Paul E. McGhee, PhD
How Humor Boosts the Bottom Line: Reduced Job Stress (Part II)
«Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.»
(Abraham Lincoln, during the American Civil War)
In recent years, I have seen estimates that from 20% to 50% of the average American worker's day is wasted due to stress, boredom or general malaise on the job. The cost to employers in increased health care costs and reduced productivity is enormous - somewhere between $200-$300 billion per year at the turn of the century. Making the work environment more enjoyable reduces this waste by improving morale, cutting stress-related health problems, and boosting job performance and quality.
Building appropriate opportunities for humor and fun on the job have been found to be effective ways of keeping job stress within manageable limits. In future articles, we will discuss in detail just how humor helps manage stress. This month, however, we'll focus on some of the main causes of stress.
Causes of Job Stress
Each job, of course, has its own unique stressors. But many are common to all jobs. These include (threat of) being transferred to another location, moving to a new department, adapting to new procedures, coping with endless piles of paperwork, losing an office window, dealing with a new manager's ways of communicating/managing, etc. The following, however are consistent sources of stress in all companies.
1) Keeping up with change
Many employees have come to hate change, because it never ends. As soon as you learn the latest technology or new procedures, a new version comes along, and you have to start all over again. It is the increasing pace of change that exacerbates this source of stress.
2) Doing more with less
As downsizing has led companies to get leaner in recent years, two things have happened. First, those who remain are anxious that they will be the next to go. A 1997 survey by the International Survey Research Corp. found that 46% of American workers say they are «frequently concerned» about losing their jobs. The same figure was 31% in 1992. Second, the reduced staff size means an increased work load for those who remain. In the midst of their job insecurity, they are asked to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities at the same time.
The light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to budget cuts.
Downsizing is designed to boost profits. Companies also realize that they must be lean in order to react quickly to the changing demands of the marketplace. Company executives have been put in the difficult position of having to find ways to increase productivity and quality while raising the bar higher and higher for both management and non-management employees. From the employee's perspective, raising the bar higher under these conditions means only one thing - more stress!
A business writer for Time magazine (an American weekly news magazine) noted in 1993 (at the peak of corporate downsizing) that the average manufacturing work week at that point was 41.5 hours, the highest in 27 years. «The resulting increase in stress leads to discontent, lowers creativity and undermines corporate loyalty.»1
Sometimes downsizing can have unexpected damaging effects on the downsizing company. Nynex (a large telephone company), for example, let go thousands of workers in the first half of the 1990s. «Union rules protect senior workers, 'but our younger employees were the ones who had taken more time to educate themselves,' says a remaining technician. 'We have actually gotten rid of our best people.' This practice - of getting rid of the brightest workers - happens so often that it has its own term: brightsizing.» (It has also been called dumbsizing.)2
After one of my programs at a major chemical company, an employee told me that the downsizing they went through created a lot of pressure to be perfect on the job. He said, «My feeling is that if I'm not perfect, I'll be the next to go, because part of the company's reputation is that we don't make mistakes.»
A corporate consultant was speaking to a group of managers, and asked, «Is there anyone here who's a perfect manager? I've always wanted to meet a perfect manager.»
No one raised their hand at first, but then he noticed a man in the back of the room waving his hand. «Ah,» said the speaker. I've finally found a perfect manager. Tell me sir, is it true that you're perfect?"
«No, no,» said the man, «I'm raising my hand for my wife's first husband!»
3) Demand to do things faster
Customers in every domain of business now expect products and services faster than ever before. If your company can't provide something fast enough, they'll go to someone who can. This results in impossible deadlines that make employees feel that their back is against the wall every single day. As soon as one project is completed, there is another waiting in the wings that also has to be done immediately.
Employees know that they have to work quickly and efficiently, but their working conditions are making it more and more difficult to do so. Anyone working under this kind of time pressure is desperate for anything that can give them a break from the constant tension. Laughter is one of the quickest and most effective ways you'll find to relieve such tension and get refocused on the task at hand.
4) Information overload
Once American businesses got on the information superhighway, there was an explosion of new information to be assimilated. Most employees now feel pushed to the limit to keep up with the latest information. And then there's e-mail and the Internet, which make us regret ever taking a day off - because of the mountain of messages we have to deal with when we return.
1. Baumohl, B. When downsizing becomes «dumbsizing». Time, March 15, 1993, p. 55.
2. Levy, S. Working in Dilbert's world. Newsweek, August 12, 1996, p. 57.