Wellbeing and Chronic Stress in the Workplace
Wellbeing, or the lack of it, is considered an individual's problem (or their fault) and therefore their responsibility to fix, when I believe it should be seen as a collective responsibility. Human beings have essentially evolved to be part of tribes, villages or communities. It is the values of the community that play the most significant part in our wellbeing. When facing stressful circumstances we have evolved to seek help, to be supported, protected and made safe by our community. In this hyper-individualised world we focus our efforts on making the individual well rather than encouraging the whole (workplace) community to be well. Individualised wellness programmes that include, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness meditation, yoga etc are important, but they miss the destructive impact of the political and economic systems that have normalised the over extraction of human, community and environmental resources. I will outline in this blog on "Wellbeing and Chronic Stress in the Workplace" that staff wellbeing needs to be looked at systemically and should be an integral part of each workplace's value system. We need to mobilise our workplace communities, so that they can confront, encourage and support collective wellbeing for all the employees and management within their workplace's.
Recently while I was running a wellbeing workshop for a large manufacturing workplace, one of the participants asked me - what was the one thing, I had most noticed that had changed in my 25 years of practice as a counsellor? And my instant answer was - people are now more chronically stressed. They have way more demands placed on them for long periods of time. This has created an environment where the negative health impacts of chronic stress, have become prevalent, but are often not assigned to chronic stress. According to the American Psychological Association - "people can overcome minor episodes of stress by tapping into their body's natural defences to adapt to changing situations, however when facing excessive stress (chronic), there can be serious health consequences ...including anxiety, insomnia, depression, obesity, muscle pain, high blood pressure, heart disease and a weakened immune system." These health consequences, often long lasting can severely impact the quality of life of those affected. We often underestimate how long it will take to flourish again and for this reason prevention is the best option.
I remember my grandparents, talking about the struggles they had as unionist's, to help bring in the 8 hour working day. They believed people had the right to, 8 hours work, 8 hours play and 8 hours sleep a day. They belonged to unions, so that workers had a place to make a collective stand, to take care of fellow workers and standup for better and safer working conditions. That without checks and balances in the system they believed workers would be overly exploited.
In my counselling and mindfulness meditation practice, I see clients, who are experiencing the impact of chronic stress, they are often, fatigued, depressed, anxious, irrirable and have lost a sense of any personal resilience. They have been referred, volunteered, and sometimes been pressured to come by their loved ones or workplace. They attend primarily to focus on their wellbeing, to learn how to meditate, relax, de-stress and in someways to work out the pathway to their downfall (when they began to sacrifice parts of themselves) as a partial guide to the pathway out. Although this counselling and meditation practice is very helpful, I am often left with the idea that it is really treating the symptoms rather than the causes.
For example, I work with multiple clients who work in organisations that have been restructured, to become more efficient and productive workplaces, but the reality for the client, is an increased workload to be completed within impossible timeframes. These employees are hard working and responsible, (people that employers hold in high regard), feel they can not get on top of their workload and this eats at them. Instead of acknowledging that their workplace is stealing their life from them or extracting their wellbeing bit by bit.They instead work harder and longer. They believe they will only be able to relax when they get on top of things. Even having a sick day or a holiday scares them, as the work will mount up and be overwhelming on their return. They sit at their desk all day, including eating lunch at their desk, with the idea that if they just 'plough on' they will get on top of the workload. They ignore their bodies little alarms and continue to just 'plough on'. They work longer hours, take work home and are recruited into constantly thinking about work. In doing so they make the calculation that they can temporarily negotiate away their self care and self nourishing practices.To survive they eat high energy (sugary foods and drinks), overdose on caffeine, and drink more alcohol (and drugs) to de-stress. Their diet becomes less nutritious, they stop exercising or over exercise, and they have trouble sleeping. All the activities that emotionally, psychologically and spiritually fed them, their creative projects their community involvement can't be maintained as they have to be sacrificed to meet the work demands. Then and maybe most importantly they have less time to be with the ones they love, causing their connections to begin to fracture. In this space they become less intimate and less sexual, which causes further stress and heartbreak. With a reduced ability (or time) to reflect, a couple can begin to argue more destructively, often deep down about how much they are missing each other, though it doesn't come out like that. In this stressed and fatigued place, even being a parent becomes a burden, another task with not enough time, further feeding the stress and guilt rather than sustaining them with love and connection. Then sadly they don't even get a chance to have the sun on their skin, to just be in nature, to replenish themselves with the rhythm of life.
These stresses are made even more complicated and distressing, as modern technology and the desire to stay on top of things has allowed work to steal even more of their lives. We take our work phones home, get calls from manager's at 10.00pm at night, check work emails, all of which keeps us "wired up" rather than relaxing, de-stressing and nourishing ourselves with our passions. I find human beings are sort of primed to complete tasks before they feel they can relax, this is impossible in this new work environment. There is no longer clear boundaries between work and home. We and our employer's have forgotten that we are way more than just our work role, but in this culture our whole identity is moving to - we are totally what we do at work, rather than our work role being just a part of the rich tapestry of our lives.
But why has this happened and why as a society are we prepared to tolerate employers extracting so much from employees?Recently I read Naomi Klein's, No: Is Not Enough, Defeating the New Shock Politics and believe her insights about our current economic system, may shine some light on the issue. She states - "Our economy takes endlessly from workers, asking more and more from them in ever tighter time frames, even as employers offer less and less security and lower wages in return. Many of our communities are being pushed to a similar breaking point: schools, parks, transit, and other services have had resources clawed back from them over many decades, even as residents have less time to fill in the gaps. And of course we are all part of a system that takes endlessly from the earth's natural bounty, without protecting cycles of regeneration, and while paying dangerously little attention to where we are offloading pollution, whether it be in the water systems that sustain life or the atmosphere that keeps our climate system in balance. ... this is a system addicted to short-term profits: it treats people and the earth either like resources to be mined to their limits or as garbage to be disposed of far out of sight, whether deep in the ocean or deep in a prison cell."
We have to acknowledge that at times our wellbeing is being mined or extracted for the benefit of someone else. We need to see that our wellbeing is interlinked with everything else. We need to be part of a collective that creates a society where we practice caring, act as guardians, of each other, our communities and the environment. Ours and the planets wellbeing relies this. We need to be very careful about siloing these problems, or individualising these core challenges. We must create an environment where we can all flourish.
In the next few paragraphs I will discuss the way that counselling, psychology and wellbeing practitioners could change the way they work. Excitingly this is backed by the latest research into trauma, stress, and connection. For example a 75 year study into happiness conducted by Harvard University, finds it is less to do with achieving goals, thinking positively, or gaining status, but more to do with the quality of our relationships, with our partner's and family, and the connections we have with our friends, within our work environments and with our communities.
Even in therapy and counselling we have been recruited into a focus on individual wellbeing, that ignores or invisibilises the system that extracts so much from people, which I believe accidentally or maybe deliberately sees people as problems that need to be fixed rather than seeing their reactions as a natural and reasonable response to the system we live in. A wellbeing approach that cares for people that are overwhelmed and fatigued, as well as challenging the ideas, beliefs and practices that have put our collective health in jeopardy, is required. This will mean reconnecting with concepts like solidarity and collective action, which I'd suggest can be practised with love and not hate.
Without really being cognoscente of what we are missing, counsellors, wellbeing practitioners, and psychologists educate clients about the stress response, within a non community or collective framework. We talk about the evolution of the fight and flight response, how it evolved to allow us escape dangers, when we lived in the wild, but it is now all messed up with the constant stress we face. But it misses a crucial element, our belonging to communities. This individualised, survival of the fittest way of talking about our fight or flight stress response, sort of paints a picture of us, as if we have all evolved as community-less individuals, walking through the jungle by ourselves, trying to either fight off or run away from tigers. Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score, outlines how mistaken this response is. When we face life's challenges, fears, life threatening events and emotionally challenging times, our first response is not to go into fight or flight, but to 'call out' - to our family, whanau, social unit, tribe, village, for help, protection and security. It is only, if this doesn't work, that we go into a fight or flight response. As counsellors if we don't understand this, we limit our discussions and miss the healing that lies in connection and community. Bessel van der Kolk states " Trauma fundamentally disturbs our relationships with ourselves, with others, our community and the environment. Treatment needs to focus on connection.....Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to a meaningful and satisfying life." Therefore wellbeing in the workplace is about creating an emotionally safe, supportive, cohesive and caring work community.
Even those professionals, that work on the physical, biological and chemical side of the stress response, have become stuck, on this individualised stress response, involving a cascade of hormones primarily adrenalin and cortisol. That these hormones prime us for action, to fight or run rather than relax or digest. But in doing this they ignore the biological and evolutionary evidence, that we are also primed for connection at these times, (to 'call out'), for when we are stressed our system also releases oxytocin. As Emily McDowell discusses in her TED talk Oxytocin the Stress Story, oxytocin, which has been described as the love or bonding hormone, should also be considered a stress hormone, as the pituitary gland pumps this out as much as adrenalin. She discusses that the function of this is to motivate us to seek support, to tell someone how we feel instead of bottling it up, it wants you to be surrounded by people that care about you. In other words when you are stressed you are hormonally primed to be social, to as Bessel van der Kolk describes to 'call out' and seek help. But not only to be helped but to have human contact, skin on skin, hugs and touch. Oxytocin is further released when we cuddle someone, calming us down, making the stress more manageable. This neural hormone, fine tunes our brains social instincts, priming us to strengthen our close relationships. It sort of craves physical contact from people you love, it enhances empathy and when we see other people suffering, it gears us towards helping them. McDowell also outlines how, it is also wonderful for your wellbeing as it protects your cardiovascular system from the harms of stress, as it is a natural anti-inflammatory, your blood vessels stay relaxed. Oxytocin creates the right environment for heart cells to repair , regenerate and replenish as your heart cells include oxytocin receptors. Start hugging.
The work of Bessel van der Kolk and others in combination with the work of Emily McDowell should fundamentally change the way we should resource and support people when they are stressed. Connection and collective action should be a crucial part of any wellbeing programme.
If we are to really focus on improving wellbeing, we shouldn't just focus on for example mindfulness meditation practices, (hard to say for a Mindfulness Meditation practitioner) even though there is clear evidence as to its effectiveness, but we need to also ask questions that explore not only the individuals symptoms but also to explore the causes and how their workplace community has also been impacted. Years ago I heard from someone (source now forgotten), "that what is most personal is often most general." If Bill is affected it is highly probable that his colleagues are also. When I see people with chronic stress in my counselling practice, I am also wanting to engage them in caring about their whole community. This is not only about strengthening the chance for organisational change but also to benefit their happiness. As Edith Eger in her book The Choice shares, people who commit themselves to others are much happier. I will often ask them "Are you the only one who is exhibiting these stress responses? What have you noticed in your colleagues? Have you talked to any of your colleagues?" Often people view the symptoms of chronic stress, as a reflection on them, that they are weak, or just can't cope. It often comes as a real shock to them, that when they ask their colleagues, they too have been experiencing similar sorts of problems. This information is crucial as it changes the focus, instead of it being my problem, it is now a collective problem, which maybe solved with some form of collective approach. This could mean acknowledging what is happening, surveying other staff, seeking support and caring for other colleagues, representative or collective approaches to management, or it may mean collectively talking to their Union or conducting some workplace meetings. Or it could simply start with practices of acknowledgement and gratitude towards each other, or could start with the whole team going to lunch or for a walk together and collectively leaving work on time.
I find that initially people may be too overwhelmed to begin here and they need to prioritise their own health, to rebuild themselves. They may need to see their Doctor, take stress leave, use their workplace Employment Assistance Programme counselling, begin to mindfully meditate etc. Or maybe just confide in their loved ones, name their emotions and be met, with love, hugs and support.
Even after taking care of themselves, I have noticed that staff are really reluctant to collectively approach management, especially in these hyper-individualised times, when we are all meant to fix and solve our own problems, with motivation and determination. Although it is important to have each others backs and to realise we are much stronger collectively than a person is on their own, we can still fall into a weakened position by thinking we should do it alone or not at all. Talking to the Union or approaching our colleagues is seen a form of betrayal, a sign that one is not loyal. Interestingly not considering that their employer hasn't been loyal to their wellbeing. I try and reframe this as an act of change, that doing this increases the probability of their workplace making changes, whilst silence will maintain the status-quo. I talk to clients about approaching this, with the aim of making their workplace more successful rather than harming it. To view themselves as a member of a work family that promotes wellbeing for all, by creating a culture that takes care of one another, so that everyone within the organisation knows that they belong and matter. I suggest to them, that without them speaking up, how can management fix something if they are not truly aware of it. This clearly takes courage, but if approached with assertiveness and the idea of improving the workplace, it has potential. Clearly some workplaces are not conducive to employees articulating their rights and needs and an approach to their union could be required. You need to join the union.
With clients I spend time highlighting organisations like Pixar and the focus they have on feedback, staff wellbeing and solving problems. Ed Catmull in his book Creativity Inc, (Pixar) talks about "how all organisations will have problems, many hidden from view, how they uncover these problems and the tenacity to solve them, even though this maybe a very uncomfortable experience, marks the difference between organisational success or failure." Staff members highlighting wellbeing issues are assisting the organisation to uncover problems. Ed Catmull relates that at Pixar, they had been lulled into a false sense of security by their success. It was only after a well respected employee left their baby in the car in the workplace carpark, (running on autopilot after long hours of work), that they prioritised team wellbeing and team cohesion over other aspects of the business. If employees who have suffered chronic stress, approach their employer about their's and others reactions and symptoms they are not being disloyal but are assisting the organisation to flourish.
Ed Catmull would suggest some of the following. To improve yours and your workplace's wellbeing, you/we need to have the courage to speak out, to interrogate (in the friendliest of ways), the problems and then create an environment where the organisation has the wisdom to deal with them head on, rather than managing in a way where they want to hide, avoid, suppress or deny the problems. To produce a quality services or products, candid employee feedback is crucial (not just on team building days but every day). Catmull relates "the importance of candour within a workplace, can't be over stated. If companies are to discover the problems hidden from view they need to encourage anyone, on any level to be able to communicate with anyone without fear of reprisal." I have found that this isn't as easy as it sounds because people are easily hooked and triggered (take it personally) and will then avoid, defend or deny. I have worked with management, on the need for them to take care of each other, to be aware when they have overly personalised the feedback, to then reframe it and approach it with a sense of curiosity.
If employees have the courage to intervene and shift the values and the culture of the organisation it has other marked impacts on collective wellbeing. An open organisation is likely to discover problems early, to really understand how their staff are going and be able to intervene, before their staff collapse with fatigue and exhaustion, creating long term benefits for their wellbeing. In the early stages, this candour can be very angst ridden as people have been holding back, building resentments, that will need to be aired. But over time and with assistance (sometimes professionally), workplaces can learn how to create a cohesive and unified environment. This environment isn't conflict free, (conflict isn't bad) but when handled well, this conflict can be surrounded with laughter and frank focused conversations that allow for creative and spirited debate to take place, that is focused on improving the organisation.
Even if workplaces, only viewed their own bottom line, staff approaching management about chronic stress, has significant benefits for their organisation, as staff with good wellbeing are more resilient, as they have more psychological and emotional space to be energetic in a crisis. Staff that are flourishing, have some wriggle room to pick up their effort when the workplace is facing a crisis (for example after an earthquake). For without this wriggle room, in a crisis, there is no more to give, instead of the workplace being able to bounce back, the crisis becomes the 'straw that breaks the camels back' and the organisation tips over.
Another real benefit of staff approaching management about their concerns and therefore beginning the process of developing a candid workplace, is they are less likely to be plagued by bullying and sexual harassment. Both these are very distressing and compromise staff wellbeing and an environment that can catch these problems early has the ability to assist all parties, with caring and support, rather than going down a disciplinary process.
It is easy for management, to disconnect from their workers, and therefore loose empathy. Staff approaching them about their stress, sharing their lives, builds connection. Chronic stress also impacts management and focusing on collective wellbeing and their health and family life, brings communality between management and their staff. I believe a successful work environment, needs to treat people with respect and needs staff at all levels to feel that they are valued members of the work community. This alone will significantly improve staff wellbeing. But equally as important they must also see that their employees are valuable members of their families and communities, who have the right to focus on their own wellbeing and happiness. That recreation (the process of re-creating a life) must be part of the package.
It is important that workplace candour, can exist when staff are at their most vulnerable, when they are stressed and fatigued, that they can like Bessel van der Kolk describes 'call out' and be cared for. That they need to be loved and acknowledged not judged. It is not good enough to place workers under prolonged stress and extract their wellbeing from them and then send them off to counselling or introduce a mindfulness meditation class. A workplace must pay attention to the collective wellbeing of its work community, by supporting healthy habits, encouraging relaxation in the middle of things, encouraging staff connection on all levels and to encourage its employees to have fulfilling lives outside of work. Which means having clear boundaries about work and home life, to allow their staff to have the time and energy outside of work to participate in their passions.