Category Archives: workplace stress

How Does Bullying Affect Bystanders?

In case you needed further evidence of workplace bullying’s toxic and far-reaching effects …

In a new study, a University of North Texas professor finds that an office bully’s boorishness not only distresses the employee on the receiving end of such behavior, but is harmful to those who witness it as well.

Michele Medina, an adjunct professor in the department of management at UNT’s College of Business, studied how exposure to an in-office bully influences interpersonal attitudes, including employees’ expectations for how colleagues should treat one another. Medina also analyzed how individuals react internally to seeing a co-worker targeted by an office tormenter, and how witnesses’ empathy affects these factors.

“When people react to events emotionally, it has a direct influence on their attitude or how they behave,” says Medina, in a UNT statement. “And that can spill over into work.”

For the study, Medina enlisted 300 participants to serve as bystanders to office bullying. These observers watched a faux employee training video that showed either an actor berating a co-worker or a benign exchange between colleagues.

Their reactions “say a lot,” notes Medina.

For example, witnesses who observed peer-on-peer bullying report believing that they might become a target for bad treatment at work. Study participants also said they would often be inclined to disassociate from the bully, while those with higher levels of empathy would be more likely to relate to co-workers who had been bullied. In addition, witnesses of the same gender as victims of bullying behavior said they are less likely to identify with the perpetrator.

These conclusions do say a lot. And little of it bodes well for workplaces where bullies are present—and going unchecked.

“There’s a price to pay,” says Medina. “Kids who are bullies tend to grow up to be adults who are bullies. It doesn’t necessarily go away. Understanding how bullying affects everyone at work, and which employees are most likely to be affected, allows companies and organizations to address all aspects of workplace bullying properly.”

No Break for the Burned Out

With the long Memorial Day weekend less than 24 hours away, where will you be staying as the unofficial start of summer gets underway?

For at least one-third of your employees, the answer is likely “at home.”

That’s according to a recent CareerBuilder survey of 3,215 employed U.S. adults, 33 percent of whom said they haven’t taken or don’t plan to take a vacation this year.

Not surprisingly, many workers say they could use a break, with 61 percent reporting that they are burned out in their current job, and 31 percent describing their work-related stress levels as “high” or “extremely high.”

The better news is that some of these overextended employees will still be able to find some time to get away this year. Sort of.

Among the remaining respondents who will be taking vacation sometime this year, three in 10 say they will still stay connected with work while on holiday. More specifically, 31 percent said they check work email while away, and 18 percent indicated that they would “check in” with work at least once during that time.

Workers feeling stressed out is far from a new phenomenon. And we’ve seen at least a handful of studies in recent years that have suggested many employees are leaving vacation days on the table each year, for a variety of reasons. The CareerBuilder survey, for instance, finds 36 percent of respondents saying they’ve come back from vacation with so much work to do that they wished they never left at all. Another 18 percent say taking vacation actually leaves them feeling more anguish over work.

The number of workers afraid of taking time off to recharge their batteries should be troubling.

Leaders within the organization—incidentally, the CareerBuilder poll sees senior management and vice presidents reporting the lowest stress levels of all workers—can set the tone for their teams, according to Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

“If you’re a boss, it’s important that you role model how to take a vacation,” said Haefner, in a statement.

“If you’re prone to answering every email and phone call that comes through on your own vacation time, consider the example you’re setting for your team members. You need to set up an automated response email, and only respond to absolutely urgent emails while you’re away,” she continues.

“Direct all calls to an assistant or colleague at the office. Show your employees that vacation time matters to you and to your company and its culture.”

Of Job Interviews and Stress

Do you remember your last job interview? Was the experience a pleasant one? If you’re like most people, the answers are A: yes, and B: No. After all, regardless of how nicely you’re treated during the interview — a receptionist who greets you warmly by name, interviewers who appear to have fully read your resume, etc. — the fact is that this is a process that may determine not only your livelihood but also who you’ll be spending the majority of your waking hours with (and yes that sounds sad, but it is what it is). So considering all that, it may not be surprising if even the memory of the experience makes your heart beat a little faster and your palms get a bit sweaty.

All of this can be a good thing, said psychologist Kelly McGonigal during her keynote presentation earlier this week at Indeed Interactive in Austin, Tex. The conventional wisdom about stress is that too much of it leads to overeating, high blood pressure and a host of other maladies and behaviors that will ultimately result in a shortened lifespan, said McGonigal, a Stanford University researcher whose 2014 TED Talk titled “How to Make Stress Your Friend” garnered nearly 5 million views. However, stress is and always has been a part of life, she said — it’s how we choose to respond to it that determines its effect on our health.

“The advice we typically give to each other during a really stressed-out moment, like before a job interview, is ‘Take a deep breath,’ ” she said to attendees packing the ballroom at the Austin J.W. Marriott. “Yes, most people say that — and they’re wrong. A better piece of advice is, what if instead of trying to suppress the stress, we view it as energy that we can harness?”

McGonigal cited research conducted at the University of Wisconsin that tracked 30,000 Americans over the course of eight years. The researchers found that subjects with a lot of stress had a 43-percent increased risk of dying — but only if they believed stress was harmful.

“The people who perform best under pressure aren’t actually calm, but they view that stress as energy that can actually help them,” she said. “Your body and brain have a whole repertoire of stress responses, many of which are helpful and healthy. If you choose to embrace that anxiety, it actually transforms the biology of fear into the biology of courage.”

People tend to perform better when they’re told prior to a major event that feeling anxious is natural and that it can actually help them — not just in job interviews, said McGonigal, but in a wide range of activities such as athletic competitions, during tests and even in karaoke contests (something to keep in mind for your next happy hour).

“Not everyone does this naturally, although everyone has the capability to do this,” she said. “You can access the biology of resilience in stressful situations.”

Researchers at Columbia Business School conducted an experiment in which participants were put through a mock job interview by interviewers who’d been coached to be very cold, give no positive feedback whatsoever to the interviewees  and interrupt them regularly, said McGonigal. One group of interviewees was shown a video prior to the interview that explained the damaging effects that stress can have on health. The other group was shown  a video about how stress can be performance-enhancing and can help people emerge from a difficult situation stronger and better-equipped to handle adversity. The participants who saw the positive video experienced higher levels of hormones (oxytocin, in particular) that help us react positively to stressful experiences, she said.

In another experiment focused on job applicants, this one at the University of Michigan, researchers counseled one group of participants to think about how — if they got the job — it would allow them to help others or express their values in a way that would contribute to the greater good. Members of this group were much more likely to be rated by people who watched the interviews as  confident and competent and as someone they would like to work with than those who hadn’t received the pre-interview counseling.

So, what’s the lesson here for recruiters and talent-acquisition leaders?

“Every step of the hiring process can be viewed as contributing to the community, values and mission of the organization,” said McGonigal. “One could view your own role as part of that, of helping to connect people with the organization and the community that it’s part of. And every moment that you choose to view as the next step in bringing this about also helps create a psychologically healthy state for you.”

Student Debt Still a Plague

Here’s some more fuel on the financial-stress fire, particularly as it affects employees straddling student debt: A new survey by American Student Assistance finds more than half of all young workers worry about repaying student loans either all the time or often.

Here are some key — translated alarming — findings of the Young Workers and Student Debt survey, which polled 502 young workers (ages 22 to 33) as well as 451 human resource managers at companies with at least 100 employees:

  • 40 percent report that worrying about their student loans has impacted their health,
  • 55 percent would like to go to grad school but couldn’t take on any additional student loans,
  • 61 percent have considered getting a second job to help pay off their student loans,
  • 63 percent of young workers report that they don’t have anyone to turn to for help with regard to paying off their student loans,
  • 75 percent of HR professionals report that their company does not offer any guidance or assistance regarding student loans, and
  • 54 percent of young workers report that, right now, paying off student loans comes first, and they will put off saving for retirement until later.

Seriously folks, how did this burden on this nation’s young workers get this bad? And why aren’t we doing a better job of triage here?

Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman at Boston-based ASA, says the stress these workers experience over student debt “clearly impacts their health and productivity in the workplace.”

In this editorial I wrote in November of last year, I cite a study by EdAssist in which 72 percent of all people with student debt say it impacts their daily lives, forcing them to give up on dream jobs and further education. That study also finds nearly half (49 percent) of these people saying they’re so stressed, they’d prefer help with school debt over budgeting, credit-card debt and even retirement.

Indeed, the ASA survey shows more than 90 percent of young workers would take advantage of a sign-on bonus or a company match targeted at paying back these mountainous burdens. So why do a whopping 75 percent of HR professionals say their companies offer no help or guidance?

Granted, some companies are treading into this muck and mire to try and clean some of it up. We blogged on this site about PricewaterhouseCooper’s commitment to pay up to $1,200 a year toward employees’ student loans for up to six years. And we blogged about Natixis Global Asset Management’s pledge to contribute up to $10,000 to every full-time employee who has been at the company for at least five years and has outstanding Federal Stafford or Perkins Loans. But that was 2015. And we’re still not hearing about any massive debt-help-bandwagon jumping.

Let’s hope a bipartisan bill introduced Feb. 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Employer Participation in Student Loan Assistance Act does better this time around than when it was introduced in October 2015 as H.R. 3861. The proposed law would shield employers’ student-loan-repayment benefits from federal taxes, thereby opening the door to many more than just a few willing to help their employees pay down their school debt. Why didn’t this garner more support two years ago? This needs to pass.

Meanwhile, this November feature by Larry Stevens, which I mention in my editorial, cites a new approach some employers are taking for all their financially stressed employees: paying them pre-paycheck for the income they’ve already worked for — in other words, the hours they’ve already accrued. As Ijaz Anwar, the co-founder and chief operating officer of one of the suppliers behind this approach, San Jose, Calif.-based PayActiv, told me:

“Why can’t you just give people [living paycheck to paycheck] what they have earned, what is rightfully their, when they so desperately need it [and when it can mean] dignity for these struggling people who can’t even qualify for a credit card?”

But, sadly, there again, there’s no flood of employers taking this approach. Not sure why, when the benefits include better health and productivity for employees, and there don’t appear to be any negatives.

The Toll of Talking Politics

It’s fair to say that this very unique presidential race has engendered plenty of, let’s say, spirited conversation.

Even if you abstain from political chatter at the office, you’ve probably heard at least one co-worker offering an in-depth analysis of the candidates and the issues shaping the 2016 election season.

And, as we enter the homestretch, employees are growing weary of such talk, and months of discussing politics—and hearing others discuss politics—is starting to take a toll on the workforce.

So says new research from the Washington-based American Psychological Association. The organization’s Politics in the Workplace: 2016 Election Season survey recently polled 927 employed American adults, and finds workers feeling stressed (17 percent), more cynical and negative on the job (15 percent) and less productive (13 percent) in the midst of political chit-chat.

Overall, 27 percent of workers reported at least one negative outcome stemming from political banter. Younger employees (age 18 to 34) are feeling the most ruffled, with more than one in four saying they’ve experienced added stress due to political talk in the workplace. In addition, more than twice as many men said election-related conversations are making it more difficult for them to get work done.

The especially vitriolic tone of this year’s race isn’t helping, either. Overall, 47 percent of employees said individuals are more likely to talk politics in the workplace this election season than in the past. On the bright side, though, a majority of respondents (60 percent) said co-workers are generally respectful toward those with differing political views.

That said, more than a quarter (26 percent) have seen or heard colleagues arguing over politics, with 11 percent of employees admitting they’ve entered the fray themselves at some point. Twenty percent of respondents, meanwhile, say they’ve taken to avoiding certain co-workers because of their political views.

“The workplace brings people together from different backgrounds who might not ordinarily interact with each other,” says David W. Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, in a statement.

“When you add politics to the mix—a deeply personal and emotional topic for many—there is potential for tension, conflict and problems for both employees and the organization.”

Indeed. And there might not be much that our major political parties agree on at the moment, but employees from both sides of the aisle seem to acknowledge that election fatigue has set in.

“Regardless of political identification, the heated discussions and divisive rhetoric this election season have the potential to take a toll on people’s well-being and even affect their job performance,” says Ballard.

“While employers may not be able to limit political discussions in the workplace, they can take steps to ensure those conversations take place in a civil, respectful environment. A psychologically healthy workplace is particularly critical during challenging and polarizing times, and these survey results highlight the fact that, despite conventional wisdom, people are often more alike than they are different.”

Transforming the Workplace

I just came across this interesting piece on Forbes’ site about the different ways organizations are transforming the way business gets done in the modern workplace.

From office furniture with built-in tracking devices to measure users’ activity rates to desks that don’t stay put themselves, the experiments are indeed pushing the envelope of what’s to be expected in the workplace:

“There have also been some interesting approaches to encourage work/life balance among employees, with a Dutch startup called Heldergroen installing desks that literally get pulled up into the ceiling at 5:30 p.m. to force employees to go home.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Greek designers NL Studio developed a desk that converts into a bed. While the aim is to perhaps encourage ‘power naps,’ it could also facilitate all-nighters at the office.”

The piece goes on to explore the merits of “encourag[ing] external people to come onto company premises,” which include:

1. They allow employees to rub shoulders with interesting people they might not ordinarily meet.

2. They allow HR folks to keep a much closer eye on potential talent to bring on board.

3. They allow those in the merger and acquisition team to keep tabs on interesting startups and spin-outs in their industry.

It’s an interesting, forward-looking piece and you can read the full story here.

Wait … Work Is Good for Your Health?

A compre200400993-001hensive survey of American workers this week offered some predictable findings about health and employment. But there are some happy surprises as well.

Perhaps most interesting was a finding that 28 percent of workers said their job was good for their overall health. That’s considerably more than the 16 percent who said it was bad.  (The rest, a slight majority, said their job had no effect on their overall health.)

Why the upbeat view? Researchers didn’t ask, and declined to share any thoughts about what respondents meant. But we can find some clues on our own by looking at this poll and other research. And those clues offer some encouragement for HR professionals.

How does your job affect your _____?
Good impact Bad impact No impact
Overall health 28% 16% 54%
Eating habits 15% 28% 56%
Stress level 16% 43% 39%
Sleeping habits 17% 27% 55%
Weight 19% 22% 57%
Social life 27% 17% 56%
Family life 32% 17% 50%
Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Make no mistake, there are plenty of concerns raised by this survey, which was performed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in conjunction with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Researchers polled 1,601 working Americans across a range of ages, ethnicities, income levels and industries. The margin of error for the full sample was 2.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

NPR stories about the survey this week have highlighted how workers with disabilities often struggle at work, how lack of sick leave can drive some families into financial crisis and why so many employees go to work while sick.

Among other troubling — if unsurprising — findings was that 43 percent of respondents said work added stress to their lives. A news release from the university quoted poll director Robert J. Blendon concluding that “The takeaway here is that job number one for U.S. employers is to reduce stress in the workplace.”

But what might workers be thinking when they say their job is good for their health?

One obvious point is that having a job means having an income and (often) having insurance. That’s definitely good for your health. But I wonder if many respondents were really thinking at that level of abstraction.

There’s also research suggesting that, in fact, work is good for your health. One frequently-cited research overview conducted in the United Kingdom concluded that meaningful, safe work generally offers physical and mental-health benefits. Being active and having a purpose is good for us.

But were many respondents thinking about arcane findings in the field of occupational health?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is in the new poll itself — findings that suggest wellness programs really matter. More than half of respondents said their company had a formal wellness program.

Even more significant: Of those workers, a whopping 45 percent said that program was “very important” to their health. Nearly as many said it was “somewhat important.”

Wellness programs don’t offer any clues about some other surprising findings in this poll, alas. Respondents also apparently think work is good for their social life and (even more mysteriously) their family life. Let’s hope researchers some day will drill deeper to find out what’s really going on here.

Are Long Hours Making Workers Sick?

ThinkstockPhotos-179039030In some parts of the world, workaholism is beginning to look uncool. Some companies in South Korea are literally turning off the lights to get people out of the office at a reasonable hour. Desks in a Dutch design studio automatically retract into the ceiling at 6 p.m. Researchers in Sweden report increased worker productivity with an experimental six-hour day.

What’s happening in the U.S.? Long workdays remain as popular — or necessary — as ever. And now some new research suggests there are long-term consequences that employers, as well as workers, need to understand.

A study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University and the Mayo Clinic finds people who routinely work long hours have sharply higher risks of chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease later in life. And the risks are especially severe for women.

Workers at the beginning of their careers may be happy to invest in long work-weeks, and employers benefit, notes lead author Allard Dembe, a professor of public health at Ohio State. But “you may be setting the stage for a physical breakdown later in life,” he says.

Other studies have found long hours at work can lead to stress, fatigue, reduced work performance and safety issues. But until now few researchers had looked at long-term health effects. Dembe and Xiaoxi Yao, now a research associate at the Mayo Clinic, found a way by analyzing a database that tracked both the work hours and self-reported health information of more than 12,000 people nationally from 1979 to 2011. Only full-time work was counted.

The results, published online last month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, were particularly stunning for women: Those who averaged 60-plus-hour weeks over those 32 years were at least three times as likely to report heart disease, cancer, arthritis or diabetes. That’s compared to those who had average workweeks of 30 to 40 hours.

Men in the study showed smaller increased risk. The largest effect in men was with arthritis, which was more than twice as likely for those working 60 hours or more, compared to standard full-time hours.

Earlier research had suggested that women might see more long-term health effects, but the size of the disparity was surprising, Dembe says: “I didn’t expect the gender effect to be so, so striking … it was just day and night.”

Researchers can only speculate as to why, but Dembe thinks the most plausible explanation is that most women have greater responsibilities at home than men. “A lot of things are going on here,” he says. But one is the “multiple roles that women play in society, compared to men,” he says. “Women don’t have the time.”

What can employers do? Working long hours is “part of American culture,” Dembe says, and curbing workaholism isn’t easy. But companies can make employees aware of the consequences of long hours — and start health screening programs early, he says. Existing wellness and chronic-disease-management programs can be part of the effort .

“Talk about the issue when people are younger,” Dembe says. For employers, “this study suggests you really should think about it.”

It’s Take Your Dog to Work Day!

Today marks the 18th annual celebration of Take Your Dog To Work Day and, fittingly enough, a new survey sheds (pun clearly intended) some light on the topic to show the benefits reaped by organizations that allow their workers to bring their four-footed friends into the workplace.

Of course, it may seem like a shaggy-dog story to some skeptics (I’m looking at you, cat owners) that bringing your dog to work actually does produce positive workplace effects. But according to this research from Randolph Barker (no joke!), a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University:

“Dogs in the workplace can make a positive difference,” he said. “The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present [at an office participating in a study] and absent were significant. The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms.”

From the looks of a recent poll, organizations are (slowly) warming to the idea of pet-friendly workplaces: A 2015 Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 8 percent of American workplaces allow employees to bring their furry friends to work, up from 5 percent in 2013.

(And while it may be too late this year, here’s a link to obtain a toolkit to help you set up the event for next year.)

 

Reliably Irrational or Occasionally Unfair?

Being consistent as a boss—even if that means being consistently awful—counts for something with employees.

That seems to be the big message to emerge from recent Michigan State University research.

Published online in February by the Academy of Management Journal, the study determined that employees who see their supervisors as being reliably unfair are happier in their jobs and feel less work-related anxiety than those who view their bosses as unpredictable.

Actually, the team—led by MSU doctoral student Fadel Matta—performed a pair of studies on the way to reaching that conclusion, according to the Washington Post.

In a lab experiment, college students had to estimate a hypothetical company’s stock price, using information about its performance. These participants were told that their peers would be sitting in another room and acting as their supervisors, but they were “actually receiving feedback on the task from the researchers,” the Post reports.

The study authors divided the students—all of whom were having their heart rates monitored in order to gauge their stress levels throughout the experiment—into three groups. Students in one group received input from “supervisors”  such as “thanks for your effort during the last round” or “it’s great to work with a motivated person,” according to the Post. A second group was on the end of a steady stream of negative comments like “it sucks to work with an unmotivated person,” while the third cohort heard mixed messages from their would-be bosses.

Those routinely hearing words of thanks and encouragement demonstrated the least stress. Those who were peppered with put-downs, however, actually fared better than students whose bosses’ feedback wavered between nasty and nice.

In a second study, approximately 100 workers filled out daily surveys throughout a three-week span, answering questions regarding their perceptions of fairness. Participants’ supervisors were polled at the study’s start, in an effort to “measure their capability for self-control,” the Post notes. As was the case in the first experiment, employees with erratic managers experienced greater stress, job dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion compared to those who felt they regularly received the short end of the stick from the boss.

These results may stem, in large part, from “this issue of uncertainty,” Matta recently told the Post. “This notion of knowing what to expect—even if it’s bad—is better than not knowing what to expect at work.”

In the Post piece, Matta advises that employers coach wild-card bosses on how to brace workers for bad news that could be coming, as a way to (hopefully) quell employees’ insecurities.

“Sometimes you have to be unfair. There’s only so many resources you can distribute, for instance,” Matta told the paper. “But if you say ‘tomorrow this is going to be happening’—then all of a sudden people aren’t coming in not knowing what to expect. At least that uncertainty is mitigated.”