Category Archives: employee stress

Just Another (Long) Day at the Office

long day 2In recent months, The Leader Board has touched on the issue of employees being unable to disconnect from work while on vacation. We’ve talked about how many United States workers aren’t guaranteed paid vacation time to begin with, and we’ve shared survey results showing a majority of American employees don’t use the vacation time they do have.

Now, here comes data that suggests U.S. workers are finding it harder and harder to even leave the office at all.

A recent survey from Milwaukee-based Right Management polled 325 employees, asking participants if workers in their organizations were working longer hours than five years ago. They said:

• Yes, a great deal (67 percent)

• Not really (23 percent)

• Yes, somewhat (10 percent)

So, a clear majority of the employees polled find themselves and their colleagues spending more time at the office.

And, according to Right, these workers are barely coming up for air while they’re there. Another Right survey saw 81 percent of 1,023 North American employees indicating they don’t typically take what they consider to be a proper lunch break at work. The grind doesn’t end after going home, either: A June 2013 poll from Right found more than one-third of 422 workers dealing with work-related emails outside of business hours.

Given the business climate of the past five years, these findings don’t come as a great shock. But they do help paint a picture of a frazzled workforce putting in more hours, dealing with more stress and perhaps becoming increasingly disgruntled as a result.

And that’s a picture that HR leaders—already battling to keep employee engagement levels high—probably don’t want to envision with a recovering economy (and job market) on the horizon.

The Steep Cost of Long Hours

200212196-001By now you’ve surely heard the story of Moritz Erhardt.

On Aug. 15, the 21-year-old Bank of America intern was found dead in a shower cubicle at a student residential facility, after reportedly working for 72 straight hours at B of A Merrill Lynch’s investment banking division in London.

In the days since, many questions have been raised surrounding the work culture of the fast-paced financial sector, where employees—particularly junior-level associates—may feel compelled to keep punishing work schedules in hopes of securing their spot in a very competitive and profitable industry.

Bank of America is raising some questions of its own, recently announcing it had commissioned a “formal senior working group” to examine the organization’s working practices, with “a special focus on junior members of staff,” according to The Guardian.

Erhardt’s passing is certainly an extreme example, but the financial services realm is far from the only place where employees are working themselves ragged, sometimes to the point of putting their own physical and mental well-being at risk.

So, where’s the threshold? What’s the right amount of work? In a recent study, a Kansas State University researcher attempted to answer such questions. And, if her findings are any indication, the sweet spot may be in the 40-to-45 hours-per-week range.

Sarah Asebedo, a doctoral student at K-State, analyzed the association between “workaholism” and physical and mental health. Asebedo found that employees working more than 50 hours a week were more likely to experience diminished mental health—as measured by self-reported depression scores—and reduced physical well-being.

On the other hand, another study suggests spending less time at the office may not do all that much for employees.

Robert Rudolf, an assistant professor of economics at Korea University in Seoul, recently used data from an annual survey of 5,000 Korean households to analyze overall job and life satisfaction before and after changes in South Korean labor regulations reduced the workweek to five days and 40 hours a week. (Prior to 2004, employees in South Korea put in six-day, 44-hour weeks.)

According to the New York Times, Rudolf used a five-point scale—ranging from “very dissatisfied” to “very satisfied”—to determine workers’ happiness with their jobs and home lives. He found a reduction in hours had no bearing on either job or life satisfaction for employees of both sexes.

So, it seems there is no magic number of hours that will keep your workforce at its happiest and healthiest. But, a degree of flexibility may be the best option employers can offer, says Rudolf.

“I am a big fan of flexible working solutions with flex-time, part-time options, etc.,” he told the Times. “In my opinion, higher personal freedom about their work flanked with well-designed performance targets will make workers both happier and more productive.”

Productivity Naps: The New Coffee Break?

productivity napGeorge Costanza would love working for Nationwide Planning Associates Inc.

There, the Seinfeld slacker supreme—who once hired a carpenter to craft a secret napping area under his desk in the New York Yankees front office—would actually be encouraged to catch a few winks during the workday.

Indeed, employees at the investment firm’s Paramus, N.J. headquarters can sign up for blocks of time—20 minutes, twice weekly—in a remodeled closet that now serves as the company’s “rejuvenation center,” complete with a recliner, fountain and bamboo rug.

The company designed the area for its 20 employees to use for taking quick naps, with the idea of helping them ultimately be more productive on the job. Just don’t call it a nap room.

“We call it the ‘rejuvenation center’ to put a more positive spin on it,” James Colleary, a compliance principal at Nationwide Planning, recently told NBC Today. “People associate napping with laziness.”

According to the NBC piece, Colleary urged company executives to create the sleeping space, and leadership has since seen happier and more productive employees.

Nationwide Planning could be on to something, according to Steven Feinsilver, director of the Mount Sinai Center for Sleep Medicine in New York. He told Today:

We all get sleepy in the mid-afternoon, and it looks like our body clocks are winding down a little bit then. If you need an extra two hours of sleep, getting a half-an-hour is good, and it helps.”

Arianna Huffington seems to be of the same mind. The Huffington Post president and editor-in-chief had two nap rooms installed in the news website’s office about two years ago. Companies such as Google and Proctor & Gamble, however, have done her one better, purchasing “EnergyPods,” chairs specifically designed for napping at work. The chairs, which resemble chaise lounges, can cost anywhere from $8,900 to $12,900.

That’s a hefty price tag for a place where employees spend 20 minutes recharging their batteries. But for workers and their employers, the payoff from quick snoozes may prove to be well worth it, says Mike Karalewich, Nationwide Planning Associates chief compliance officer.

The nap for me, personally speaking, really allows me to approach the second half of the day with a lot more force,” Karalewich told Today. “I firmly believe that napping breaks will become the new coffee break eventually.”

The Painful End of Maternity Leave

Found a nice reminder today on the Society for Human Resource Management website about just how hard it is for most moms to return to work after maternity leave.

The top video in SHRM’s archive features Cathy Carothers, president of the International Lactation Consultant Association, describing just what returning young mothers go through.

So often, what employers — and employees — focus on are the numbers of weeks and days allowed for maternity leave under state and federal laws (which just so happens to be the focus of the second video, following Carothers’).

What Carothers does is make it very personal and specific — the physical stress of post-birth and lactation, the loss of sleep, the emotional stress around leaving your baby in the arms of someone else … .

I so rarely hear those specific hardships talked about when reporting or writing about young moms returning to work. Hearing Carothers took me right back to my own painful pangs some 30 years ago. And to the much-more-recent experiences of young women in my life and circle of friends.

As Carothers stresses, every employer would do well to consider the special needs — beyond time-and-attendance — that these women come back to work with. (Suggestions might include extra counseling, support or affinity groups, and lactation and rest areas, to name just a few.)

Indeed, the transition from maternity to work would be so much easier for all involved, employers and employees, if organizations catered more to the whole returning new parent, not just the returning employee.

 

 

The Struggles of Working in Retail

If you think you have it tough balancing the demands of child care, housekeeping and–maybe–night classes with a 9-to-5 office job, then try working in retail. A recently published study based on interviews with 463 employees at retail stores throughout New York City found that more than half learned their work schedules a week or less prior to the actual work week. Two in five said the number of hours they worked each week always or often varied, while one in five said they always or often had to be available for call-in shifts. The report, entitled “Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short,” notes that “guaranteed work hours are no longer the normal and just ‘getting on the schedule’ has become the reward for job performance.”

So just imagine dealing with such unpredictability while trying to attend classes and/or raise a family. It should be noted that this study was financed by the Retail Action Project, a pro-union organization, and conducted by the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute, which also appears to have a union affiliation. Yet the rise of “just-in-time” scheduling at many stores, further enabled by technology, has been noted elsewhere for the negative effect it can have on workers’ lives.  A team of researchers from the University of Chicago examined workforce data and surveyed workers and managers at a nationwide women’s apparel chain (with the company’s full cooperation).  The report, published in fall 2010, noted that just-in-time scheduling makes it difficult for workers to count on reliable earnings or plan for family responsibilities.

By comparison, the researchers discovered that the more hours employees at the apparel chain worked and the less their hours fluctuated, the longer they remained employed at the firm, regardless of age and job status. Stores with smaller staff size and more hours per employee have lower turnover and higher retention, the report found, while employee survey findings indicate that more-predictable work schedules led to less work/family conflict and lower stress levels for the workers. Sounds like a recipe for improved workforce health and greater productivity, no?

Of course, retail by its very nature is less predictable than other industries. Yet the researchers found that “overall store hours fluctuate much less than is commonly believed.” They suggest that managers can add some stability to employees’ work hours by using “predictable unpredictability”–keeping employees’ work hours the same for 80 percent of the week while telling them to expect that 20 percent of their hours may vary week to week.” Not a perfect solution, but one that may enable stores to remain profitable while giving employees a chance for some balance.

 

Women Choosing More Time Over More Money

Came across this recent piece in USA Today that hit a nerve. Written by Anita Bruzzese, it cites a nationwide survey from More magazine in which 43 percent of 500 women, ages 35 to 60, say they are less ambitious now than they were a decade ago.

And only a quarter say they’re working toward their next promotion.

Some even more eyebrow-raising gems: Two of three women polled say they would prefer to have more free time than a bigger paycheck and two of five say they’d be willing to accept less money for more flexibility.

Seventy-three percent say they would not apply for their boss’ job and 38 percent say they don’t want to put up with the stress, office politics and responsibility that often go hand-in-hand with such positions.

And my favorite: 92 percent say they value workplace flexibility, but a third consider it career suicide to ask for more flexibility in their jobs.

“We’re bemoaning the lack of women in top Fortune 500 companies or women in political office,” More Editor-in-Chief Lesley Jane Seymour tells Bruzzese. “We’re sliding backwards, and here’s your answer [as to why]. It’s because we have thrown ice water all over ambition.”

As the economy struggles, she says, “if we back off from promoting women, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The real focus of the piece — a single mom from Dallas named Tiffany Willis, who left a middle-management position to, as she says, “own my life” — calls many of the meaningful, ladder-climbing, career-enhancing positions now filled by women “heart-attack jobs.”

“… I strongly believe they took years off my life,” she tells Bruzzese. “I have been referred by people for other [management] positions, and I tell them no amount of money is worth it. I don’t care if they offered me a million dollars.”

She describes herself as “that mom sitting at the top of the bleachers at my kid’s Saturday-morning football game on my cell phone for a conference call with my laptop.” Hey, that stuff’s been going on for years. I remember watching many a varsity soccer or baseball game with reporter pad in hand trying to craft a lead for an article due later that night.

It’s amazing how long we’ve been at this working woman/working mother thing, yet how far we still seem to be from a universal ideal situation. The women I talk to, from HR leaders at conferences to relatives and friends, seem to agree corporate America is still in social-experiment mode when it comes to workplace flexibility, telecommuting and trust.

And, by all means, this inadequate corporate culture wreaks havoc on young men and working dads, too. They’re just not finding themselves forced to make as many dramatic, life-changing decisions — I don’t think — as women.

“Women will continue to be powerful,” as Willis puts it, “but it’s not going to be with a two-hour commute and a corner office.”

 

America’s Scariest Jobs

The good folks at CareerBuilder.com who have compiled this year’s list of the scariest jobs in the country, as voted on by 4,300 American workers:

1. Bomb Squad Technician

2. High Rise Window Washer

3. Armed Forces

4. Miner

5. Police Officer

6. Alaskan Crab Fishing

7. Mortician

8. Firefighter

9. High School Teacher

10. Cemetery Worker

11. Exterminator

12. Stand-Up Comedian

13. Animal Control

14. Stunt Person

15. Politician

But when it comes to what is scaring employees — besides holding any of the above-mentioned job titles — more than a third of workers (36 percent) say layoffs are what they are most afraid of at work. Other work-related issues that may keep workers up at night include:

*Pay cuts — 13 percent

* Workload — 9 percent

* Presenting in front of other people — 9 percent

* Forced relocation — 4 percent

* The boss — 3 percent

Happy Halloween!

 

Report: Employees Getting More Suicidal

Thoughts of suicide are permeating the workplace, according to Harris, Rothenberg International, a New York-based firm that provides EAP, work/life consulting and other services to employers. Calls to HRI’s EAP counselors from employees contemplating suicide and managers concerned about suicidal employees are up 33 percent compared to the period a year ago, according to the company.

Not surprisingly, the lousy economy’s a big factor. HRI points to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entitled “Impact of Business Cycles on the U.S. Suicide Rates, 1928-2007,” which notes that suicide rates rise and fall with the economy.  What’s tragic, as HRI points out, is that many people with suicidal thoughts avoid getting help and instead try and “tough it out” on their own.

Suicidal thoughts are often triggered by despair over workplace changes wrought by the economy, says HRI’s director of clinical services, Dr. Randy Martin. Many employees thought (or were led to believe) that changes were temporary, but when they realize that’s not the case, despair can set in, he says. Some employees struggle with grief over the loss of coworkers who were downsized, while others deal with enormous stress and anxiety from generational conflicts with bosses who may be younger than them.

“There has been a significant increase in employee stress and anxiety from 2010 through the year to date, and overwhelmed employees who cannot see some light at the end of the tunnel may feel powerless, hopeless, angry and disenfranchised, which can lead to self-harming thoughts and behaviors,” says Martin. “The economic crisis has become a human crisis.”

 

 

In the Good Old Summertime

In these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, workers are either goofing off and dressing down — or they’re ruining their vacations by checking in with the office. (Let me know later, if you find yourself unconsciously humming either of those tunes …)

At least that is the non-consensus from three, count ’em, three surveys that crossed my desk (well, showed up in my email, anyway) today.

One, from CareerBuilder, finds that one in four employers say their workers are less productive in the summer.

Another, from Adweek/Harris Poll, shows that nearly half (46 percent) of vacationing Americans worked during their vacations.

And the third, from Adecco Staffing US, relates to appropriate workplace attire — although six in 10 of the respondents would like some extra vacation days or the ability to leave early on “summer Fridays.”

As for wardrobe, 71 percent of Americans say flip flops are the biggest summer no-no.

Amusingly, men and women differed in the acceptability of mini-skirts and strapless tops or dresses. For both, men were much more willing to see such items in the workplace.  Hmmm. Big surprise there, huh?

As for those non-vacationing vacationers in the Adweek/Harris Poll, the most frequent work-related duties involve monitoring email (35 percent), checking voicemail (22 percent) or taking phone calls from work (22 percent).

Employers in the CareerBuilder survey blame nicer weather, vacation-fever and kids being out of school for lower productivity, but nearly half (45 percent) of the employers say burnout is a problem. They may want to check out some of the tips we included in our recent HREOnline™ story, “Reversing Burnout.”

Your Workers May Be in Worse Shape than You Think

HR and benefits professionals might be surprised to find out — if they asked — just how on the edge financially their employees are … and how many of them in these dire straits there really are. They also might raise an eyebrow or two to learn how many on-the-edge workers actually don’t think a debilitating or catastrophic event could impact them or their family.

Such was the warning from Audrey Tillman, executive vice president of corporate services at the Columbus, Ga.-based supplemental and guaranteed-renewable insurance provider, in an interview Monday. She was referring to the results of a study released earlier this month, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Aflac.

The 2011 Aflac WorkForces Report shows 51 percent of American workers say they are not very, or not at all, prepared to pay for out-of-pocket expenses not covered by major-medical insurance. What’s more, six out of 10 workers do not have a financial plan in place to deal with an unexpected and costly life event, such as a medical emergency. And 31 percent have less than $500 in savings for emergency expenses.

“Remember, these are people who are working!” Tillman says. “These are the people one would assume have some sort of financial stability. We found these statistics startling.”

The study also finds that only 19 percent of employees think it’s likely that they or a family member will ever be diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, and only 13 percent say they think a serious illness, such as cancer, will ever occur or that there will be a need for long-term care.

Yet, according to the National Safety Council, more than 25 million people in the United States suffered accident-related disabling injuries in 2008 and the American Heart Association reports nearly one in three deaths in 2006 was caused by a form of cardiovascular disease. “So, clearly, these things are happening,” says Tillman.

Worse still, “about half of the workers we surveyed said they’re already struggling with financial stress, and again, remember, these are the people who are working,” she says. “These surveyed employees are real people in the workforce.”

When asked how they would pay for out-of-pocket expenses due to an unexpected illness, 44 percent said they would have to borrow from family or friends, tap retirement savings or use a credit card.

And, for the clincher, 19 percent — one out of five people — have no idea how they would cover the costs.

Aflac products and services aside, says Tillman, this should sound a reverberating wake-up call to employers to take a fresh account of the benefits they’re providing and, in this economy, with so many Americans living on the edge, “make sure the benefits they are providing really make a difference and are really providing that safety net” so desperately needed right now.

“What this says to me as an HR executive is that it’s time many of us survey our employees to find out where the real needs are,” she says. “We should be taking a new look with a critical eye, through our own research and workforce analysis, to become fully aware of what really impacts people.”

Supplemental insurance, for instance, which could mean the difference between financial ruin and recovery in the event of a catastrophe, and which a significant number of employers still don’t offer, “may have to be added in place of something else that may not seem so critical in this economy,” says Tillman.

“The pressure has been on HR to hold the line and cut back on costs,” she says. “This may not feel to an HR executive like a good time to revolutionize the system.”

But workers whose employers provide for them when catastrophe strikes, she adds, will not only stay on as productive workers in the long run, “they’ll become champions for that company.”