Work Related Stress – August 31, 2004

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.

The Creative Class – July 23, 2004

The Creative Class

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 2 – July 23, 2004

Back in March Gary Hamel gave a one hour talk at the CoreNet Global Summit in Chicago (Hamel is a respected Professor of management, and founder of Strategos consulting) His talk was about the importance of creative work and creative workers. Hamel is on a mission to educate business leaders about why innovation is so important, what it is, and why it is so difficult. Hamel is not the only one talking about the importance of innovation in the future. Nancy K Napier (Professor of International business and Executive director of the Global Business Consortium at BoiseStateUniversity) says the most important challenge facing corporations is finding ways to tap into and nurture creativity – by individuals and groups – as a competitive resource. Lynne Waldera (president and chief executive officer of InMomentium Inc) says that the only source of sustainable competitive differentiation is innovation.

It is interesting to find so many business leaders talking about creativity and innovation. Even though these comments are in the context of big- picture business strategies rather than the work environment (and we know that it is corporate culture and day to day management practice that determines the degree of innovation and openness to change in any organization) there is no doubt, that fostering innovation in the workplace is a trend being talked about.

If we buy the argument that the most important value add in the future will come from the creative class – those whose skill set is more intuitive, who develop new ways of thinking about problems and applying knowledge, and often borrow ideas from one discipline area to apply to another. How do we provide environments that nurture and promote innovation? This kind of work requires a different kind of workplace, a different kind of success measure, and a different kind of management.

Creative work is much more collaborative, something we have known and have provided for in the workplaces we design for some time. It is also not manageable or controllable the way an assembly line is, you don’t order creative people to develop three great ideas by noon. You don’t tell this type of worker when and where to do their work. This is why so many successful companies of the last decade have set up games rooms, provided workout facilities, and kept the lights on for 24 hours a day. Because creativity cannot be scheduled, managed, or planned. It happens when it happens. The type of work environment that responds to this is one that provides choices in where and how one works. The environment sends a message of personal control and power to its users, and is a step toward “high performance”.

Creative workers are also mobile. Surveys and studies have shown that in any given day 20 to 40% of the worker population doesn’t go to their corporate designated workplace to work. The average office utilization in large organizations today is hardly ever as high as 50%, most people don’t come into their assigned space in the morning and sit in that one place all day. So where is everybody? They’re in someone else’s office, in a conference room, in the cafeteria, at the coffee machine, or standing in the hall.

It is no wonder that the typical office building is empty so much of the time,

Since creative workers don’t work in the office, and can’t be managed, should tear down the office buildings and make parks? Most of us prefer to have a roof over our heads and a pleasant, well – designed space to work in. What it means is we should re-examine the way we use workplaces, and what kinds of spaces we really need. We need to ask the most basic question of all: What is an office for? Why go to the office? Usually the answer to that for the “creative class” is to meet people. If that is what “the office” means to creative thinkers, then we might design it as a meeting place, or a collection of meeting places – of all sizes and styles – to accommodate a much wider variety of types of meetings? Maybe it is more like a town hall or conference centre.  Or perhaps it is more like an artist studio on the individual level and an artist collective or community at the organizational level?

The era we are now entering is one in which individual and collective creativity, more than routine effort, is the driver of economic success. While recognizing that some repetitive, routine effort remains necessary to ensure economic efficiency and a foundation of social stability (that’s why we keep the office buildings) it is now imperative that we take a fresh look at the core assumptions on which our workplaces are based. We must directly challenge those assumptions and the organizational practices that derive from them if we are to create vital organizations and healthy social environments that nurture the human spirit and contribute to the quality of life.