High Stress, Poor Health: Can we Change the Way we Work?

by Victoria Lister, Brisbane, Australia

Sadly, my experience of many of the workplaces I’ve encountered – as employee, board member and consultant – is that they are often demanding, difficult environments in which deadlines, a lack of resources and the quest for greater efficiencies and more outputs, outcomes and profits are ever-present. Often too they are unhappy places, characterised by high stress, poor health, bullying and grievances, and high rates of absenteeism or ‘unplanned leave’ – and staff turnover. 

For example, in the nonprofit sector where I currently work, I regularly meet managers who are terribly ill – to the level of cancer and other critical or pervasive conditions. Many of the staff I’ve worked with or met are also unwell, exhibit signs of depression and are generally not coping with work or life. In nonprofit land, mission rather than profit is all-important (although ensuring financial viability is another, constant pressure). This often means that in many organisations – including ironically, many ‘human service’ organisations – the health of the organisation takes precedent over that of the humans who work there. In these environments, clients are king and occupy top spot in the care and consideration food chain.

Of course, challenging work environments abound and men and women from all sectors are dropping like flies from ill-health and stress. Most organisations’ answer to that is to push those still standing to do more, or to simply re-hire. But one day they’ll run out of people, and only then will they be forced to re-examine the issue.

In the meantime, I feel there are a few things I/we can do right now, as individuals and collectively, that might begin to change the situation.

One is to begin to exercise self-care in the workplace – to start to see ourselves not as tumbleweeds tossed around by the winds of workplace whim, but as discrete, solid beings with self-agency, capable of making our own loving choices at work. These can be as simple as going to the bathroom when needed, making time to stop for lunch, closing our eyes for a few minutes at (or under!) our desks…  Choices that honour us, in our bodies, at work.

Another is to consider the power of femaleness – that deeply soulful, still, nurturing space that exists equally within women and men both. On the personal level, I have set an intention to start building my ‘womanly work body’ by committing to trusting my femaleness – my innate stillness and loveliness – and bringing these qualities with me to work. And when I really sit with this, my sense is it is the quality of femaleness in particular that has the potential to be the true ‘change agent’ we are looking for.

How? Imagine a workplace peopled by men and women who embody a sense of stillness, a connection to self that precedes all activity – who are so connected with and honouring of themselves that self-care is not only automatic, it has a quality that can be seen and felt, offering an inspiring example to others… A workplace with men and women whose choices at work – from the food they eat to support themselves, to their ability to say ‘no’ when something doesn’t feel right – are noticed by their managers and peers; whose very ways of being challenge ‘the way things are done around here’, in the gentlest ways possible. I envisage this effect as a gorgeous, warm river, slowly but surely softening the hardest of rocks.

If this river were allowed to flow, perhaps one day we would see businesses and organisations founded and run on a philosophy of people before profit  – or in the case of nonprofits, people before purpose – those people not being the customer or the client in the first instance, but the people who actually work in the organisation – that often ‘faceless’ group of people called ‘staff’ or ‘human resources’ – all of whom are our sisters, brothers, fathers, flatmates, friends… people like you and me who deserve to attend their workplace not with sadness, but with joy.

How different would work then be, and how different the quality of the work received by the client or customer? With a loving, people-first approach at work inside every organisation, I suspect profit and purpose would naturally take care of themselves.

Further Related Reading:
Women & High-Profile Roles: Why do they say No?

1,388 thoughts on “High Stress, Poor Health: Can we Change the Way we Work?

  1. Stress, anxiety and depression have become the way we are feeling with the lack of self-worth as we are all taught to history, science, religion, read and write but very little if anything on True -Love.

  2. It’s not remotely unachievable what you have shared here, in fact it’s quite simple and straightforward. Let’s put people first, care for ourselves and others, and allow our true inner qualities to be present in our day. In some of the companies I’ve dealt with the push to make profit is done with such a coldness to people, an absence of values, and a drive to achieve without sensitivity or consideration. We know one on one or family relationships like this don’t work, in fact they’re considered toxic, and business relationships should be held accountable in exactly the same way. Why should we drop all values and care just because it’s ‘business’?

  3. The very fact we have very little companies world wide that have not taken the philosophy “people before profit” shows how desperately lost we are.

  4. Some carers are forced to take a break from caring because of exhaustion built on an in-built pattern to give their all to clients at the expense of themselves. And yet it is possible to care for another, be re-vitalised and settled within as we work. It starts with self care – a deeply loving and nurturing way to be with ourselves as we work that has ripple effects for client, family and community.

  5. What I can feel is how us not accepting our power is manifesting dis-ease in the world, and all that is needed is for us to simply live the truth of who we are. And the changes in the form of human life is an after effect.

  6. It appears that our business models are indeed a little warped when we put profit before people and their well being, but as this blog so beautifully expresses, there is a way to turn this around to make it first about people before profit. and ensuring that everyone is looked after. This is a model for us all to work with.

  7. It does not make sense to neglect our own well being to look after others. And yet this happens time and time again, at work, in families, with friends, and I notice myself often doing this too etc. When will we stop just to see how nonsensical this is, and begin to truly care for ourselves and those around us?

  8. I have worked in the care industry for the last thirty years. I work with intellectually disabled clients, many of whom have very challenging behaviour but despite the fact that our clients are often challenging it has been voiced many times that it is our inter staff relationships that are even more challenging. I know from experience that many of our clients’ unsettled behaviour is heightened by the tensions that arise between staff. I have worked in many environments that can only be described as ‘toxic’, toxic to everybody that enters that space. The toxicity remains because everybody blames each other and few are prepared to look at their part. I was one such person until the penny dropped and I realised that all I had to do was to acknowledge and focus on my part and change what I could about that. My colleague who I had had the ongoing disagreements with, did the same and over time our relationship went from decidedly testy to incredibly loving. Commitment, honesty, awareness and love, powerful tools of change.

    1. Alexis this would make a great article, it is something we all need to take responsibility for, not just in work but in life in general, which is our part of how we contribute to disharmony or harmony.

  9. Victoria what a gorgeous read. By connecting to what you suggest I was able to feel the potential within businesses to change and how that change would (like the river you described) flow out into all facets of life, including out into the homes of the workers, clients and simply out into the surrounding streets. This is not only possible but inevitable.

    1. Greg, I love how you have worded this – people are our greatest resource, after all without them we would be completely lost.

      1. Absolutely Henrietta, the deep-humble-appreciative-ness that humanity holds in our life deepens as a loving connection on a daily, person-by-person basis. It is an absolute Joy to feel the divinity in others and the Joy they experience from being Truly met and not re-treat as the Love is felt by all, by what we reflect to everyone equally. As reflection is our greatest form of communication, so thank you Henrietta, for so many are ‘completely lost’ and they Love connection to a True ‘resource’.

  10. This is a discussion that is much needed in the work place as people are seen as disposable income, in as much if you are sick or not performing then you are let go and there will always be someone to take your place. But if we are all getting sicker then the corporate mind set will have to change as there will come a time when there will be no replacements. And maybe we have to fall that far before we all come to our senses and understand that this way of living is not working.

  11. It is through the consistency of deepening the relationship with self that supports me to handle and stay steady with what comes my way. Without the love for self I am left at the mercy of everything going on around me.

  12. A paradigm shift having people put themselves first, taking care of themselves and how that would ripple out far and wide … it’s something we all need to consider for the way we currently work is not really working as too many of us are stressed or burned out, and not enjoying the work we do, but really the biggest thing we don’t enjoy in this is we know we’re not being the quality we can be, so to stop and allow ourselves the space for greater care is a gift for everyone.

  13. Victoria, I totally agree with you that we desperately need to change the way we work and interact with each other. We are literally killing ourselves to feed the profit monster that we have made and have now become a slave too.

  14. I like the metaphor of a gorgeous warm river running through a workplace, softening even the hardest of rocks. Showing the world there can be another way to be in our workplaces.

    1. This metaphor is a much needed reminder that we can harden like the rocks and stay firmly planted on the sides or choose to jump in and swim our natural stroke in the river which in brotherhood we can continue to warm together.

  15. Taking time to stop at work and check in with myself I have found to be a vital, simple activity as you have said. “These can be as simple as going to the bathroom when needed, making time to stop for lunch, closing our eyes for a few minutes at (or under!) our desks… Choices that honour us, in our bodies, at work.” The fact is they make a huge difference because we are no longer putting our body under additional pressure too.

  16. “One is to begin to exercise self-care in the workplace”. When we take care of ourselves it is observed by those around us. We do not have to say anything, just move with grace and gentleness. Sometimes others copy or even ask what we do too! Then there is no imposing.

  17. We have images of what a workplace offers us. Within the picture there are some things we include. Yet, the possibility of being well and share it with others is by and large absent from those pictures.

  18. “whose very ways of being challenge ‘the way things are done around here’, in the gentlest ways possible.” When we have experienced The Way of The Livingness for ourselves it is a responsibility to inspire those around us to feel that there is another way to be.

  19. I hosted a discussion last night on wellbeing – and what came up is the vague understanding of the word, how it is an ‘it word’ – but how are we bringing it to work. It is brilliant what you share about starting with self care and living this in the workplace.

  20. At the end of the day we cannot ignore the fact that it is the people working within the business that determines the quality of the service the business offers or provides. Imagine the difference of being served or met by a staff member that deeply honours and cares for themselves in contrast to one that does not. I have experienced this and the quality of care and genuine willingness to offer true service makes you feel very welcomed, cared for, met and a real connection is felt. This is something I will always return for.

  21. I love the approach that we don’t wait for our business to provide the space for us to bring that level of self care and attention to detail but that we are prepared to bring that to ourselves first and then, perhaps bring that body that lives the new foundation, to a conversation with the HR department about what would support those who worked in the business better.

    1. Yes we can make a start – however small. This may then inspire others. No point in waiting for the ‘right moment’ – just begin! Others may follow – or not – and that’s all okay. Allowing space…..

  22. Great blog, so many industries are out of balance because the demand is so high as people don’t set boundaries and don’t take care of themselves, and then also the staff is not taking care of themselves which results in a lack of productivity. The change needs to happen across the board to have true change happening I feel.

    1. We need to set boundaries ourselves. We need to be able to say no. We need to be able to advocate on behalf of our bodies. We need to exercise self-care. Because if we don’t then we will get scribbled all over by life. Be that in our work lives, our home live or our social lives or all of them, all converging onto one mish mash of abuse. And it is our bodies that take the toll.

  23. I feel that unfortunately we have all been affected by a monster that we have developed and grown, it’s called the ‘profit monster’ and it has an insatiable appetite, and we are literally killing ourselves trying to feed it.

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