We celebrated Labor Day yesterday, but labor needs a lot more help than a day off. Americans pride themselves for their “can do” mentality and an immigrant driven work ethic, but there is a dark side. Too many of us work too much, and its only getting worse.
Reports document that employees worked as much as a full month more in 1999 than in the 1980’s. “Staffs are getting downsized but the work remains, so workloads are getting upsized.” At the same time The Center of Disease Control (CDC) warned that:
- One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
- Three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
- Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems.
In 2010 a report by the American Psychological Association Practice Organization stated, “Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance costs.” Today encouraging economic reports don’t begin to address the experience for those actually doing the work.
THE ROLE OF EMPLOYERS
The CDC tracks the work place environment with a questionnaire addressing a wide assortment of work organization issues, including hours of work, workload, worker autonomy, layoffs and job security, job satisfaction/stress, and worker well-being. Despite this, a range of problematic workplace practices continue to spring up in this hyper-competitive business climate, from today’s average 47 hour work week to the murky practice of wage theft.
Large companies look to wellness programs to buffer the impact of an increasingly demanding work environments. Designed to decrease medical costs or reduce insurance premiums, some of the programs seem like little more than window dressing.
WHEN WORK SITE WELLNESS DOESN’T WORK
I certainly know wellness programs that work and individuals who benefit, but look closely at the data. All too often the benefits seem to flow in the direction of those already ready, willing and able– not typically the populations that demonstrate the greatest need. In addition, my professional encounters with those who orchestrate the programs leave me questioning what is really being accomplished.
I was once invited to speak to a West side tech company known for their high flying ways. Could I speak to the challenges of eating well despite the stress of 16 hour days? Of course. But I backed off when the head of HR asked me not to mention the 16 hours days. They somehow thought I could address nutrition and health in a silo, as if stress and lack of sleep had nothing to do with an employee’s penchant for blitzing on sugar.
More recently a sales rep of a wellness company wondered if I would be interested in speaking and exhibiting at wellness events sponsored by local corporations. I would like to speak more, so I asked a few questions, and quickly summed up the business opportunity: paid marketing that included me donating my time at both health fairs and wellness lectures in hopes of attracting new clients. I recall this being a losing proposition 30 years ago, finding most health fair attendees were mostly interested in the free stuff.
When I asked how this business model works for a health practitioner who effectively sells their time and information, the rep quickly replied, “Well, you can’t tell them everything.” It soon became clear that this corporate wellness model primarily served everyone but the employees. The wellness company gets paid up front. The health care practitioner potentially benefits from expanding exposure and increasing business. The corporation trumpets their efforts to support employee wellness. And that leaves the hapless employee signing up to hear speakers mostly focused on marketing their business.
THE ROLE OF EMPLOYEES
Still, employees shouldn’t get a pass. They can make a difficult work environment even more stressful, driven by everything from fear to ego. Both employee and employer dance in step to this dysfunctional tune.
Employees fail to set healthy boundaries around their work day, often because they believe or convince themselves that they have no choice. Others are ambitious to a fault, willing to set aside friends, family, and their own health in a quest for the next sale or their next promotion. In her treatise, Time Bind, author Arlie Russell Hochschild reveals the insidious practice of parents working longer and longer hours to avoid the far more challenging tasks awaiting them at home.
People will continue to struggle with healthy boundaries in the workplace, especially as the more traditional 40 hour work week gives way to more contract workers, more temporary workers, more interns, and a more desperate work force. Whether this more flexible work model works for workers depends a whole lot on their position in the hierarchy. Enough control over work and working conditions and workers celebrate the greater flexibility and autonomy. But too many workers lack both flexibility and control, regardless of whether that is a condition of the workplace or they are afraid ask.
As workers work ever increasing stress filled hours the race to the bottom compromises us all. Over time an overworked, stress out, burnt out work force doesn’t work for anyone, not for employees, not for employers, and not for consumers. With 75% of all chronic illness impacted by overwhelming stress, both employees and employers contribute to the exploding costs of medical care and the increasing burden of disability.
THE COST OF UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Years ago I remember talking with clients in the entertainment industry. The worker bees spoke of months without adequate time for sleep, food, physical activity and the basics of self care. The manic behavior of directors and producers often led to personal self destruction, while poisoning the work environment for everyone else. Today, the craziness isn’t limited to the entertainment industry, as workers everywhere are increasingly expected to work more and accomplish more–with less and for less. Why do we let the crazy ones set the bar?
To make matters worse, successful businesses with international reach are busy parking their cash away from Uncle Sam’s outreached fingers. Shame on them.
Employers have no standing to complain about lack of employee readiness, rising cost of medical care, and any other business expenses when they so brazenly fail to support the public systems needed to educate and provide resources to workers of today and tomorrow. How does “shareholder value” trump contributing to the resources needed to cultivate an able workforce and a competitive business? Maybe its time for those in the boardroom to redefine success.
In Sunday’s LA Times, Michael Hiltzak’s words strike a chord, “There’s no question that the general improvement in the U.S. economy has left millions of Americans behind. Since 1973, worker productivity has increased by 2.5 times, but hourly compensation has barely budged.” The cost to our health, family life, even the vitality of the businesses for which we sacrifice, continues to unravel the fabric of our society. Both employees and employers play a role, and both have an opportunity to turn this around.
I’m starting to speak up when friends and family continue to harm their health at work because they fail to establish and hold healthy boundaries with their employers. I’m challenging business owners to create a healthier and more productive work environment, mostly because burnt out employees are not productive. They cut corners and make mistakes. They no longer think creatively nor problem solve effectively. And stressed out, burnt out employees cost more: more medical claims, more disability, and greater turnover.
Lastly, I get to vote with my dollars. I’m thinking of boycotting every company who manages to wiggle out of paying rightful taxes to the US government, contributing to the continued erosion of public infrastructure, goods, and services that are supposed to serve us all. What will you do?