Productivity and Stress

In his eye-opening book Dying For a Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer offers a cavalcade of evidence to support his central premise: That work-related stress is one of the biggest public health crises in the country today. He shares how not only are workers feeling terrible but that the increased occurrences of illness and death that result from constant exposure to a stressful environment are costing American businesses hundreds of billions in lost productivity. He (accurately) hypothesizes that companies aren’t actually interested in fixing the problems they create because the resulting costs – in the form of unemployment after someone burns out, medical expenses from public healthcare systems and more – are borne by the taxpaying public, not the tax-avoiding corporations.

Stress is a major factor in the American workplace, to be sure. Studies conducted by the American Institute of Stress indicate over 75 percent of employees feel stressed at work and that the stressful environment has in some way negatively impacted the productivity of themselves and their coworkers.

That’s not surprising since stress can cause any number of emotional, mental and physical problems ranging from headaches to thoughts of suicide to increased risk of contracting disease. Stress dampens the body’s immune system, making an individual more susceptible to illness, to the subsequent detriment of productivity.

The causes of stress at work are varied and won’t be the same for any two given individuals. Some may feel more pressure because of work-related factors like deadlines and milestones, others because of personal issues in their lives and others because of larger societal issues such as gun violence.

That example is particularly relevant given the looming threat of mass shootings at school is a key source of stress for young people. They’re stressed someone will enter the school on a random day and cause unimaginable horror to themselves and their classmates, a fear that’s understandable given there were nearly 300 such incidents in the U.S. between 2008 and 2018, a rate that’s 57 times higher than any other industrialized country. If school is meant to prepare kids for their future as productive members of the workforce, the fact that they’re not only living with the stress of being shot but spending valuable educational time on lockdowns and active shooter drills is troublesome at best. Allowing more teachers to carry firearms to counter such threats hardly seems like a solution on any front. After all, when was the last time the presence of a loaded weapon in the hands of someone whose training and capabilities you weren’t confident in made you feel *less* stressed?

It’s not just the fear of life and death that has students stressed, it’s the pressure of contemplating their own future. Numerous studies have reported kids are operating every day – especially during the school year – at elevated levels of stress and anxiety. Studies show 28 percent of those who witness a mass shooting develop PTSD and even more develop acute stress symptoms. More and more kids are witnessing just that, meaning they’re entering the workforce with stress issues already in place.

The amount of homework assigned, parental expectations of achievement and concerns about what job openings may be waiting for them all affect the stress levels experienced by students at different grade levels. Many also suffer from food insecurity because of their family’s financial situation, a problem that colleges are only beginning to address through the creation of on-campus food banks and other resources while states explore what options might be viable for students at lower grade levels.

By the time they reach college students are already suffering significant burn out.

While productivity in an educational environment is different than what’s expected in the workplace, schools are meant to be training grounds for future workers. If they are spending their time experiencing significant stress over their financial future as well as whether they will be gunned down by a vindictive terrorist or where their next meal will come from, the system is failing them on a fundamental level.

For those who are already in the workforce, the stress starts almost from the moment they wake up in the morning. More troubling, that stress impacts their ability to do their jobs in tangible ways. A 2018 study found that anticipating stress that loomed on the horizon of the working day diminished people’s ability to retain information, which can lead to mistakes being made as well as lower levels of creativity and poorer decision making skills. The pressure to constantly check mobile device notifications also caused stress, but given how workers can be contacted through any of these for matters both professional and personal, not checking when a text or message is received isn’t really an option.

Workplace stress is felt by large swaths of the U.S. working population, but seems to be felt more acutely and commonly among Millennials. While there’s some case to be made to caveat those numbers with the understanding that younger adults are more anxious because they haven’t yet realized none of this really matters and they have almost no control anyway, there are also generational realities – massive student loan debt, an openly hostile job market, fear of mass shootings – that say this is unique. Still, those younger workers are unlikely to admit to their superiors or managers that they need to take time off for, in the modern parlance, “self care.” That means they are not giving themselves the opportunity to heal and let the stress subside.