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The Crisis of Chronic Stress in the Workplace

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Chronic stress, the Mayo Clinic writes, “can wreak havoc on your mind and body.” This is not an exaggeration. The effects of sustained, elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels have, in study after study, been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, sleep problems, digestive problems, joint inflammation, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and other serious and potentially fatal conditions. Combine stress with the widespread deadly effects of prolonged sitting and diets high in refined sugar and processed foods and we have the makings of an epidemic of chronic disease that places a massive burden on the health care system, generally making people sicker and creating serious problems with memory and concentration.

What does this mean for the workplace? “For many Americans,” writes Anne-Marie Slaughter at The New York Times, “life has become all competition all the time. Workers across the socioeconomic spectrum, from housekeepers to surgeons, have stories about toiling 12- to 16-hour days… and experiencing anxiety attacks and exhaustion.” The current workplace culture, argues Carolyn Gregoire at Huffington Post, is no longer sustainable. And the problem goes beyond employee health.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has issued a dire diagnosis in his new book Dying for a Paycheck. “We are harming both company performance and individual well-being,” he says, addressing CEOs and business leaders, “and this needs to be a clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.” Pfeffer refers to a culture of long hours sitting in front of computers, increasing job insecurity, and a decrease in health benefits.  “The business costs are enormous,” says Pfeffer.

Companies have problems with presenteeism — people physically on the job but not really paying attention to what they are doing — with lost workdays from psychological stress and illness, with high health care costs. Seven percent of people in one survey were hospitalized — hospitalized! — because of workplace stress; 50% had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. 

Pfeffer’s criticism is harsh, and he places the blame on executives, who may themselves be subject to the same kinds of debilitating pressures. Are there ways to mitigate the effects of chronic workplace stress that don’t involve a total overhaul of the global economy? There are several recommendations for reducing workplace stress, including taking walking meetings and making sure to get enough sleep. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been shown in dozens of high-profile studies to significantly reduce chronic stress, such that most major medical centers now have MBSR programs.

Interventions like meditation, diet, and exercise can certainly work wonders at the individual level. But this systemic problem requires institutional change as well, whether it be a company-wide focus on prevention or the redesign of office space around wellness. One company, Work Well Win—founded by a former executive of the co-working chain We Work—has built its business on both of these principles. With five locations in major U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, and Santa Monica, and 20 more “in the pipeline,” the company offers spaces “built around core elements of wellness that addresses not only the design and operations of our buildings, but also how they impact and influence human behaviors related to health and well-being.”

Work Well Win’s design solutions include “purified air and rooms for yoga and meditation,” notes L.A.-based real estate new site The Real Deal. The company “joins a handful of other smaller co-working firms in Santa Monica that are competing with giants like We Work.” Given the expanding popularity of co-working spaces in the gig economy, as well as their increasing use by established companies, it’s possible that the Work Well Win model will catch on and spread, not only forcing We Work and other competitors to center wellness in their work spaces, but also bringing such focus into more traditional offices. Design solutions cannot alleviate the intense market pressures driving overwork, but they can significantly help workers constructively manage stress on the job.

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