Stressed At Work? Don’t Blame Yourself (Too Much)

Dec 1, 2016 | By Dan Connolly in Blog

Picture this: it’s Thursday evening, and the end of a long week is in sight. After two back-to-back meetings, you open your e-mail and find a dozen more messages since the afternoon. You sigh – after you go home, have dinner, or spend some time with family or friends, there will be another hour or two of working through the backlog.

Technological advances like smartphones and laptop computers have blurred the lines between work and personal life more than ever before. You can check and reply to work e-mails from anywhere—standing in line at the grocery store, during the commercials of your favorite TV show, even on the beach. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one study found that people with higher ambition and job involvement were more likely to look at work-related communications after traditional hours. But it also revealed that this use of technology was linked to more work-life conflict and spousal dissatisfaction. Exacerbating this problem, research has shown that long commutes are associated with lower life satisfaction and even divorce.

Clearly, the ability to disconnect from work—and find more time for personal life—are key to employee happiness.

It’s unlikely that this is news to most Americans. A Gallup poll in December 2015 showed that 61% of working Americans report not having enough time to do the things they enjoy. Yet many busy professionals are also stricken with a sense of guilt for their struggle to stay on top of their responsibilities at work and at home. The story they’re told is that it’s a personal problem, and if only they could manage time better, they could solve it. Every day, people write articles telling workers that if they just pick the right job, or love their work, or plan weekend adventures, or prioritize the workday according to their deadlines, they’ll find the elusive balance they seek.

Sadly, that’s just not the case. Being told to change your individual habits can feel like being instructed to simply do more with less time when your calendar is cluttered with meetings and your inbox is overwhelmed. Because office policies and employer attitudes can have a dramatic effect on workers’ actions and well-being, establishing work-life balance shouldn’t be placed solely on employees’ shoulders. Too often, employers fail to help employees manage their work so that it fits into the rest of their lives, such as allowing remote work to cut down on commute time. When employees do try to make arrangements to more neatly manage their lives as a whole, it’s frequently treated as a “special” process with lots of administrative hurdles to complete.

One reason that organizations can be resistant to changing policies to address work-life conflict is the status quo bias, or our human tendency to prefer an established policy over alternatives. Managers and executives may assume that employees would take unfair advantage of flexible working policies, and that their productivity would decrease. But often, changing the status quo wouldn’t only benefit employees—it would, in turn, produce results for employers. In fact, a number of radical initiatives have been shown to improve both worker productivity and satisfaction. Best Buy’s Results Only Work Environment and Boston Consulting Group’s “one night off” policy have both demonstrated that employer-backed tweaks to workplace culture can go a long way toward improving employee satisfaction.

Interventions like these two have failed to go mainstream in any formal sense, and many workers remain stressed out and burned out. That’s why ideas42 is applying a behavioral lens to the problem of work-life conflict with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We believe successful solutions will rely on buy-in from both employees and employers, which is why we will examine the reasons why workers feel overloaded and how employers can help create optimal environments for a happy, productive workforce.

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