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?

1,329 thoughts on “High Stress, Poor Health: Can we Change the Way we Work?

  1. The more we claim our value and worth and the quality of relationship we hold with ourselves, the more we bring this loving quality to our workplaces and reflecting the value we bring and the level of integrity we are not willing to compromise for ourselves, each other and our customers.

  2. If we damage our health in order to do a high paying job that is a bit like eating our seed corn – we damage something far more valuable for a short term gain.

  3. There is so much corruption in the workplace these days as profits become the main goal and workers are put under so much stress for more and more productivity at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. What if people were put first before profits, now that would be an amazing place to work in where everyone is looking after their own well being and the well being so the company can thrive, where no one missed out.

  4. You can work incredibly hard and still be very precious with yourself. Having experimented with both – mainly working physically hard in a disregarding way of my body and also working hard while honouring how sacred I am and I actually reckon I am more efficient when I’m being honouring, and it feels so much more amazing too.

  5. “Choices that honour us, in our bodies, at work.” I honour my body to the best I can at work, and even though just today I had one of my greatest revelations that made me cry of how much more I can honour my body and feelings, and although there is much pressure, because I honour my body I am respectfully honoured by management too. It is proof right here the more you honour yourself the more you are honoured by others.

  6. Work places will always be difficult stressful places until we stop making everything about money and put the people that work in any workplace first. Forget the profit and aim for a joyful workforce, perhaps the profits will take care of themselves?

  7. It seems that regardless of the type of organisation or its financial structure, there is a general malaise of stress leading to serious illness amongst staff at all levels. Taking a deeper look into how each individual is, the quality of how they live their life, will reveal the issues at play.

  8. When I make it about people there is so much flow and absolute joy to completing work. When I make it individual and about what I have to do people potentially react and it feels like all is lost.

  9. If clients are king then I wonder how often it is that money is the actual king? After all, healthy and well staff would provide a far superior service to overworked and exhausted staff.

  10. Stress in the workplace is an enormous issue in the world right now, something we really need to attend to as a society. Perhaps it starts with supporting individuals to work together in an harmonious way, rather than encouraging competition and win or lose behaviour as is the current trend.

    1. Yes, long term benefits vs short term benefits. Short term usually wins until the organisation goes under.

  11. “Most organisations’ answer to that is to push those still standing to do more, or to simply re-hire.” This is a bit like what we tend to do with our bodies, when we get ill we go to the doctor to get it fixed but do we really look at the underlying root cause of our illness or do we patch it up and keep going until it returns again?

  12. True love includes the love to oneself when we love another equally.
    Health business includes healthy loving way we are with ourselves and others before the goal.

  13. I have noticed in one of the places I work that the turn over has dramatically increased in the last few years.We have a manager who refuses to get ruffled by pressure from the company to meet certain targets. She knows that the health of a business is down to the health of its staff and she does all she can to ensure that the people working there come first.

  14. People before profit, numbers, figures, stats … this is what it should be. I work with young people and am increasingly seeing the pressure that instead of truly making it about them it is about ticking the right boxes to say what work is being carried out. This is crazy! Absolutely we should make it about people first everywhere in the world not about profit, figures or ticking boxes.

  15. I have learned by monitoring my blood pressure that stress causes high blood pressure in me. I also discovered that I created the stress too by choosing to get anxious about something. So my long term high blood pressure was completely self made by me.

  16. The ‘people first’ approach will only happen when we learn to put our self-care first, and not getting things done and achieving the whole to-do list at the expense of the body. Regularly over-working in a stressful way, taking on others’ emotions and unresolved issues, all take their toll on our bodies. I see people in their 60s and 70s who have cancer, and that was before the advent of email and standard accepted way of working now which is to feel overloaded and stressed most of the time, and constantly be fighting an overloaded inbox. But no matter how much we have to do, there is a way of working, and being with work, that means that we are just as vital at the end of the day as we were at the start – and it starts with basic self-care. We can have all the work-life balance policies in the world, but nothing will truly change unless those policies also really support people to take care of themselves in the way they are in their every day, moment to moment choices and movements.

  17. To bring in femaleness to the workplace will change how conventional workplaces are run. It is a quality of nurturing as is shared here – where stress does not have a place. I have seen how workplaces can become busy and loud – everyone just trying to do, so they can relax at the end of the day. But what if the quality we bring throughout our day means we don’t need to wait for the relax moment and we live more consistently throughout the day?

    1. True. Once we are able to live that way it gives others an opportunity to choose to work with less stress as well.

  18. Truly caring for our body and beingness, both at home and in work life makes a big difference to the quality of work that we do and the kind of relationship that we have with it…

  19. ‘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.’ wow this is powerful. What I notice is how people do whatever it takes to get the work done and then try to minimise the consumption of sugar and caffeine by doing healthy things like going to the gym but are they really regarding themselves? I know I do similarly – this get the job done and then care about myself. What you’re building here is that constant connection with quality, a quality that will say when it is time to finish. What is being done is being done in and with quality but also surprisingly productive because there is no slack time of needing breaks by taking focus from the job at hand. I’m inspired to build a ‘womanly work body’ for sure.

  20. The organization of Universal Medicine is this beautiful example of working in this way.
    This is also very healthy for all the employees and that makes the company healthy too.

  21. In a work / client situation no one is more important than the other. If you measure, you are simply giving your power away. True success of a company comes from true balance within the staff.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

    1. Companies or shops etc. are falsely concentrating on quantity but but not quality of success. It is all about achievements and goals and to earn as much money as possible. No wonder so many employees are “burning- out”. The innate fire of everyone needs some wood to burn, which needs to be refilled every now and then. If not refilled it will turn off slowly. In other words, if the employee does not care for his body, working from space and not time, knowing that this is more important than anything, he will collapse one day.

      1. Absolutely true and the thing is that it only needs a small adjustment, the addition of a small ingredient called love and a realisation that money is less important than people and their health.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

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