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?

1,227 thoughts on “High Stress, Poor Health: Can we Change the Way we Work?

  1. This week at work I could feel how exhausted I was becoming and realised that although I was busy and had a lot on, I didn’t need to take it on and carry it or walk it in the way I was. Going into anxiousness didn’t help me get things done – it just wasted a lot of energy and I wasn’t as productive.

  2. High stress and poor health in our workplaces are increasing and people are simply not enjoying work. If you were to randomly select a group of people to ask if they love going to work, probably the answer would be ‘no’. This is no surprise because we seem to have lost something very important in our work places, i.e, respect, equality, putting people before profit, true purpose and the list goes on. So, thank you Victoria for sharing with us that there is another way.

  3. Quality of work=quality of people. Although we may espouse this idea of people first if those people are sick or struggling then we have no quality. It is vital for us to begin to take deeper care of ourselves and stop pushing only to collapse later on. We really know that our health comes first but do we take the steps necessary to ensure that we nourish and nurture ourselves, get gentle exercise like a short walk in nature every day? And do we, as we get healthier continue on this path or do we say at a certain point “that is enough” and stop giving our bodies and minds the clarity and vibrancy that can keep on expanding it if we allow it.

  4. The quality of output would be amazing to feel and experience. Everything we purchase from food, to furnishings, to buildings or services, all would carry the most amazing light. The other thing that stands out for me is the interaction of people, the connection fostered and the health experienced would be off the scale. It is not what we do but the quality we bring to the sector in the way we are. This will change when we bring more self love into our lives.

    1. There definitely needs to be the conversation to inspire the people within the organisation to call for that change by being and living that change. So many are unaware there is a different way to be or understand why they feel the way they do. Great conversation to have!

  5. A great reminder to bring self care and a deep honouring of ourselves first and foremost and then to bring this to all areas of our life – to family, to the workplace and beyond. This is evolution.
    “I envisage this effect as a gorgeous, warm river, slowly but surely softening the hardest of rocks”.

  6. In the news recently there has been a lot more coverage of for instance healthcare workers and the rates of suicide, depression by those workers. These are not the only jobs where the suicide or stress or depression rates are rising. What if it were not the work itself but our relationship to work, and more fundamentally our relationship with ourselves that we are at odds with? I know for myself the more I deepen my relationship with myself, listen to my body, and take care of myself each day in line with this the more I am able to stay steady at work in any given situation. There is so much about the way we are in the world and our relationship to work that we dont discuss or look at – whether as individuals or whether our workplaces look at it. And all the while there are quick fixes for us e.g. medication to keep us going when we feel down or stressed or tired (rather than looking at why we feel this way), and fixes that organisations put in to make us more productive without looking at deeper rooted issues about work and life.

  7. It’s great to read this blog again. Since I last read it I have gone from being a Customer Advisor to a Team Leader. There is a great deal more pressure on me to perform in a variety of roles. I can feel this in my body. As a Customer Advisor I was beginning to discover how to bring this ‘warm river’ to my job. As a Team Leader I am yet to discover how to bring this with me to work. I am loving the purpose to my job, and am fully committed to my job, but reading what you say about ‘people before purpose’ I realise that I need to be fully committed to me before I am committed to my job. Committed to connecting to and feeling that ‘warm flowing river’ in my body and then bringing it with me into everything I do.

  8. I love how you show Victoria, that our workplaces become physical representations of our interior state. Change may not seem possible to effect, but when we change the quality of energy we work in this definitely changes our level of stress. What you say applies to men too – for we all benefit when we cherish stillness and what we know to be true.

  9. A great understanding and expose of what is really going on in the world in our places of work and also our own homes. It shows the importance of self care honouring and appreciation for ourselves we need to develop more and within ourselves, companies and work places to follow also.

  10. Stress and discontent at work start with the notion that life and work are two different things and that they need to be balanced against each other. But work is life and life is work and your self care strategies are a great way to true balance between our physicality and our delivery to the greater all.

    1. I agree Gabriel. The distinction made between life and work is false and creates a divide.. There is one life and we commit fully to all life, not just the jobs we do. Self care is the key. True care loves, honours and nurtures self and supports us to live balanced, harmonious lives.

  11. Sadly my experience of the workplace is the same, there is such a high level of dissatisfaction that comes from an organisations focus on the outcome rather than nurturing those who produce the outcome. Whilst I appreciate this worth must be something we each work on for ourselves, to value who we are and what we bring, the lack of offering any value to that feeds the lack of attention to it and the focus pull to profits our basic outcomes.

  12. I find it really interesting how you share that in your experience in “…many ‘human service’ organisations – the health of the organisation takes precedent over that of the humans who work there.” which really begs the question what kind of ‘human service’ is it that the organisation is chasing where some humans are less important than others?!

  13. “With a loving, people-first approach at work inside every organisation, I suspect profit and purpose would naturally take care of themselves”.
    I agree with you Victoria; in this crazy world we live in a people-first approach is the only way to bring humanity back to true purpose and a way of living that supports all equally.

  14. ‘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.’ This is true…there surely will come a tipping point when they can’t hire others fast enough to replace those that have left. In the teaching profession, it is estimated that roughly half the profession will have left in the UK in about 3 years’ time. The dropout rate is huge and recruitment is now becoming a challenge. To know there are simple steps we can take like self-care is great step forward to managing our stressful conditions at work.

  15. “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.”

    This is so true. And it can be easy for employees to slip into that almost de-humanised mode and just become functional to get the job done. I like your call to us all, is that even in these environments, it is up to us to bring our full selves to the job, making it about people first.

  16. “…the health of the organisation takes precedence over the health of the humans who work there.” Sadly so true and very visible in the health and education systems in the UK. People are leaving the professions within these organizations in droves, yet the powers that be still have to wake up and make fundamental changes. Taking responsibility for our own health even within such uncaring systems is so important, to avoid burn-out.

  17. From my own experience, dishonouring of self is the slippery slope to stress, anxiety and exhaustion. We have to stop associating work solely with jobs we do for a living. True work begins in the home, our inner self. The quality of relationship we have with ourselves supports us to hold our own in the workplace, remain steady, purposeful, loving and not driven to the ground by drive, deadlines competition and pressure.

  18. ‘I envisage this effect as a gorgeous, warm river, slowly but surely softening the hardest of rocks’. A beautiful and powerful image of the potential within us all.

  19. We haven’t established a way of life that supports us to work – with a healthy and vital body because we often are not connected to our purpose in our work (and life) and all that it really means for us to play our part.

  20. I think it is important not to underestimate the difference we can make by truly developing care in the way that we look after ourselves and are in our workplaces – it’s something that is not just about us as individuals but about everyone around us too as they get to see that there is another way to approach work and life as a whole, a way that is harmonious and considering of everyone equally.

  21. It’s sad that so many people don’t enjoy their work, what if this could be simply resolved by teaching people how vital simple self care is, and to value themselves and how much potential they have to make a true difference in the world, and their work place.

  22. The way we do everything needs a total overhaul not only are we going to run out of healthy people, but also clean air, water and resources if we don’t start putting people, all of us, before profit and purpose.

  23. Self care was once almost a dirty word scoffed at by those who believed managing their lives with coping mechanisms was enough to get you through life. So it is great to hear of more and more people embracing it into their lives. The power of self care cannot be denied in the face of the stressors of work and home life today. It makes sense that a company would naturally benefit from staff that look after their mind and body… not only in their productivity but the quality in which things are done. I look forward to the day where it is promoted and lay at the foundation of all businesses, for people matter first before anything else and this should not be forgotten for the bottom dollar.

  24. With the constant pressure to perform and succeed in the workplace, it is essential that we learn to take responsibility for our own health and well-being and change the way in which we work so that we are not rocked through stress, anxiety and exhaustion from pushing our body to meet deadlines.

  25. With the demands to succeed in business it is initially challenging to put people first before profit. However, Universal Medicine demonstrates that in fact that this is a highly successful approach.

  26. I noticed that people (staff) can be thanked for their hard work on a project, but rarely are they checked in on to see how they are during or after that project. What is the state of their wellbeing after working on that project? That would be an interesting KPI to adhere to….Ensure staff’s wellbeing is looked after on this project. I’d like to see that.

  27. People before profit and people before purpose…..If there is as few as one person who does not care for him or herself in the workplace the whole thing can fall down. It is like there is a chain reaction of unsettlement.

  28. These are such practical, self-caring tips! “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, not just at work but any where, in the waiting room, at home, part way through a long car journey. Very fundamental but often ignored.

  29. When you have a work force that is exhausted and stressed it’s no wonder they will not enjoy their job, and unfortunately there are a lot of jobs out there where this is the norm. There always seems to be this re-creating the wheel to come up with new incentives to make more money or to bring profits back up, but without asking the workforce if they are up to it. No matter what incentives are put in place this will not happen if the workforce are too exhausted to care for themselves, let alone work.
    If there is a change to occur, it will have to come from the individual first by looking at the self care they award themselves, and their relationship with work.

  30. Companies are focussed to make profit and there are trainings on how to make your client satisfied. We didn’t come to the understanding yet that this is a very empty purpose as in truth we can not mean anything to others if we don’t include ourselves in it. Which means that it is always to feel ourselves to what we need, to take care of ourselves and from there to move with the clients in a way that serves all.

    1. Yes Meg – I think this is a possibility. But also, the fact that we are all living life with a low level of anxiousness already in our bodies from not responding to what we energetically feel plays a big part in being stressed and not feeing adequate to deal with what we need to.

  31. It seems that it is popular practise to appear as though one doesn’t like or appreciate one’s work. As if somehow work is a chore and only something to be suffered or got through so that one can put ones feet up and do as little as possible. or do things that are more enjoyable. This is just a front because talking individually to the same people we find that the work is actually a life saver and something they don’t want to be without. This prevalent attitude that work is hard and something to be endured creates a false atmosphere and a joyless place to be squashing our vitality and lightness.

  32. The term ‘Human Resources’ says so much about how people are perceived in work. The word ‘personnel’ at least had a connection to the word person in it! There are those who buck this trend and who understand that the success of their business is reliant on how their staff treat their customers – and that this front line relationship is a reflection of how the management treat the staff and in fact how the managers treat themselves too. I work in Social Care and it seems so fundamental to me that we must have staff who actively put self-care into their lives so they can present their care of others with a full level of integrity. Time to end this detached view of people as ‘resources’ and value them as the sensitive, tender, loving beings we all are.

  33. Unfortunately it is becoming all too common for businesses to be short staffed. In my workplace the staff are over stretched due to this, and all for the sake of saving a bit of money. By employing the level of staff that are needed it’s possible to give the excellent customer service that leads to more sales. It’s a no brainer but often it’s not viewed that way. Over stretched staff means stressed staff which does nothing for the health of the staff or the business. It’s a shame that this is not taken into consideration.

  34. On rereading this article this statement stood out to me “it is the quality of femaleness in particular that has the potential to be the true ‘change agent’ we are looking for”. In times of challenge or in the intensity of life, every moment that we choose to simply stop and allow ourselves to be still, we open our heart a little more and it communicates with our head. We get different thoughts, ideas and understandings, that we may not have thought of before and if we allow ourselves to be guided by them, the intensity of the moment is always lessened. Does this not clearly define that through our choice to be still, we can change the world.

  35. I just read that 50% of the nurses in the Netherlands has or had thoughts about leaving their profession because of the high pressure they are under and the stress this causes. The quality of stillness and true self care is what nursing needs and I love your term “womanly work body’, it would assist every nurse to enjoy and see the value of themselves and their job again in the busy-ness of the healthcare system.

  36. Beautiful prospect you write about here. True care is so rare at this moment in time that this is very important to talk about. Giving us all the opportunity to see our ways of living, beneath that the true stillness and tenderness that is there, love what you have shared here.

  37. How to work hard and to still take deep and nurturing care of ourselves is something I think many people have to work on. I know I’m good at the both… separately! But when it comes to combining them both, i.e. normal life, often one gets compromised. So learning that the harder you work, the deeper your care has to be is a big one.

  38. Making some aspects of life more important than others, more deserving of our time and energy, it doesn’t work. We end up burnt out in one area which affects the rest of our live. Fact is, every aspect of our day, everything we do is connected and equally important because it has us in it. Our body and our quality should be the focus and not the task or what we do, that will always vary.

  39. In my work I find that appreciation is a great support for staff. A few words of genuine appreciation and care for another offers them a new reflection of their value to the organisation. It isn’t all about money by a long way. People love to know they are truly valued and when they are, the quality of their work changes with it.

  40. This is such a beautiful blog about how it could be at work and indeed how it ought to be at work. People matter and the more we value and appreciate ourselves the more we will be able to bring that to our workplaces. This is what changes work culture.

  41. Something that I observed a little while ago is the more deeply I care for myself the more I enjoy all about what I do. So now if I am ever feeling discontent with work, I come back to how I am with myself. Then its not about seeking time out per say, but saying well if this is happening how do I need to be with myself. The other thing that I have observed is that its not always about what’s going on for me, as sometimes things just need to happen in our workplaces to expose what is not true in how we are working or how we are with each other, so that we return to true service.

  42. True care both for ourselves and for others is something that is often sadly lacking in most people’s lives, so it is great Victoria that you highlight how this plays out in the workplace as it offers us an opportunity to reflect on our own individual contribution to this state of affairs.

  43. Sure Victoria, the profit before people mentality can only exist because we have accepted it as a normal in our workplaces. It is not only management who are pushing this but also the employees that have bought into this idea of how work should look like. Therefore the real change will actually come bottom up, from the employees in this case as you already described as becoming more aware and caring for themselves first and in that cannot subscribe the the old way, to make the body subordinate to life and work anymore.

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