Work related Stress

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 3 –  August 31, 2004

According to the University Press 2003, Life and work research, more Australians than ever indicate they are unhappy at work, with extended work hours being one of the factors contributing to this phenomenon. One of the reasons for this unhappiness is that people feel they need to work too hard. I am sure it would come as no surprise to the Westpac team that was here all night last night, that research indicates a third of full time employees worked 49 hours per week, it was 43.4 hours in late 1990. Having worked that many hours in a weekend, a 49 hour work week to the Westpac team would be a holiday! In the event you are unable to spot our stressed colleagues here are the signs: absenteeism, high or increased accident rates, poor or reduced work output and poor interpersonal relations in the workplace.

There is a culture developing of working longer hours, according to Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, work has become the ‘new religion’. Work is now seen as an end in itself and not a means to an end. The issue here is that people are not just working longer hours because their company dictates; they are doing so because it is a culture that they have bought into. Workers are internalizing their corporation’s business objectives, which is a good thing for business but not such a good thing for people. Especially when something goes pear shaped at work and they have nothing else in their lives to feel good about.

The consequences for human health, as well as the hidden costs for business of poor moral, lack of motivation, absenteeism and lower productivity are something to take notice of. In Australia the increased work hours have not brought greater profits or productivity gains, what they have done is contributed to the level of work related stress in Australia. Stress related disorders in Australia added to direct management costs estimated at 5% of the GDP, that is $20 billion per annum! Stress is now the second highest cause of disability for all employees.  The total cost of workers’ compensation claims in Australia for stress-related conditions is estimated at more than $200 million each year.

In a very indirect way we as designers have contributed to this by blurring the lines between work and home. We have encouraged our clients to provide accommodations that satisfy employee’s physical, psychological and emotional needs. By providing childcare, meal service and health clubs within work places we have enabled people to choose to overwork. We have set up work environments so people never have to go home. We call it personal empowerment, fulfillment and individual choice, but it could also be called loss of control and job insecurity.

In the UK organizations are expected to treat stress as seriously as safety. Sydney psychologist Grant Brecht says more companies are introducing systems to help employees cope during difficult times, “Companies who don’t set up for those sorts of things are not likely to sustain productivity in the future. For corporations serious attempts to reduce stress and improve performance require a dual focus. Attention to work process and management and the physical design of the workplace can help reduce stress. A recent Fortune 500 survey indicated Sense of purpose, inspiring leadership and knock out facilities as key criteria in attracting employees to a company. (It is interesting to note that these are the same three attributes that are the defining characteristics of a cult.) If work is really the new religion, and knock out facilities are a key contributor, then what kind of workspace helps reduce stress?

Ordinary workplace activity, such as the phone ringing, background noise and team conflicts contribute to physical and emotional illness. Therefore, environments where workers can get away, those that offer a higher degree of diversity to allow choice and flexibility will help. Solutions that allow privacy are also important, the human brain goes through a warm up whenever we engage in a new task; this can take up to 10 minutes. Minor distractions have the potential to derail this warm up. Large open work areas and heavy open office environments that provide little or no escape hatches result in higher stress levels in the workplace.

As we navigate the future for our clients it will be important to make them aware of the price their organization may pay for not acknowledging the human element, and understand the role the workplace plays in that. Organizations that recognize the value of their employees, and understand that an investment in their quality of life is an investment in their company will fare far better in the future.

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