Forget The Stress, Focus On Commitment

How To Create The Healthy And Productive Work Places We So Desperately Need

Work & Wellbeing

Health has become a guiding theme in modern society. Public interest proves that. So does the increasing interest in the work domain. However, there is a huge gap between the need for health promotion and supply of activities to meet this need – especially for mental health. This risk is avoidable. Premature health issues follow, that affect potential, and therefore work performance.

The stress concept is the norm for most experts that fight health risks in the workplaces. It contributed to our understanding of health and illness. At the same time, though, it mainly focuses on the downside. This view neglects, that work can contribute to personal development. Stress can strain, but it doesn’t have to.

There are many aspects, that influence the experience of stress, like duration, the capacities one brings along or the support of co-workers. Alia J. Crum and colleagues highlight the enhancing nature of stress – yes, there is one.

What’s more, our mindset matters regarding the stress response. If we view stress as harmful it likely is.

If all we do is eradicate time pressure, high workloads and work on our sphere of influence we might miss out on very important things. Maybe we’re not stressed then, but are we fully engaged?

Also, in stress research threats and challenges are often considered the same. Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, disagrees:

„Challenge and threat are not the same thing. People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened.“

Somehow work has gotten a bad reputation. Work equals stress.

This idea is firmly established in our minds. Fellow health-psychologist Kelly McGonigal started to break this bad reputation with her TED-talk. So do Tom Rath and Jim Harter. They highlight the positive effects of work on our wellbeing:

„We spend the majority of our waking hours during the week doing something we consider a career, occupation, vocation, or job. When people first meet, they ask each other, „What do you do?“ If your answer to that question is something you find fulfilling and meaningful, you are likely thriving.

Both argue that stress is normal. But if you have a good reason to do what you do, you’re more likely to be well. To paraphrase Kelly McGonigal: chasing meaning is better for your health, than trying to avoid discomfort.

A loss of your job or occupation, on the other hand, can have immense consequences on our psychological wellbeing, our social connectedness, and of course our financial situation. Jennie E. Brand argues:

„A job is more than a source of income. It is a fundamental social role providing a source of identity, self-concept, and social relations.“

Don’t get me wrong. Stress has to be taken seriously, but managing it is not enough to create the healthy and productive workplaces we need.

Who’s In Charge?

Nearly everybody sees the problem of high workload. Sadly, this is often seen as an unavoidable side effect of an increasing living standard and income. The suggested solution? Learn to unwind. Moreover, we should learn to appreciate the new possibilities, like working on emails at home.

This way the employee alone is responsible. However, science is certain, that economy and politics, too, have to bear responsibility. Put simply, the circumstances have to allow productive and healthy behavior. Especially under pressure behavior follows the circumstances. If those with the power to decide neglect this fact, they directly contribute to a loss of productivity and wellbeing.

Rethinking Health

Ill or healthy are attributes mostly characterized by physical deviations. However, the World Health Organization defined health as the triad of physical, psychological and social wellbeing. Interactions between these three factors must be considered for a better understanding of health and illness.

In medicine, and as some argue for your MD, too, health is not worth noting. Health doesn’t need treatment. Therefore it’s of no interest. Health sciences focus on wellbeing, instead. That is not wellbeing, in a hedonic sense, like striving for the good and avoiding the negative.

Look at philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s perspective:

„Health is manifested in a general feeling of personal well-being. It appears mostly when we – in our feeling of personal well-being – are open to new things, are ready to start new business, without considering demands made on us.“

By that definition, we’re not healthy in the absence of illness. We’re healthy when happy to engage in new business, open to new experience, self-forgetful, and just barely notice our efforts.

This view of health resonated deeply with me. We dismiss a view of work as something stressful by definition and open to a new dimension. Dealing with stress is a point we must not forget. But it’s not enough to gain the kind of engagement and commitment we need. For the full picture, we need to consider more.

Thinking about wellbeing we tend to value material wealth and physical health. According to research by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, there is a different outcome:

„Wellbeing is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact.“

Physical health and material wealth, therefore, are important, but not necessarily the first priority. More importantly, we need something to look forward to, when waking up. That might be a meaningful occupation. Or it is the people we share a set of values with, a worldview, or we simply feel connected to.

The interest in health increased in part because the GDP alone is a bad measurement of the economic performance of a country. Quality of life, education, health, and wellbeing are additional indicators.

In the workplaces, the interest in health increased because connections between health and productivity are well documented. Work demands keep rising and bear a risk for health and productivity. Moreover, the recruiting, leading and keeping talent will become more difficult.

At the same time, most of our work is done in our heads today. Mental labor shows different demands than physical labor. Hence, the design of work and the way people are led have to change.

It is true that health has many influences. Genetics. Socialization. Education. But there is also the work we do each day and the way we balance it with other parts of our lives. To create workplaces that allow for productivity and wellbeing we have to understand our „operating system“. I believe author Simon Sinek’s argument to be very suitable here: „If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business“.

The Human Operating System. Human Beings Are Biological, Social, And Cultural Beings

Bernhard Badura, a German sociologist, and colleagues propose three systems that drive and influence us as human beings:

  • We are creatures of nature. We have two biological systems in place. First, we have a reward system, that makes us strive for wellbeing by connecting with other people. Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, authors of Driven – How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, call this the drive to bond. In addition, we have a fear-based system, that makes us avoid or fight threats.
  • We are „social animals“. As social beings, our wellbeing and potential depends on the appreciation and attention of our fellows or colleagues.
  • As cultural beings, we are driven by values. Moreover, socialization, education, and qualification shape our intrinsic motivation. This, I believe, is largely neglected in many workplaces. Still, a rather transactional approach predominates.

Badura and colleagues conclude: our emotional experiences and unconscious processes of daily interactions need more attention. That is because negative emotions like fear reduce performance and commitment. On the other hand joy, pride or solidarity inspire and help deal with highly demanding or burdensome work.

Mental health and wellbeing must become a central target dimension, because of its effects on quality of life, and also on work, social and health behavior. Healthy, we are better because we are more productive and quality-conscious. Executives who disregard these connections damage their companies.

With a focus on wellbeing, we have the „lead domino“, that affects all the other outcomes of work and health we want.

Status Quo In Germany

As a sample, I want to give a number of figures for the status quo in the German economy to illustrate the need for health to be taken seriously in the work domains.

You can skip this, and move on to the next part if you like, though I think the numbers are quite striking.

In Germany, the health insurance funds have spent 54 billion Euro on health promotion. That way they reached 0,27% of the companies and 2,51% of the employees. At the same time, we know little about the effectiveness of those interventions. We’ve got a lot of work to do here.

What Drives Wellbeing?

According to Bernhard Badura intrinsic motivation is a key factor.

This also creates a win-win situation, because employees that derive some internal value from work are more likely to be engaged and committed to staying with an organization.

Daniel H. Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, showed that related to motivation there is a gap between what science knows and what business does. 

We won’t be able to motivate people with „carrots and sticks“ anymore. According to Daniel H. Pink, instead of fear and rewards, we need people to be driven by purpose, mastery, and autonomy – and adding to this: a feeling of relatedness, a feeling of belonging. If we exclude routine work, the cultivation of intrinsic motivation will trump the current state of transactional management at any time.

Shared values and „soft“ factors like culture, atmosphere, quality of leadership, and cooperation will outrank leadership that focusses on dictating and controlling. According to Bernhard Badura interactions are as presented in the figure below. The factors just mentioned are summarized under social capital.

Interactions Between Social Capital, Human Capital, And Cooperation

Companies, therefore, may pay high salaries, have qualified personnel, be well equipped and still get into trouble. When trust and respect fade and our commonalities in thinking, feeling and doing break up, we will face a „sickening wasteland“.

Leadership is supposed to take influence. But it’s crucial how.

Daniel Gilbert gives a good example:

„Sure, you can get results from threats: Tell someone, “If you don’t get this to me by Friday, you’re fired,” and you’ll probably have it by Friday. But you’ll also have an employee who will thereafter do his best to undermine you, who will feel no loyalty to the organization, and who will never do more than he must. It would be much more effective to tell your employee, “I don’t think most people could get this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it’s hugely important to the entire team.” Psychologists have studied reward and punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.“

This example may be extreme but in my experience, a lot of management works with fear-based motivation. It feels like we are back in school and have to meet our teacher’s demands. But we’re not, and science gives good reason to leave even performance-based incentives behind.

Edward W. Deming finds even more drastic words on this topic:

„Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a price for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.“

We need a shift of mind, away from hierarchy, order, and control, away from financial incentives and competition, to cultivating intrinsic motivation.

We need cohesion. And the binding material is meaningful work, trust among colleagues, supportive executives and a culture, that allows fairness, progress, shared responsibility, and work-life balance. That way you can find, lead and keep talent. That way stress won’t disappear, but employees are more likely to commit to goals of the organization.

4 Kinds Of Work Demands

Knowledge work, which represents the majority of our workplaces today, demands mental energy for our thinking, energy to handle our emotions as well as energy to work on relationships. Out of this arises a key leadership task: The development and steady communication of a vision and culture, that allow trust and a sense of belonging to evolve.

Not only physical energy is limited. The same is true for mental energy; think of attention span or memory. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, authors of The Power Of Full Engagement, suggest four sources of energy. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Other authors like Stephen R. Covey or philosopher Herbert A. Shepard agree with this model. Sources and use of these energies need further research, but we might agree that spiritual and emotional capacities remain untouched in many workplaces.

Spirituality often implies religion, but in the work context, this is about communicating meaning and significance of a task. Meaning can give context and helps to cope with situations and work demands. Viktor Frankl’s frames this idea very precisely:

„Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.“

This „why“ according to Aaron Antonovsky is an important part of a someone’s feeling of coherence. He calls it the sense of coherence: „The extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic, feeling of confidence that one’s environment is predictable and that things will work out as well as can reasonably be expected.”

Besides the meaningfulness, leaders have to make sure that goals are transparent and employees have appropriate resources (e.g. time) to do their tasks.

How Do We Spend Our Energy?

Health scientists ask how much energy people are spending to deal with the work itself, and how much is needed to face the demands of work’s organization. Lack of appreciation or conflicts in teams, poor participation or labor conditions lead to fear and mistrust. At this point, people spend too much energy on everything but work. Quality goes down.

A study, that explored police work is a good example of this point. The authors assumed that most energy of police officers would be needed for the actual police work – law and order. In fact, administrative elements of the work were more demanding.  Lack of organization, negative leadership behavior, lack of appreciation or payment, downsizing, deficient equipment, poor communication are causes, to name a few. These are homemade and caused by poor management. Like that, organizations that are unaware of the risk potential hurt their performance and competitiveness.

We Are Wired For Cooperation

Nothing inspires like face to face contact. Cooperation helps to find meaning and is instrumental in dealing with daily demands.

Homo sapiens prevailed because it learned to cooperate. Cooperation, based on shared values and rules made living together stable, if not possible – even, beyond families. That way group identity and solidarity developed and do’s and don’ts were established.

Firm rules are the basis for morale and intrinsic motivation. Bonds with one another and communication are the basis for personal growth and mental health. To stay healthy we need to strike roots in trustful relationships as well as shared thinking, feeling, and doing.

We’re wired for cooperation. This is one of our most precious potentials. At the same time, this is one big vulnerability. Nothing compares to disregard or rejection – only the loss of an important person, occupation, or the loss of important convictions.

Dealing with health means dealing what is important to people. If leaders decide to do so, we can propose a synchronous effect not only on health and wellbeing but also on operating results.

If we want to create the healthy and productive workplaces we so desperately need, not only do we have to eliminate potential risks, but we have to create a solid foundation for cooperation.

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