T his past August, The New York Times published an extended and detailed article on the work culture at Amazon.com (“Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”) The picture it painted was not pretty. The article, written from interviews with 100 former and current Amazon employees, depicts an atmosphere in which employees are pitted against one another and encouraged to report any co-worker’s perceived deficiencies to that worker’s manager. According to the article, workweeks of at least 80 hours are expected, as is the willingness to work on holidays. There is also a yearly culling process in which managers at each level must present detailed cases citing the reasons for keeping (rather than firing) each of their subordinates. Multiple former employees also told the Times they were put on “probation” by Amazon after returning from maternity leave or a leave of absence due to serious illness.
The article struck a chord. Loudly. As of Dec. 3, the article had received approximately 6,000 comments, the majority of which reflected reader outrage. Some who commented noted that similar workplace atmospheres exist at businesses in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.
Other publications debated whether the article provided a complete picture of worker satisfaction at Amazon or merely highlighted the experiences of a few disgruntled employees. Some even questioned why anyone cared about the work culture of one particular company.
Perhaps the article become such a hot topic of conversation because many of those who read it recognized certain of the conditions described therein in their own workplaces, even if Amazon’s work culture as a whole may still be an outlier.
Crushing workloads. Hostile supervisors. The expectation to be available at any time, including during “off” hours. Co-workers competing to see who stays at the office the latest. Work-induced stress and depression. These factors are merely a sampling of the work issues that regularly bring clients to counselors’ offices.
“The corporate world to me sounds horrible,” says Barbara Ungashick, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Denver. “The CEOs get $100 million, while those on the bottom rung get paid $15 an hour.”
Ungashick, an American Counseling Association member, accepts payment through employee assistance programs (EAPs). Although she says people aren’t necessarily seeking her out exclusively because of work-related stress, she calls it a pernicious force that is frequently entwined with the other problems with which clients present.
Workplace pressure has become so prevalent that both the World Health Organization and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health consider job stress to be a significant risk to public health.
Workers in overdrive
When pressed to pick the workplace stressor she hears about most often from clients, Ungashick says it is likely workload. She traces this back to the Great Recession when companies cut back their workforces out of necessity, but never replaced the displaced employees as the economy recovered. Instead, Ungashick has observed, the workers who remain are often performing the work of two or three employees.
Research tends to confirm Ungashick’s observation. Numerous studies have found that although the jobs lost during the recession were more likely to be midlevel and high-level positions, the economic recovery has consisted mostly of adding low-paying jobs. What’s more, the “restructuring” doesn’t necessarily seem to be over.
Robin Redman, a former human resources professional turned licensed professional counselor of mental health, says she continues to see frequent reorganizations that result in higher workloads for clients. “I had one woman yesterday who said she felt like she was on a wheel and couldn’t keep up,” says Redman, who has a private practice in Wilmington, Delaware. “She’s working 12 hours [per day] only to come home and attempt to catch up on emails.”
Brenda Ramlo, an LPC with a private practice in Colorado Springs, is hearing similar stories from her clients. “I think the expectations for workers continue to increase, leading to greater stress, on all levels of employment,” she says. “Because many workplaces are focusing more on increased productivity while using less resources, workers at all levels are feeling squeezed to produce more with less.”
“Additionally,” she continues, “because of the change in methods of communication over the past 10 years, employees are often expected to answer calls, emails and texts at all hours of the day and night, regardless of their pay or position. As a result, their time to regenerate and connect with family and friends is diminished.”
Employees increasingly feel the pressure to be reachable by multiple means, including email, cell phone, voice mail and text, confirms Cristi Thielman, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Seattle. In fact, in some organizations, employees feel the need to use constant connectivity as leverage to ensure job survival, says Thielman, who draws half of her client base from EAP referrals.
“Performance evaluations that rank employees against each other are a source of anxiety for many employees,” she explains. “If an employee knows that their co-worker is working late into the evening or is available at all times of the day, they feel they need to compete with that co-worker and be just as available. So it becomes very difficult to unplug. Clients are often working at home even when they’re off the clock.”
As a result, co-workers often sense they are being pitted against one another, regardless of whether that is management’s intention. In addition, examples of positive management seem hard to come by, according to the counselors whom we interviewed. They say their clients generally report micromanagement, unclear goals, poor communication and other ineffective management practices.
“This increased stress seeps into the way people interact with or support one another at work,” Ramlo says. “When an environment becomes competitive, people are taxed, and negative behaviors are more likely to come out.”
Sometimes, she continues, that negativity and competition become the norm. “If someone is working in a toxic environment or has been dealing with criticism, they may start to lose sight of what is reasonable behavior from both themselves and their co-workers,” she explains.
“Many people feel like they have little choice but to keep working at their current position, despite their discontent, due to high debt, a tight budget and a less-than-ideal job market,” she concludes.
According to a 2015 Work-Life Survey by the American Psychological Association, 37 percent of Americans report regularly experiencing significant stress on the job. With the same study showing that 48 percent of Americans report that they regularly respond to work communications after normal office hours, that job stress is increasingly bleeding into personal time. These stressed-out workers may be worried about losing their salaries, but they are often unaware of the price they’re paying for uncontrolled work stress.
“Many individuals with work stress begin using substances or escalate what use was already present, have trouble sleeping, become irritable or experience depression and anxiety,” Ramlo points out. “These symptoms become noticeable and disruptive in the individual’s personal life and relationships.” Employees suffering from excessive work stress may also develop health problems such as fatigue, headaches, elevated blood pressure, weight changes and gastrointestinal distress, she adds.
“Stress in the workplace and increased workload can lead to poor diet [and] exercise and increased irritability, decreased stress tolerance and increased anxiety and depression,” Thielman says. “Clients in these situations then are less likely to socialize, may rely on drugs or alcohol to relax and have low energy during their free time to pursue hobbies and interests.”
It isn’t uncommon for stressed and overtaxed workers to be unaware of how problematic their behavior has become, Ramlo says. “The person is not always pleasant to be around, has difficulty leaving work [at work] or is not interested in previously pleasurable activities,” she notes. “In many cases, it is a spouse or family member who is the primary motivator for the individual to seek help because they have noticed a change [in the person].”
Something’s got to give
Once clients have realized that work is wreaking havoc in every aspect of their lives, the challenge is figuring out what to do about it.
“I will often do the pros and cons with [clients] to assess if remaining in their current position is the best option or if there are changes that can be made in their current position or if seeking other employment will be the best option in the long run,” Ramlo says. “I’ve worked with individuals who are in work environments or jobs that are more what someone else may have wanted for them or do not match their personality. They often feel there is an expectation to push through and that if they are good enough, they could make it work. Accepting that their personality could be better matched or goals could be realized with much less stress in a different setting is tremendously freeing.”
Thielman says that exploring how clients deal with work stress provides her with clues about whether their current job is a bad fit, whether they need to change their approach to work or both.
“To do this, we look at what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy and which aspects of the job are causing them the most stress,” she explains. “Another goal is to explore with them how their own actions and beliefs contribute to their work stress. For example, do they believe they must do their job perfectly? Is it difficult for them to say no to more work? Is the amount of effort commensurate with their outcome?”
“I encourage clients to try to understand and become more accepting of their work style and approach,” Thielman continues. “In the process of exploring these issues, we then discuss what changes they could make to their approach to the job while keeping within their own work style and priorities.”
Redman encourages her clients to ask themselves what’s keeping them in their current job. “Is it strictly financial? Is it fear? What’s keeping you there?” she asks. “If you love the field, can you get another position?”
But what happens if a client doesn’t want to or simply can’t leave his or her current job? “Once clients become more aware of the impact of their job stress and become more clear on what helps them decrease work stress, they often become more confident in expressing their needs with their co-workers and supervisors,” Thielman says. “Many clients have had success in communicating these needs more clearly to their co-workers and supervisors and in setting clearer boundaries about the amount of work they can accept.”
Thielman also dedicates time to actively working with clients on communication skills. “I stress [speaking] from a place of what they need versus what they want others to do,” she says. “From our work of understanding and accepting work style and approach, the client is able to communicate with others from the perspective of trying to maximize [his or her] working style [and] emphasizing that [he or she wants] to do good work and be productive, which I generally find is true for most people.”
“I also encourage clients to communicate a willingness to collaborate with the other person,” Thielman says. “For example, I might coach a client to say, ‘I am realizing that with my extra workload, I feel I am having trouble dedicating the amount of time necessary to this project. I want to make sure my work is getting done well, so I am wondering if we could talk about what the possibilities might be for managing my workload.’”
Ramlo also emphasizes communication skills with her clients. “Role-playing can be an effective strategy in helping clients communicate what they want or need,” she says. “Clarifying problems and goals is also instrumental in making sure clients effectively communicate what they want or need. When people get overly emotional, it is often hard to adequately see and articulate what they want to say, thereby increasing the chances they will not get their needs met.”
Communication skills are helpful, of course, but stressed-out workers also need coping mechanisms. Thielman emphasizes the importance of her clients taking simple steps such as eating lunch away from their desks, seeking out co-workers to take brief walks with during break times and engaging in meditation or other mindfulness practices to help with relaxation and focus.
“I work with clients to find little ways all day long to interject some relaxation into their work routine such as taking time out to meditate or do some deep breathing or even go for a walk,” adds Ramlo. “I encourage them to decorate their cubicles with pictures of family or their favorite vacation spot. I encourage them to take breaks, ask for help when needed and go to the nearest park to have lunch and enjoy nature. Above all, I think it’s important to laugh throughout the day to avoid getting too mired down in the details of the job.”
Ramlo also believes it is crucial to help clients identify sources of healthy support in their lives — both at work and outside of work — and reconnect.
“I would help [clients] determine what kind of support they need and who in their life can provide it,” she says. “For instance, instead of commiserating with other disgruntled employees at happy hour, [I might suggest] joining with people who can provide timely feedback if they notice you slipping into negative patterns or help cheerlead you through a tough time. Or, if they need ongoing support that they don’t have or [if they] work from home, maybe joining a local group to help enrich their life outside of work.”
Speaking of which, there is a world outside of work, and these experts emphasize that counselors need to help clients recognize when they aren’t spending enough time there.
Work to live or live to work?
What makes you happy? That’s a question Redman says overworked and stressed employees — and the rest of us for that matter — don’t spend enough time thinking about.
All of the counselors interviewed for this article mentioned the pace of our 24-hour, on-demand society as a complicating factor when it comes to all kinds of stress, including stress connected to work. “People aren’t allowing themselves to have downtime,” Redman asserts. “They’re not taking care of themselves emotionally.”
Redman highly recommends that her clients start taking time to journal, go to the gym, practice yoga or do whatever else they enjoy. Even if it’s “just a couple of hours a weekend — go out,” she says. “Get a babysitter and go to dinner.” She believes these breaks provide people a necessary chance to regroup and review what is important in life and what isn’t.
Ramlo agrees that work-life balance is important. The needed balance is different for each person, she acknowledges, but she often joins with clients to assess whether they’re happy with their current work-life ratio. Ramlo helps clients step back and look at the big picture to prioritize and be realistic about what they can accomplish. For instance, a plan to spend less time at work would involve analyzing what skills the client is currently using, identifying what is and isn’t working, and determining how the client might use his or her time more efficiently.
“Work identity is important for many people, but I encourage them to look at other aspects of their identity that help define them,” Thielman says. “Is family time important? Time with friends? Travel? Spiritual practice? Artistic expression? Whatever it might be, are they satisfied with how much energy and time they are spending in those pursuits?”
“Looking at these issues can help [clients] see how they want to spend their time and balance their life,” she continues. “Recently, a client and I worked on managing her workplace stress and workload issues. The client began to spend more time on self-care and the personal aspects of her life and ultimately decided to leave her current job for a new one. In the new job, which she finds less stressful, she is making a conscious effort to incorporate self-care into her daily routine. Her levels of stress and depression have decreased significantly as a result of finding more balance between work and personal life. And because she has more energy, she is devoting more time to the relationships in her life that matter to her.”
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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