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?

1,312 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. Any environment that is ruled by time has a hard, relentless quality to it. The pressure never lets up and the pressure on people’s bodies is intense. People are constantly under the pump and can be seen literally running to the loo and back. It’s a pace that can’t be sustained and one that inevitably leads to the body breaking down in some way. The body can work incredibly long hours but not under those conditions. In order for it to work long hours well it needs to be nurtured, honoured and respected not just whilst it’s at work but across all environments.

  9. 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.

  10. 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’.

  11. 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.

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