I was recently talking with some college friends at a reunion about how the stresses in our lives had changed over the last 20 years. After all, we met each other at a time when our main concern was waking up in time for accounting class. Looking over our glasses of wine at each other, each of us confessed that jobs-either our own or our spouses were by far the biggest cause of stress in our lives.
What's interesting to me about this conversation is that instead of talking about why work had gotten so out of hand and whether or not there was anything we could do about it, the talk focused on how we accommodated this stress by postponing vacations, working late and spending endless hours at the dinner table complaining about the problem.
Apparently, we're not alone. According to the 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce by the Families and Work Institute in New York City, jobs are the biggest stressor for most Americans. In fact, job and workplace stress are three times more likely to affect a person's emotional well-being than children, aging parents, spouses, commuting, housework or any other personal demands. Despite this, employers appear to be doing very little about it.
Take the case of Merck & Co. Inc., the pharmaceutical giant based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. Three years ago, when the company was honored by Working Mother magazine as one of the 10 best places to work in America, Perry Christensen, who was then the company's director of HR strategy, was thrilled. The company had spent a lot of money on work/life programs-including a $7 million expansion to its onsite day-care facility-and Christensen felt the award was worth a bottle of champagne.
Employees, however, weren't so enthusiastic. "We got a lot of flack from employees who wondered how we could be acknowledged as a family-friendly company when the work load was so demanding and relentless," Christensen admits. The disconnection between his desire to celebrate and the employees' need to vent was so great that for the first time, Christensen and his colleagues were forced to recognize that work/life issues aren't just about dependent care and flexible schedules. Important as these are, if companies truly want to help employees lead more balanced lives, they must also be willing to pay attention to the work itself Today, Merck's HR team is one of the few in the country that's serious about redesigning jobs, eliminating unnecessary work and alleviating workplace stress.
I believe what Merck is doing is something other companies need to seriously consider and not just because most everybody I know would like less stress in their lives. Instead, companies need to think about reducing job stress because, in the language of business, it can generate great economic returns.
Work redesign lowers stress and increases productivity.
Simply put, as job pressure rises, productivity drops. While everyone can handle a certain amount of stress, if you give employees too much for too long, they won't be producing at their peak. Furthermore, according to the National Safety Council, on an average workday, one million employees will be absent from work because of job stress. This costs companies an estimated $200 billion a year in medical costs, worker's compensation claims and lost productivity.
Put all this together and you begin to see that job problems affect the bottom line to a much greater extent than personal problems do. While work/life programs are vital in helping employees lead more balanced lives, they aren't enough because they don't address the work side of the equation.
The complaints my college friends shared brought this to light. For example, one of them is a social worker whose …