Tag Archives: stress

New Studies On Emotional Impact of U.S. Work Culture

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

An ongoing theme of this blog has been the profoundly negative effects of stress and overwork induced by our work culture, both of which are chronic problems that are undermining our emotional (and physical) healthy every day.

Now comes news of two major studies on the emotional and practical dimensions of the topic and their interesting findings, helpfully described in a new article by Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch (link to article is here). One study discourages the long-held belief (promoted by big business) that more lenient workplace schedules depress a nation’s economic competitiveness, while another suggests that cutting the length of the work week boosts emotional health among a variety of other positive value for society.

Dean Baker, co-director of the left-of-center Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. addressed some of the economic trends involved: “Countries like Germany stand out,” he says of the prosperous European economies known for their generous time-off policies. “It’s been remarkably successful.” He goes on to cite the fact that the unemployment rate in Germany (5.2 percent) is down more than 4 percentage points since before the 2008 recession, while the U.S. unemployment rate (6.1 percent) is still more than 1.5 percentage points higher than it was before the recession.

This suggests that the correlation between hours worked and actual productivity is not nearly as straight forward as most Americans would assume.

Addressing the emotional and social aspects of the issue, a report from the London-based, left-of-center think tank New Economics Foundation found that cutting the workweek roughly in half would help to address overwork, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, and, crucially, the “lack of time to simply to enjoy life.”

The writer also quotes Anna Coote, head of social policy at NEF, as adding that the deputy mayor of a major Swedish city is trialing a 30-hour week for staff, on the theory—recently gaining in popularity due to other findings—that thirty hours per week is roughly the limit for productive time in an office environment.

In fairness, Fottrell cites researcher Robert Rudolf, assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University, whose own study found that people given a reduction in working hours reported no strong impact on job or life satisfaction.

Of course these are just studies, and their findings may or may not be accurate. But the fact remains that more and more research seems to be indicating that the societal ills of chronic stress, mental illness and physical illness are tightly connected, and that an adjustment in the work culture of the United States might likely bring emotional benefits that offset these afflictions.

Corporate Stockholm Syndrome

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

A phenomenon called “Corporate Stockholm Syndrome” is being observed more often in individuals who have experienced workplace trauma, and the concept is beginning to filter into the clinical awareness. This deserves some articulation.

Stockholm Syndrome refers to the psychological phenomenon often observed in hostage situations where the hostages start to identify with (and sympathize with) their captor, even though mistreated. The captor controls the life source (food, water, shelter, etc.) of the captive, and punishment/reward is received from the same source: the captor.

Because so much of our self-worth in modern times is defined and derived by work, we are at risk for experiencing Corporate Stockholm Syndrome when put into a certain work environment for long enough. Corporate Stockholm Syndrome can be defined as employees of a business beginning to identify with—and being deeply loyal to—an employer who mistreats them (defined in this situation as verbal abuse, demanding overly long hours, and generally ignoring the wellbeing and emotional needs of the employee). As with the captor/captive dynamic, the employer is certainly in control of the employee’s fate (they sign the much-needed paycheck and generally can terminate employment at any time).

The employee experiencing Corporate Stockholm Syndrome typically displays a tendency to become emotionally attached to the company to the detriment of their own emotional health. The employee will also rationalize to themselves and to others the employer’s poor treatment of them as necessary for the good of the organization as a whole, and angrily defend the employer’s actions when those actions are questioned by an outsider. In other words, denial of the obvious.

The company culture in which Corporate Stockholm Syndrome thrives will have certain traits. It will often tolerate—in fact implicitly encourage—employees to verbally abuse each other when someone isn’t seen as working hard enough or not being a “team player”. The inculcation of the “company culture” is viewed as significantly important by the management. This is aimed at cultivating loyalty to the company while it has no similar loyalty to the emotional wellbeing of the employees.

There will be the occasional perks, of course, but these will be manipulative by desire; a key aspect of inducing Stockholm Syndrome is the more powerful party providing both threats and kindness to the less powerful party. When these come from the same source, the psychological welfare of the lesser party can be more easily controlled.

The worker experiencing these symptoms is at risk for significant emotional trauma. Working day in and day out under psychological pressure in such an environment is inherently unhealthy. Moreover, it is unhealthy for that worker’s friends and family members who will inevitably find themselves on the receiving end of misdirected anger, which must find a vent somewhere. Sadly this anger and its venting and usually finds the least powerful and least culpable target.

Breaking the cycle is hard, particularly in a culture that prizes work and wealth over emotional health, but abusers do not deserve loyalty. Peace of mind is too valuable to sell for any price.

How Workaholics Can Relax Right During the Holidays

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

So the holidays have arrived and that detested stretch of time when nothing much happens—a few days before Christmas till a few days after New Year’s is here. The workaholic in you hates it; the long void between the Yuletide and early January makes you feel anxious and powerless. Your nerves jangle and you feel guilty. Irritation and a maybe some depression set in as your frustration mounts.

Let’s face it: Workaholics don’t do vacation well. Especially enforced vacations like the one currently underway, presents and parties be damned.

So what can you do?

One of the best things you can do in this situation is to deal with that lingering sense of guilt lurking in the back of your mind; the one that drives you to work so hard to begin with. Negotiating a deal with yourself can be helpful; try striking a bargain to put a little bit of work in here and there, in return for extended downtime.

This ties into a critical task: reframing the situation. Instead of the enforced break that the holidays represent to you, try reframing them as an ideal opportunity to recharge for the coming year’s exertions and gain a clearer head. The time away from projects can bring the distance needed to gain a fresh perspective, which could lead to better solutions and brighter ideas. We all know burnout is our enemy; the holiday break can be used as a perfect chance to defeat it and start the year off strong.

Another benefit of refocusing your attitude to avoid burnout is seizing the opportunity to improve relations with your loved ones. The youngsters will be out of school and the adults will likely be working less, if at all, between Christmas and New Year’s. Study after study has shown that the health of relationships with those close to us have an enormous bearing on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Seize the chance to spend the time with those you love and start of the year with a tighter and healthier bond.

The holiday break also represents a great opportunity to get in shape; counter the depression and anxiety with some vigorous activity. You’re no good to anyone if you’re injured or ill, and regular exercise can keep both at bay. Put on the gym shoes and get those feel-good endorphins flowing. It doesn’t have to take long; a half hour of intense cardiovascular exercise reduces body tension and can clear the mind magnificently. You’ll feel better and think clearer afterward, trust me.

So don’t despair at the holiday break, workaholics. It represents a golden opportunity for much-needed reconnecting with loved ones, recharging mind and body, and rethinking ideas of all sizes. All these activities can provide huge boosts to your emotional and physical wellbeing. And that’s a great project to focus on until the New Year dawns—just in case the next year’s challenges require every bit of wellbeing you can muster.