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Occupational Health

A prescription for the workaholic workplace

September 25, 2012 - Posted by Dr. Bill Newkirk

Work-related stress can kill.

Sometimes it kills quickly with a stress-induced heart attack. This technically categorizes work-related stress with other types of fatal exposures to notoriously hazardous substances such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and arsine gas. Stress can also have a slow and insidious adverse affect on health – causing or exacerbating depression, muscle tightness, headaches and a host of other ailments.

Some workplace stress is unavoidable, and in some cases it can even be a helpful stimulant. Stress generators such as economic downturns, competition, advancing technologies and globalization are typically beyond the control of health and safety professionals. But when the workplace itself is dysfunctional, it becomes a cause of stress, and it is in such settings that health and safety professionals have the greatest chance of making a positive impact.

Successful prevention and treatment of work-related health problems require the identification and correction of underlying risk factors at the worksite. For example, in the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, if an employee presents with deQuervain’s tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons going to the thumb), it is standard procedure for a health care professional to conduct an ergonomic investigation of the work environment to determine whether the patient moves his or her thumb in a repetitive, awkward and/or forceful way.

Workplace stress assessments are less accepted as standard practice. There often is controversy over whether stress is an underlying cause of the injury or illness and whether the workplace, in fact, plays any role at all. Denial is common because stress-related health problems often do not have an external marker (such as a splint) and acknowledgement of causality can have a negative financial impact on the employer through the workers’ compensation claims process. In addition, workplace stress assessments can be difficult to perform, require assessment of managerial style and often result in an uncomfortable summary meeting with the employee’s supervisor.

Signs of Dysfunction

A methodical approach is required to get to the root of a dysfunctional workplace and turn it into a functional one. An evaluation of the stress-producing capability of a worksite takes time and careful observation. Both front-line employees and managers offer clues based on what they say and do.

Employees…

Employees in workaholic workplaces differ from employees in highly functioning workplaces in a number of ways.

...talk about how hard they work

In a highly functional workplace, employees talk about how much they are getting done, even when they work long hours. In a workaholic workplace, employees talk a lot about how hard they work and are far less likely to correlate their actions with a positive business result or intrinsic satisfaction.

Interestingly, in the workaholic workplace, the adverse impact of long work hours – late nights, postponed family time, missed concerts, lost weekends – becomes almost a badge of honor for many employees. The celebration of this adversity is a key component of the workplace’s dysfunctionality, but it cannot erase the negative physical and emotional impacts of work-related stress.

…describe “spinning”

In a highly functional workplace, employees describe their work as having a sense of purpose and forward movement. They feel they are accomplishing tasks that support the mission and vision of the organization.

In workaholic workplaces, employees complain about misaligned priorities and feel as if they are running in circles or spinning. They become overwhelmed and suffer pangs of guilt when they can’t get their routine tasks done in a timely manner because they are reacting to crises (the familiar refrain “putting out fires”) rather than functioning in a measured-response mode.

If it gets bad enough, employees will say it feels as if the workplace is “vibrating” with negative energy. Employees often correlate spinning and vibrating with their stress symptoms. Ineffective managers confuse this energy with progress.

…feel their time is wasted

In a highly functional workplace, stress induced by work demands is mitigated by the fact that employees feel they are doing something worthwhile. Conversely, in a workaholic workplace cluttered with activities such as non-productive meetings and writing internal memos, employees often feel their work time is being wasted. A common phrase in a dysfunctional setting is: “If they would just let me do my job…” When employees feel their regular work time is being wasted, they tend to start work earlier and/or stay later in the day, work weekends and take work at home with them to catch up. This builds resentment and contributes to stress.

Meanwhile, communications technology that is intended to be a time-saving tool becomes a cause of stress in a dysfunctional workplace where “disconnecting” is frowned upon. For example, a jammed, publicly shared calendar may be celebrated because it creates the illusion of effective and engaged work – whereas the opposite is more generally true.

…communicate indirectly

When a conflict arises in the workaholic workplace, the communication used to resolve it is usually indirect – an employee complains to a supervisor who talks with another supervisor who may or may not talk to the employee with whom the conflict has arisen. This “communication in a silo” aggravates stress because problems are not directly and immediately confronted and resolved.

The workaholic workplace often has unwritten rules about who can talk to whom about what. The highly functional workplace avoids this by encouraging immediate and direct communication between employees to facilitate problem-solving.

...are thinking about leaving

All workplaces have employee turnover. Some turnover is productive, such as career advancement or removing toxic or substandard employees. Highly effective workplaces rarely lose talented people because of avoidable job dissatisfaction issues.

Employees in a workaholic workplace can often tick off a list of talented employees with solid personal and family values who have left the company because job demands are interfering with their personal responsibilities, happiness and health. Employees who remain behind often say they are envious of those who are able to move on.

Managers…

Workaholic workplaces exist because managers construct them that way.

...believe the relationship between stress and productivity is linear

Managers in workaholic workplaces frequently misunderstand the relationship between stress and productivity. They believe that as stress increases productivity increases, regardless of the stress level. Thus, when productivity fails to meet targets, the solution is to push workers harder with the objective of increasing performance.

The true relationship between stress and performance is known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve. As is apparent from the curve, stress improves performance up to a certain point. After that point, increased stress decreases performance. Managers in highly functional workplaces try to keep their workers on the up-slope of the Yerkes-Dodson curve so added stress results in higher productivity. Managers in workaholic workplaces push their workers into the downward slope of the curve.

...have a short-term time horizon

Managers in highly functional workplaces take steps to prevent the long-term adverse consequences associated with employee flight. Managers in workaholic workplaces tend to focus on short-term crises and do not appreciate the long-term effects of having an unhappy but talented workforce. In addition, managers themselves may be under great pressure because their job security is threatened or their compensation is tied to short-term financial or production targets. In the workaholic workplace, considering the long-term implications of a lost key employee is often an unaffordable luxury.

...have limited expertise in work content

Vice President Lyndon Johnson once told House Speaker Sam Rayburn how impressed he was by President John Kennedy’s advisers, who were described by many as the “best and brightest.” Rayburn scoffed, “Lyndon, I’d feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for dog catcher.” The message was clear: if you plan to manage political situations, you need to experience it first-hand.

The same is true for management. The more a manager knows about the details of an employee’s work, the less likely he or she is to waste an employee’s time. Take a group of welders, for example. If the supervisor is the best welder in the group and has extensive knowledge of what the job entails, then it is highly likely that he or she will know which job demands are most important and which waste time.

A key characteristic of managers in workaholic workplaces is that they fill the workday with low-yield tasks that interfere with the fundamental work the employee is trying to do, partly because they have little personal understanding of what the employee does. When assessing a manager, ask yourself: “Has he ever run for dogcatcher?” meaning “If pressed, can he do the job that he is trying to manage?”

The rapid advance of technology has decreased the useful life span of managers because it is difficult to remain technologically proficient once the manager leaves day-to-day contact with a rapidly evolving field.

...focus on generic processes

Managers who lack extensive job content knowledge frequently fall back on generic management processes. This often occurs when a newly hired manager has done a similar management job in a completely different type of industry. Lacking content knowledge in the new job, the manager relies on what he or she knows – managerial processes. Managerial process activities – meetings, forms, abstract discussions – need to be closely tied to work content to make effective use of a worker’s time. The more managers with low work content knowledge there are in a company, the greater the likelihood of parallel managerial work processes focused on low-yield activities. The workaholic workplace often has a cadre of such managers.

...socialize with other managers

In a highly functioning workplace, the manager’s office is often on the work floor where he or she is surrounded by employees performing assigned work. In this circumstance, the manager can see and correct work inefficiencies and can hear worker dissatisfaction.

The manager in a workaholic workplace tends to reduce line worker interaction and instead interacts and socializes with other managers. This allows the workaholic manager to hold on to a separate reality of what is happening in the workplace. This separate reality is encouraged if the workplace has a group of similarly isolated managers who can reinforce its validity.

...are indecisive

When presented with a choice, managers in highly functional workplaces evaluate the information presented to them and make a decision. They know they will not always be right and are confident in their ability to correct a poor decision. This behavior keeps the organization moving forward.

Managers in workaholic workplaces are less likely to decide. Under the guise of research and analysis, they procrastinate. Processes dependent on the pending decision stop or take unexpected turns. The resulting confusion causes employee stress.

The Prescription

Obviously, no workplace is perfect. Each has its own unique blend of functional and dysfunctional elements. The challenge for occupational health and safety professionals is that dysfunctional workplaces are particularly resistant to change; that’s one reason why they are dysfunctional in the first place. They must depend on insight and leadership from the top to successfully inject function and reason into an illogical, dysfunctional situation.

At a minimum, the occupational health and safety professional should:

  • Inform managers that stress is a significant workplace hazard with real costs for the organization.
  • Demonstrate that after a certain level of stress is reached productivity declines.
  • Identify specific markers in the workforce that indicate stress is an issue.
  • Start a dialogue on the relationship between managerial activity and stress.
  • If asked to work with management to improve behavior to reduce stress and increase productivity, the professional should attempt to:
  • Identify low-return managerial assignments that clutter the employees’ workday.
  • Attempt to make communication patterns more direct.
  • Strive to change the culture to reduce managerial isolation.
  • Uncover and address barriers to rapid decision making.

Conclusion

Workplace stress deserves the same degree of attention as other potentially fatal workplace exposures. This often doesn’t happen. Stress symptoms are belittled. Complaints about workplace dysfunction are ignored. Incompetent managers will go to great lengths in order not to look in a mirror at their own shortcomings.

In this setting, occupational health and safety professionals must be a non-judgmental voice of reason, be willing to identify markers for workplace dysfunction in the behavior of line employees and managers, and prescribe steps to improve the workplace’s function. This is rarely an easy task. It requires tact and perseverance. But it is necessary and important if workplaces are to perform at an optimal level and employees are to be protected from the adverse effects of workplace stress.

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UL gives workforce health and safety professionals more of the tools they need to proactively address risks, reduce costs and keep people safe, healthy and on the job.

Topics: occupational health, workplace safety, Featured, employee health, illness prevention, worker fatigue, absenteeism, employees, workplace wellness

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