During my time as a psychologist I’ve been asked to sit on various committees and working groups that focus on the issue of workplace stress. However well-intentioned, such groups, in my view, never really tackled the thorny issue of turning around workplace culture. Stress management was typically viewed as an issue for the individual to handle. Training packages might be developed, or purchased, and in-house training days set up in order to expose people to stress reduction and coping strategies.
What’s wrong with that? Well, it’s a version of the old practice of sticking plaster over a broken limb. If we focus on the individual to solve their own stress issues it’s a short step from blaming them if things don’t work out properly. So why do it this way? The quick answer is that getting an entire organization to redesign its working practices is no easy thing, yet if organizations are truly serious about tackling work stress then it’s something they need to seriously consider. It’s also something some of the newer tech companies are trying to work with.
What really helps workplace stress?
There are many health costs associated with workplace stress but the focus of this article is to consider how strategic use of technology might help to reduce some of its worst effects. Intuitively, we might imagine that stepping back from technology is the certain way to relieve stress, but actually it’s not so simple.
Michael Rupp, a doctoral student in human factors and cognitive psychology at the University of Central Florida, compared the effect of a rest break, guided relaxation and playing a video game called Sushi Cat.
The results, published in Human Factors, showed that those who took a simple rest break felt less engaged with work and became worried instead. Those in a guided relaxation condition experienced reductions in distress and negativity, but only those in the third condition — a break with a video game — actually reported feeling better. Rupp suggests that the key component was enjoyment and that short breaks coupled with an enjoyable activity are better for us.
You will have seen those articles that regularly pop up reporting the top 10 most stressful jobs. They’re interesting enough, but if you’re at all curious, you must have wondered why anyone even bothers signing up for the stressful ones? The answer lies in how good a fit you are to the job in question. Some people flourish in highly dangerous or very demanding situations and would find "easier" alternatives stress-provoking and/or mind-numbing. Therefore, making sweeping changes on an assumption things will improve doesn’t always work for everyone. In any organization, however, it’s unusual to find things that can’t be improved upon in order to make lives a little bit easier.
Sometimes less is more
Simple solutions can make the difference between technology being viewed as just another way to get more out of people, and people feeling more connected and in control. For example, here at HealthCentral we use a system called Slack to bring people together. Slack is essentially a communications hub that can be used alongside more conventional approaches such as email. It’s an effective way of linking people who work in different locations, even different parts of the world, and therefore different time zones. This is simple tech that enables opinions to be shared, notes distributed and comments pooled.
Do tech businesses care more?
Can some of the older and more conservative businesses learn from the tech companies? In an article for FastCompany, Jane Porter describes how various tech companies have tried to respond creatively to issues of work stress. The California office for Appster pays for out-of-hours activities, provides free meals and rides to work. Google offers perks to its workers but also offers specific classes both in-person and in virtual forms via its gPause system.
Are workers in tech companies happier and more satisfied than the average person? The jury is still out on this one because it really depends where you look. For example, one article in Fortune magazine claims high paid tech workers are “incredibly unhappy." By contrast, a Forbes article claims that “a vast majority of tech workers are satisfied with their jobs,” with over 70 per cent stating they feel appreciated and have a solid work/life balance.
Most of us don’t work in the tech industry, but one thing most of us do have in common is our smartphones, and these have the potential to affect our stress levels (for better and for worse). The tech industry has been quick to pick up on the self-help market in this regard. Some companies offer free apps, or provide a free introductory-level app, after which you’ll need to pay. A quick Internet search on “apps for work stress” will provide you with all the information you need to try out a few of them. Will they work for you? That’s up to you to find out.