Is our work killing us?
Published Wednesday, February 20, 2013 10:48AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 20, 2013 11:11AM EST
It's been said that the way we're working isn't working, and author Dr. David Posen couldn't agree more.
The former family physician who now specializes in stress and lifestyle management says today's work environments have become toxic with the pressures of global competition, economic uncertainty, and downsizing.
In his new book, "Is Work Killing You?: A Doctor's Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress," Posen looks at the myth of multi-tasking and the lunacy of long hours and calls for a return to a more sensible approach to working that will not only benefit the mental health of workers, it will increase productivity.
For Posen, stress is a double-edged sword. The good kind motivates us, gives us purpose and confers the energy we need to do our work. But it becomes a problem, Posen says, when it's too much, when it lasts too long, or when it comes too often.
"People can become overwhelmed and exhausted. They'll start to become distracted, their memory starts to be affected, they don't make decisions as well or as quickly, and they start to feel anxious, and perhaps event resentful. That's all counter-productive," he told CTV's Canada AM Wednesday.
That kind of stress not only hurts our health; it hurts our organization. When we're overstressed, we're inefficient, Posen says. Our productivity drops and instead of feeling excited and motivated, we just feel exhausted.
Stress in the workplace is nothing new, but Posen says three key problems are now routinely contributing to burnout and low productivity:
- Volume of work
- Abuse in workplace
The volume of work now expected of many employees has increased exponentially in recent years, especially with downsizing, he says. That's meant more work to do, with fewer people to do it.
"So what happens is people have too much work to do, they're working long hours and the velocity part kicks in. The pace has become faster than people can handle. We start racing because there's so much work to finish," he says.
Today's workers are also bombarded by communication overload. It started a while ago, Posen says, but he believes email has worsened the problems.
"It's been the real avalanche that's burying so many people. Because it's being overused," he says.
Email can be fabulous when it's used well, he says. But when it's overused, it's a distraction and an annoyance.
"The two functions that are overused are Reply All and CC. People fire off emails to those who don't want them, who won't find them relevant to what they're doing. It clutters up their inboxes," he says.
And then there's the issue of abuse in the workplace. Life always presents us with difficult people, but Pozen says certain types of people can make a workplace toxic.
"I'm talking about people who are abusive, harassing, bullies in the workplace," he says.
"The thing that amazes me is that people continue to get away with it. One miserable boss can create a lot of havoc for a whole team of people."
Posen says the solution to all these problems lies in setting limits.
He's already seeing that happening with email and smartphones. Organizations are starting to bring in 7-to-7 policies, where they agree that employers shouldn't expect to reach employees after 7 at night, and before 7 in the morning.
They're also working on better work-life balance.
"A perfect work-life balance is impossible," Posen says. "The good news is it doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be equal; it just needs to be a better balance."
Slowing down also meshes better with the way our brains work, Posen says, citing our "ultradian rhythm," which governs how much work we can accomplish every two hours. He says the trick is to work with that rhythm and build in lots of breaks.
"So you can do 90 minutes of solid work, take a 20 min break and then go back to the next cycle. So it's 90-20," he says.
"It's not a perfect balance, but it's a healthier balance."