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?

1,302 thoughts on “High Stress, Poor Health: Can we Change the Way we Work?

  1. What a great place to be able to work when they have adopted a loving, people-first approach.
    This is what true business/ work is all about – when we forget people we might as well give up – nothing is worth producing/selling when we don’t make it about people first.

  2. Money before the true good of people is the root of corruption. We then make it about self instead of the equally true good of all and that is what makes workplaces and organisations ugly.

  3. A workplace where people are listening to their body and responding from there would be a very harmonious, joyful and productive place to work.

  4. That would be awesome. Guess it’s a case of building our self worth so we feel worthy of putting ourselves first and not the business in order to get the recognition we would need as a result of not putting ourselves first.

  5. It is interesting how colleagues respond when you start self care at a workplace where it is not encouraged – I have found that some absolutely love it and others find it very threatening as it challenges a whole paradigm that people can play victim in.

  6. In the workplace one of the things that I often see that crushes people the most is the lack of care. I think that we are more affected by this than we realise. We have come to normalise a lack of decency and respect in the workplace and in our interactions with others. When love is actually our core and true nature it makes us ill to not live this.

  7. It is so interesting that when we don’t care for ourselves purpose becomes a goal and a means to get recognition and thus feeling good about ourselves, yet this way of doing things is exhausting and that is seen everywhere in the world at the moment. When we care deeply for ourselves and then have a purpose in life it is truly about serving people and not about recognition because we already feel that we are enough.

  8. A business, profit or not for profit, being all about people first will be a win win for clients and staff alike. It puts true care at the forefront of any business.

  9. It is interesting to ponder the swapping of the drive for mission rather than the drive for profit. If we work in the quality of disregard or at the expense of our self care for another there is no difference in the energy.

  10. Another way to look at it is that in the loveless workplace everything is about time and there is no space to breathe and be oneself. If we made it about creating a loving culture that truly cared for people and created space for everyone to develop, we would solve so many problems at a stroke.

  11. Victoria, you are describing some long-term trends like increasing ill-health and absenteeism that are not sustainable. It will be interesting to see what happens.

  12. That is the trust an organization should have: that the results will take care of it self, once they make it about people, their people first. An organization, as being the board, are people themselves of course so they should lead by example.

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