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Job stress, burnout on the rise Layoffs, long hours taking their toll on workers By Jane Weaver MSNBC
Sept. 1, 2003 -- - You’re doing the work of three people at your job. Some weeks you spend more time at work than at home. You missed your child’s soccer game ... again. In the morning, you feel more exhausted than rested. Watch out, you may be a candidate for worker burnout.
With mass layoffs, pay cuts, seemingly endless workdays and disappearing vacations, Americans are coping with an enormous amount of job stress. Feeling unable to keep up with the demands of their jobs, many are reaching burnout levels.
In its series on “How we work: Punching the clock in the new economy,” MSNBC.com has chronicled Americans who are toiling longer and harder at their jobs. While fewer people working longer days may be good for profit-minded corporations, those increases in productivity can come at a price for individuals.
“As the workforce has shrunk, people are overloaded and stress is the result,” says Ronald Downey, Kansas State University professor of Industrial and Occupational Psychology. “If the stress keeps on unending, then they’re in trouble.”
Trouble starts when employees take on more job responsibilities, but lose their sense of control over their work. Working excessively long hours begins to take a heavy toll on family life and social relationships, adding to the stress level, researchers say.
It’s well-known that stress can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and other physical ailments, research indicates.
Early signs of job stress are headaches, short tempers, trouble sleeping and low morale, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
And it’s not just physical health. An estimated 60 percent of work absences are from psychological problems — at a cost of over $57 billion yearly — according to the American Psychological Association.
“People don’t have enough time to do the things they’re being asked to do,” says Dr. Ron Restak, an expert in brain function and author of The New Brain.
Too much multi-tasking leads to distraction and a loss of concentration.
“You cannot accomplish two things at the same time as efficiently as you would if you were doing them separately. A lot of accidents and a loss of efficiency can occur from that,” says Restak.
In fact, health costs are almost 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environment Medicine.
“Body systems start to fail,” says Downey. “Then you have stress syndrome and you break down.”
A fatal work ethic
In Japan, it’s known as “karoshi,” or death from overwork.
The Japanese government has reported 10,000 cases a year of managers, executives and engineers who have died from overwork, a fallout of the country’s prolonged economic slump.
The Japanese government has reported 10,000 cases a year of managers,
executives and engineers who have died from overwork.
It’s hard to say whether it’s reached that extreme in the U.S., but the number of full- or part-timers who report high job stress rose to 45 percent in 2002, up from 37 percent the year before, according to a NIOSH study. An estimated 40 percent of U.S. workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful, with 25 percent calling their jobs the number one stress factor in their lives, the organization reported.
Everyone reacts to stress in different ways and recognizing when you’re reaching burnout levels can be difficult, says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell.
“The most stressed-out ones don’t know they’re having problems,” says Kahn, who is also president of WorkPsych Associates, a New York executive and corporate consulting firm. “They don’t realize that things are getting to them.”
Increased absenteeism isn’t always a giveaway.
The new buzzword is “presenteeism” which happens when people are too afraid to call in sick. Instead they show up, but are still too stressed-out to be productive, says Dr. Richard Chaifetz, chairman and chief executive of ComPsych, a Chicago firm which provides human resources services.
“A lot of people realize it’s better to show up and be less than 100 percent productive,” says Chaifetz. “But if they’re not focused, their performance will go down.”
Much of the problem comes from the blurring of the lines between work and home life, with workers tethered to their jobs through cell phones, pagers and e-mail, researchers say.
An estimated 70 percent of more than 1,500 participants felt they don’t have a healthy balance between their work and their personal lives, according to a May survey on work/life balance by online job board TrueCareers.
“There are no clear demarcations anymore,” says Restak. “When people left work for the day, that was it. Employers were reluctant to call them at home. No people don’t feel like they’re ever off duty.”
Household with two working parents or single parent households are especially vulnerable to burnout from work overload, says professor Downey.
“Before, men didn’t have to worry about meals or their kids and it relieved pressure,” says Downey. “Now men and women are worried about their children if they’re sick and how to get to games.”
Not all job-related stress leads to burnout. For some workaholic types, boasting of burnout is an ego-booster, a macho way to feel indispensable in an otherwise bleak jobs market, say experts.
For them, “it’s almost a badge of courage,” says Dr. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.
“Some people thrive in a pressure cooker and doing many things at once,” he says.
Desk slaves, free yourselves
Even as American workers are putting in more hours, a genre of anti-work ethic books has emerged, including such publications as Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, by Joe Robinson and The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations, by Al Gini.
Meanwhile, some corporations are making efforts to alleviate overwork by offering paid sabbaticals or on-site classes in meditation to help employees deal with long days.
“The consequence of burnout is that productivity begins to slip,” says Chaifetz. “The smart organizations are the ones that can balance the needs for increased productivity with appropriate employee morale.”
Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, says American companies who want to compete in a global economy should follow the European model of shorter workweeks and month-long vacations.
“There is no evidence that excessive hours are necessary for competitive success,” says Pfeffer. “But somehow we’ve gotten in our minds that to succeed in this world is to work yourself to death.”
THIS is Charles Lax's brain on speed.
Mr. Lax, a 44-year-old venture capitalist, is sitting in a conference for telecommunications executives at a hotel near Los Angeles, but he is not all here. Out of one ear, he listens to a live presentation about cable television technology; simultaneously, he surfs the Net on a laptop with a wireless connection, while occasionally checking his mobile device — part phone, part pager and part Internet gadget — for e-mail.
Mr. Lax flew from Boston and paid $2,000 to attend the conference, called Vortex. But he cannot unwire himself long enough to give the presenters his complete focus. If he did, he would face a fate worse than lack of productivity: he would become bored.
"It's hard to concentrate on one thing," he said, adding: "I think I have a condition."
The ubiquity of technology in the lives of executives, other businesspeople and consumers has created a subculture of the Always On — and a brewing tension between productivity and freneticism. For all the efficiency gains that it seemingly provides, the constant stream of data can interrupt not just dinner and family time, but also meetings and creative time, and it can prove very tough to turn off.
Some people who are persistently wired say it is not uncommon for them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously — with someone in the same meeting. Others may be sitting at a desk and engaging in conversation on two phones, one at each ear. At social events, or in the grandstand at their children's soccer games, they read news feeds on mobile devices instead of chatting with actual human beings.
These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect, but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: they are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. Call it O.C.D. — online compulsive disorder.
"It's magnetic," said Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard. "It's like a tar baby: the more you touch it, the more you have to."
Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard and a psychiatrist with an expertise in attention deficit disorder, are among a growing number of physicians and sociologists who are assessing how technology affects attention span, creativity and focus. Though many people regard multitasking as a social annoyance, these two and others are asking whether it is counterproductive, and even addicting.
The pair have their own term for this condition: pseudo-attention deficit disorder. Its sufferers do not have actual A.D.D., but, influenced by technology and the pace of modern life, have developed shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long-term projects, thrive on the stress of constant fixes of information, and physically crave the bursts of stimulation from checking e-mail or voice mail or answering the phone.
"It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected," said Dr. Ratey, who compares the sensations created by constantly being wired to those of narcotics — a hit of pleasure, stimulation and escape. "It takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."
"It's an addiction," he said, adding that some people cannot deal with down time or quiet moments. "Without it, we are in withdrawal."
ACCORDING to research compiled by David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, multitaskers actually hinder their productivity by trying to accomplish two things at once. Mr. Meyer has found that people who switch back and forth between two tasks, like exchanging e-mail and writing a report, may spend 50 percent more time on those tasks than if they work on them separately, completing one before starting the other.
As a result, Mr. Meyer said, businesspeople who multitask "are making themselves worse businesspeople."
He says little research has been done into why some people are compulsively drawn to multitasking. But he theorizes that the allure has several layers. Multitasking offers a guise of productivity, a "macho" show of accomplishment, and similarities to a quick amphetamine rush.
"It's related to what happens to skydivers or jet pilots," he said. "They put themselves in situations where, if they don't perform at peak efficiency, they'll crash and burn. In the aftermath there is a rush of chemicals."
Patrick P. Gelsinger, the chief technology officer at Intel, says it is clear that the overall time spent in front of screens — whether desktop computers or hand-held devices — is rising. "Time spent watching television is down," he said. "But over all you see a discretionary increase in the amount of time people are connected to technology."
The presence of such devices, as well as their power, will only grow. Networks that provide wireless Internet access are in their early stages. Intel has put the full force of its science and marketing effort behind wireless devices and the superfast miniature microprocessors that power them.
Intel portrays computers as pushing productivity, and Mr. Gelsinger scoffs at the idea that digital devices have a compulsive or physically addictive draw. "We don't make drugs," he said. "We make technology building blocks that move the world forward in all ways."
But he concedes that there can be a point at which the constant accessibility of information is hard to escape.
In one meeting at Intel, Mr. Gelsinger said he found himself sending an instant message to his boss across the room — a potential distraction, though he argued that by doing so, he did not have to engage in "disruptive whispering." At other times, Mr. Gelsinger has had to remind himself not to use e-mail on his laptop during a meeting because it can send the message that he is not paying full attention.
SOMETIMES, discipline must be imposed from the outside. At a recent technology conference organized by The Wall Street Journal and attended by industry heavyweights like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer and Stephen M. Case of AOL Time Warner, people were discouraged from using their wireless Internet access during presentations.
Bucking the recent tradition at trade shows and technology conferences, the organizers decided not to provide wireless Internet access inside the conference.
"We wanted people to absorb what the speakers were saying," said Walt Mossberg, a technology columnist at The Journal.
"We decided that if you have Wi-Fi, it would be destructive," he added. "If you have the Internet, it will win out. People imagine they can multitask, but sometimes people overestimate the extent to which they can do it."
If multitasking creates a problem for people, the cause is not the gadget makers themselves, said Jeff Hallock, the senior director for consumer products at Sprint PCS, the mobile telephone carrier. The company has been selling the manna of multitasking: phones that can also take digital pictures, send e-mail and instant messages and download music. But Mr. Hallock says those functions help people stay organized, not make them frenetic.
"We're enhancing people's lives so they can have more control of the flurry of activity that's seemingly coming in," he said.
"You don't have to check your voice mail," he added. "We're giving you the chance to do so."
The notion that using all these devices creates a harmful addiction is absurd to Bruce P. Mehlman, assistant commerce secretary for technology policy and a former executive at Cisco Systems. Mr. Mehlman said the presence of many gadgets in people's lives created not a cacophony, but harmony and balance.
Mobile phones, wireless Internet devices and laptops have liberated executives, he said, allowing them to leave the office and to spend more time at home. The users of these technologies are constantly wired, he said, but to a very positive goal.
"Ten years ago, you had to be in the office 12 hours," said Mr. Mehlman, who said he now spent 10 hours a day at work, giving him more time with his wife and three children, while also making use of his wireless-enabled laptop, BlackBerry and mobile phone.
"I get to help my kids get dressed, feed them breakfast, give them a bath and read them stories at night," he said. He can also have Lego air fights — a game in which he and his 5-year-old son have imaginary dogfights with Lego airplanes.
Both love the game, and it has an added benefit for Dad: he can play with one hand while using the other to talk on the phone or check e-mail. The multitasking maneuver occasionally requires a trick: although Mr. Mehlman usually lets his son win the Lego air battles, he sometimes allows himself to win, which forces his son to spend a few minutes putting his plane back together.
"While he rebuilds his plane, I check my e-mail on the BlackBerry," Mr. Mehlman explained.
Mr. Lax, too, cannot pass up the chance to use every bit of technology that comes his way. A graduate of Boston University who lives outside Boston, he is managing general partner at GrandBanks Capital, a venture investment firm. He serves on the boards of three companies, working to turn them into successful ventures. "I build companies one customer at a time," he said, adding that his investments are up against other well-financed competitors. "It's a race against time."
Mr. Lax uses technology to keep up. He is, by his own admission, "Always On."
On his office desk is a land-line telephone, a mobile phone, a laptop computer connected to several printers, and a television, often tuned to CNN or CNBC. At his side is the aptly named Sidekick, a mobile device that serves as camera, calendar, address book, instant-messaging gadget and fallback phone. It can browse the Internet and receive e-mail. He has been known to pick it up whenever it chirps at him — and he acknowledges having used it to check e-mail while in the men's restroom.
There is no down time in the car, either. "I talk on the phone, but I have a headset," Mr. Lax said. Does he do anything else, like using his Sidekick to read e-mail? "I won't be quoted as saying what else I do because it could get me arrested," he said, laughing.
Mr. Lax said he loved the constant stimulation. "It's instant gratification," he said, and it staves off boredom. "I use it when I'm in a waiting situation — if I'm standing in line, waiting to be served for lunch, or getting takeout coffee at Starbucks. And, my God, at the airport it's disastrous to have to wait there.
"Being able to send an e-mail in real time is just — " Mr. Lax paused. "Can you hold for a second? My other line is ringing."
When he returned, he said he shared this way of working with many venture capitalists. "We all suffer a kind of A.D.D," he said. "It's a bit of a joke, but it's true. We are easily bored. We have lots of things going on at the same time."
The technology gives him a way to direct his excess energy. "It is a kind of Ritalin," he said, referring to the drug commonly taken by people with attention deficit disorder.
BUT he said technology dependence could have its down side. "I'm in meetings all the time with people who are focused on what they're doing on their computers, not on the presentation," he said.
During the Vortex telecommunications conference, held in May in Dana Point, Calif., he and dozens of others were using wireless Internet access. He said that he was paying attention to the speaker, using his Internet connection to look up information about the cable industry.
"I was supporting the effort of the speaker by figuring the elements he was talking about," Mr. Lax said. He paused. "I was also doing e-mail so I guess I wasn't giving 100 percent," he added. "I was 40 percent supporting the effort, and 60 percent doing other things."
Indeed, he said, the technology can be a bit distracting. "But it's not a problem," he said. "Being able to process lots of data allows me to be more efficient and productive."
"It allows me to accelerate success."
Rick was a corporate lawyer specializing in radio station mergers. He nicknamed himself The Mechanic, meaning he was good at closing deals but terrible at bringing in business. He’d been passed over for partner and didn’t make much money, forty or fifty thousand a year. The hours were long, and he’d been doing it too long to enjoy it anymore. Doing it for what? Doing it only because he’d always been doing it, ever since Henry the VIIIth? Certain memories came back to him, like the time his wife had gall bladder surgery. On the way over to the hospital, a partner handed Rick a cell phone and suggested he make calls while in the waiting room. Or like the time his son had to sit in his office all night while Rick met with clients. Or all those vacations he’d supposedly gone on, but every morning at 7 a.m. was checking the hotel fax machine and returning calls before his family woke. It was suddenly so clear to Rick: your job runs your entire life. Even if you work only eight hours a day, it stills controls your life. What you wear and when you wake up and when you eat and when you come home and when you go to sleep are all scheduled around work.
"I had a permanent edginess back then," Rick explained, though it was hard to imagine because he was now so peaceful. I commented on that, and he said, "It really has so much to do with multitasking. Even as I’m talking to you now, I’m trying to remember everything I want to tell you, and it hurts my brain to think two lines at once. I’ve become that sensitive to it. But I used to think six lines all the time. And stupidly I was proud of it. I thought it was who I was, but I see now it was a symptom of my work. And I see now that multitasking creates a sense of guilt that you’re selling everyone short, including yourself. God forbid anyone accuses you of being less than 100% there, because then you’re just defensive. That defensiveness, and that guilt, becomes a skin you wear every day, a skin you wake up in. You talk too fast, you drive too fast. I felt twenty pounds lighter when I shed that skin and learned to pay attention."
Rick’s wisdom always came out perfectly like that. He had become a great philosopher, but not by reading books (he read Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum) or talking to other philosophers. I don’t think he realized how eloquent he sounded. He’d spent all that time alone in his truck, driving, being in the moment, noticing the road, the view, the beauty of the country, and somehow, because of that, when it came time to talk, these articulate words spun from his lips.
That day with Patrick pushed Rick 80% of the way toward quitting. So he went looking for the other 20%. He called his father in Minnesota, a retired engineer, and told him he needed to quit. His father said, "You’re 38 years old. You gotta stop squeezing into a round hole if you’re a square peg. You’re going to have a heart attack in five years. You’ve won it all and lost it all several times, playing a game you just don’t want to play."
This is the dissertation directory page of Corrin Ruth Weir, fourth year BA (Hons) Information Management student at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh, Scotland.
About the Dissertation Project
This research project aims to investigate the use of e-mail to share information and to investigate whether it creates or increases information overload for users. The research will primarily be carried out as a case study at Alpha North America. This is to help Alpha develop suitable strategies for their information practices, to do some useful work for them and to maintain contact with the placement host. The Alpha North America office is based in New York City, USA.
The research has been broken down into three main sections
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