A brand new year is upon us, and with it comes the inevitable New Year’s resolution. Of the millions of resolutions made (and quickly broken) each year, yours will probably fall into one of three categories:
- better health, including being more physically active, eating better, or losing weight;
- financial fitness, including saving more, spending less, buying a home; or
- better use of time, including making time for travel, reading more, and spending time with family and friends.
Why doesn’t decreasing work stress ever top the list of New Year’s resolutions? It certainly should, if only because most of us spend anywhere from 45 to 58% of our waking hours working. Another reason to focus on work stress is that it impacts almost every other more “popular” resolution. While physical activity is a great antidote to stress, stressed-out workers often feel too weary or simply can’t afford the time to engage in physical activity. Work stress influences whether or not you lose or gain weight, and can cause sleep disruption that determine whether or not you are able to stick to your diet—these are probably not news to many people, but there are research studies to back them up (I can almost hear Paula Poundstone’s duh!).
Work stress costs us money. Retail therapy is one quick but variably effective strategy we use to defuse stress from work, which diminishes our financial well-being. Habits such as smoking and drinking to mitigate work stress also suck up our savings while damaging our health. Finally, work stress costs us time by slowing our work performance and preoccupying us when we are not at work; hence influencing quality of time to spend reading, traveling and/or being with loved ones. Did you know that your own health and health behaviors can be influenced by the work stress of your loved ones? Even worse, changes in parent’s work stress have been shown to influence their children’s sleep and other health outcomes.
In an ideal world, we would view work stress more widely as a problem, rather than a badge of honor. Our government and private sector businesses would engage in concerted, institutionalized efforts to decrease work stress. The case for doing so is compelling, given documented evidence of financial and other costs. While we wait for our institutions to catch up, I will be blogging about a few practices we, as workers, can institute for reducing work stress for ourselves and for others.
This January, join me in eradicating sludge at work. You may be asking, what is sludge? Informed by work done by the originators of the term and in the Work, Family and Health Network, I think of sludge as wasteful stuff, especially speech, that contributes negatively to the work environment without offering any insights or advancing solutions. Gossip and rude comments are examples of toxic sludge in our work environments.
At one academic worksite I visited, an official memo from a very important somebody had precipitated sludge about how staff members should dress. Now granted, students and faculty members can certainly commit unpardonable fashion atrocities. My own fashion deterioration over the years has been alarming, but nothing compared to students wearing pajama bottoms to class. I sometime muse that some co-workers could deservedly be arrested for crimes of fashion. While these potentially hilarious thoughts would get big laughs from my more well-heeled brethren, they are nevertheless still sludge. If I made comments singling out particular offenders, which inevitably would register higher on the laughter Richter scale, the reverberations could ruin another worker’s day.
Sludge is pernicious, as it often plays upon stereotypes and takes on the implicit and explicit biases within our communities. My earlier example, where an official circulated a fashion enforcement memo for staff members, essentially picked on the less powerful in academic workplaces. In that worksite, my intervention was to ask about expected results—that is, what part of the organizational mission is served by the focus on staff fashion? Of course, there was no connection between the two in this particular worksite.
One harmful kind of sludge, which often reflects our biases, is passing judgment about others that may not be based on relevant data. We might say that one coworker is not great because he “keeps banker’s hours,” while the other is great because he is “first to come and last to leave.” But this analysis, based on face time, is probably faulty and unfair, as in most cases, the number of hours worked is not the same as quality of work. Also, making such assessments is not usually included in our job description, so dwelling on these gripes essentially consumes our bandwidth, detracts from the work we should be doing, and injects negativity into our workplaces.
So, for the month of January, as you begin each day, make a conscious effort to control how much sludge you spew. Being human, I am still guilty of sludge, so I too will be fighting sludge in January 2016. A habit of restraint isn’t cultivated overnight, so give yourself a break if you spew sludge here and there. Here are some nifty resources for tracking your progress. Also, here are resources for organizational level sludge eradication. Over the next months, I will cover more strategies for decreasing work stress and maximizing our happiness and productivity at work.
About the author:
Dr. Cassandra Okechukwu is an Assistant Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research focuses on how work, and home environments interact to shape health and health behaviors, and how to modify these settings to improve health. In 2015, Cassandra received the best junior scholar paper award at the VI International Conference on Work and Family and the James Zimmer Research Award by the American Public Health Association Aging and Public Health section. She was part of the team awarded the 2015 Rossbeth Kanter award for Excellence in Work-Family Research.