying to encourage teamwork as well. With the virtual walk we get five individuals together to form a team; they'll then get together on a weekly basis and the program runs over a six-week period. We run it in cycles, so following the intensive six-week period there might be a series of information-based sessions. Every employee also has access to a resource that includes articles and webinars. Depending on your interest level and how aggressive you want to be, you can do something on a daily basis.
We've also seen offshoot programs develop, which managers often initiate. For example, I have a boxing class with my team once a week. We're doing other activities but then we come together once a week and do a workout together with a trainer. It's all at the discretion of the manager to take the program to the next level.
We don't want to make judgments about people but we do want to get them on the right path to being healthier and more productive.
HC: Did you get external help in setting the program up?
PB: Yes. I think if you just ask employees and managers their thoughts on how to improve the situation they often don't know where to start so we engaged a specialist firm called Springboard Health and Performance. They have a health and wellness index and from a series of questions and their experience we were able to really understand what the primary focus needed to be. We then evolved that year on year. We did the survey again recently and from that we can see where we've had success and where we need to change things.
HC: How successful has the program been so far?
We've got about 40% participation rate across the business. As an evolving program and given the level of change we've been able to directly correlate to the program we're very happy with that. We've had the greatest success with our stress levels which are now 11% less than they were previously; staff nutrition has improved by 4.2%; and we've had a 6.6% increase in job satisfaction. At the same time we've seen a reduction in sick leave from three days per employee to 0.9 days per employee.
Unisys does this because it's about creating a healthy business environment. Healthier people will make a healthier business. Coming to work feeling exhausted or working on half energy has a direct impact on your productivity levels and other things which directly impact on the bottom line.
HC: Why do you think some corporate wellness initiatives fail?
PB: They fail when they don't have clear metrics and a well designed approach so you can validate ROI. I do believe for programs like this to work effectively management needs to understand the impact they're making. What happens sometimes is someone has a well intentioned idea but they haven't properly thought about how to measure it.
Unfortunately there's also some pandering to work-life balance in name but not necessarily in true integration into the business. They must be believed in and supported by the business. This was a leadership position and we have many executives taking part.