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?

1,242 thoughts on “High Stress, Poor Health: Can we Change the Way we Work?

  1. Our working lives are a direct reflection of our home lives and show us that no matter what goes on in our workplace and how they are run, we can still bring a quality of purpose, truth and joy to the working environment by our very own movements within these organisations. Hence our movements can build a quality of integrity, equality and truth which can aid any workplace.

  2. I too have seen a real focus on mission rather than people in the not-for-profit sector. People are replaceable and as much as they don’t want their people to burn out there is a back foot rather than a front foot approach which is disappointing. If we take reponsibility and bring the change we want to see in those industries, talk to each other and inspire self-care in each other, it will change the industry from the inside out.

  3. My sense is that we will ‘have’ to change the way we work at some point. I work in corporate offices and my feeling is organisations are just putting their heads in the sand, they are really just not wanting to truly know the impacts of absenteeism, productivity losses and how people are feeling more and more disconnected.

  4. Being tumbleweeds that are thrown around with the winds of change and the excessive emotional stress of our workplaces is very different to being change agents who align with the flow of purpose and the delivery of quality.

  5. We can each bring more focus to caring for each other at work and asking that of our managers. We need to stop working to the point of exhaustion and then complaining that we weren’t supported. I have that badge and it doesn’t change anything. Communication and relationships are a good start!

  6. Yes, it is interesting that we can be so responsible in the work place for meeting targets and the like but when it comes to our own health we fall short and end up getting ill. Taking that little extra care to be with ourselves and not race ahead, to look after ourselves at work, home or wherever we find ourselves and to give ourselves a little extra care everyday ensures a growing respect and love for ourselves that enables us to grow a foundation of health and wellbeing and a confidence within ourselves that in turn lets us put people before profit into a living way and not just a good idea or something that we might believe in and aspire to but not fully practise.

  7. When we love what we do we do it so differently than when we dislike what we do. Often we think that the problem is with the work itself but what I have discovered is that when I changed the way that I felt about myself my work changed.

  8. If we are not happy with our external environment or the outcomes we achieve, we need only dig deeper within and allow more of what is there to naturally unfold out. By this simple way, we start to become less focused on the ‘outer’ yet true success here is assured and taken care of by way of the focus we have applied internally. What we breathe in, we will naturally breathe out. Our task is simply to remember to breathe in and truly appreciate the depth of stillness on offer so this quality then permeates through all that we do from this point.

  9. At times I really do wonder at the lack of complete understanding we live with in this world. Doesn’t it make sense that a staff member who is still, centered and feeling vital will be more likely to be able to offer the support the businesses customers require? It really is common sense, yet in our world today, we have a reality that most businesses are run from the perspective of profit, not service. Even though true service will bring a steady flow to a companies finances.

  10. When one or two people in the workplace are dropping their level of self care this has a knock on effect and soon the customers are feeling it and a general feeling of discontent creeps in. This can undermine any business. We have a responsibility not only to maintain and continually increase our level of self care but also to lovingly call out the carelessness of others.

  11. You offer something here that is gold, a call “to start to see ourselves not as tumbleweeds tossed around by the winds of workplace whim, but as discrete, solid beings with self-agency”. I love this as it calls us all to be the change we want to see in our lives.

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