Many American workers are overworked, exhausted and underpaid. Defying their biological clocks with shift work. Putting in 50-plus-hour workweeks and often juggling the work of two or more people — all under the eye of sometimes capricious management. Employees huddle together like Survivor contestants, hoping not to be voted off the island through layoffs, outsourcing or random termination. Employees also struggle to achieve work-life balance, hoping to leave work early enough to spend time with a spouse or partner, help their children with homework or take the dog for a walk. “Self-care” may consist of slumping on the couch, shades drawn, a six-pack or jumbo glass of wine at the ready, binging on Netflix. All while living paycheck to paycheck. And some experts say that it’s killing us.
The idea of work as a mortality risk may sound like an exaggeration, but research, particularly the work of Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, suggests that the danger is all too real. His recently published book, Dying for a Paycheck, details his research on health effects often specific to work-related stressors such as unemployment and layoffs, the absence of health insurance, shift work, long working hours, job insecurity, work-family conflict, low job control, high job demands, low social support at work and low organizational fairness. Pfeffer’s conclusion: Stress caused by modern workplace conditions is sickening employees mentally and physically. Although the problem is global, Pfeffer’s research indicates that work is particularly toxic in the United States, where job stress costs employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 deaths each year.
Pfeffer’s work is not the only research that reflects the unhealthiness of the American workplace. Mental Health America’s 2017 report “Mind the Workplace” detailed the results of the nonprofit’s Workplace Health Survey given to more than 17,000 employees across 19 industries in the United States. The survey showed that only 36 percent of employees felt that they could rely on supervisor support and only 34 percent felt supported by their colleagues. Respondents also felt underappreciated: 79 percent thought they were underpaid, and 44 percent reported that skilled employees were not given enough recognition. Survey participants cited this lack of support and appreciation for causing increased levels of employee disengagement and high rates of absenteeism (33 percent), work-family conflict (63 percent) and increased mental health and behavioral problems (63 percent).
The reality of the research is evident in the offices of many career and mental health counselors, where clients report struggling with heavy workloads, conflicts with managers and co-workers, poor work-life balance and general disengagement. Making the workplace less toxic will take systemic change, but in the meantime, counselors are helping their clients cope either by finding more compatible work environments or by better managing — or changing — their current positions. In addition, some counselors are helping employers build better, healthier workplaces.
Always working overtime
Over the course of her career, licensed professional counselor (LPC) Alicia Philipp, a former human resources professional who now specializes in career counseling, has seen a significant escalation in workplace stress. Overwork is one of the most common client complaints, she says. Not only are workplaces demanding more work from fewer staff, but many employees also are expected to respond to voicemail and email during off hours and on the weekend, says Philipp, whose practice is located in Atlanta.
“I think many consider the idea of using a time clock as confining, but sometimes I think we would all be better off if we could clock out from work daily and truly enjoy our free time,” she says.
In some workplaces, defining specific work hours — such as 9 to 6 — and not being available outside of those parameters is feasible, says Katie Playfair, an Oregon LPC who specializes in anxiety and career counseling. A set schedule works best if management and team members have similar schedules, she says. However, in an increasingly globalized marketplace, team members and contacts may be working on significantly different timelines.
Playfair, who also offers workplace consultations to employers, urges clients to set clear boundaries and to “talk process” with their employers. For example, an employee who was up until 1 a.m. working remotely with team members in Vietnam justifiably will not want to come into the office bright and early, but the employee cannot simply assume that it is OK to show up at noon without an explanation, she says.
“I would encourage them to email their boss at 1:15 a.m.: ‘The team in Hanoi was stuck on problem X until just now. I will be coming in around noon tomorrow. Also, I’ve asked them to communicate with me earlier on issues like this so that I’m not missing our 10 a.m. team meeting regularly,’” she says. “This message communicates: 1) I am not going to stay up until 1 a.m. working and come into the office at a regular time. 2) I understand I’m going to miss a meeting because of this decision. 3) I’ve attempted to prevent a situation like this from happening in the future.”
Playfair also encourages clients to set boundaries by letting their bosses and colleagues know how best to reach them after hours. For example, employees can let everyone know that after 6 p.m., they will be with their family and unavailable via email but will respond to a text or phone call in an emergency. A similar method can be used for weekends and vacations, she says. If employees intend to truly be unreachable, in addition to informing their colleagues, they should indicate their “away” status on voicemail and via email auto-respond messages.
In some cases, the pressure to overwork is indirect. Employees might overwork because that is how they achieved career advancement in the past, Philipp says. In other cases, bosses overwork, creating the perception (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that not staying late is a sign of slacking off or not doing a sufficient job, says American Counseling Association member Susan Grosoff-Feinblatt, an LPC who specializes in career counseling.
Overworking can also be a coping mechanism, she notes. By staying busy at work, clients can sufficiently distract themselves from job dissatisfaction or personal issues.
Restless and disengaged
Another common complaint from clients is a sense of disengagement. A variety of factors contribute to workplace dissatisfaction, but Philipp thinks that loss of control is the most significant cause. “Having a say in what and how things get done for the greater good of whatever purpose their work serves helps to make one’s work meaningful,” she says.
This lack of meaning and sense of powerlessness is happening in many professions, but over the past five years, a number of school teachers in particular have come to Philipp seeking help with feeling disengaged. “They want to teach, and many of them who have taught for years have seen huge changes in what is expected of them. It has taken them away from what they see as their role — engaging young minds in learning,” she says.
Some of the discouraged educators have left teaching altogether, whereas others found that changing schools allowed them to regain their sense of purpose. A few of the clients moved from teaching to administrative roles in hopes of making changes on a larger scale, Philipp says.
Grosoff-Feinblatt also works with clients whose jobs have undergone an uncomfortable change. For these employees, a promotion or shifting role responsibilities have left them feeling that they lack the skills and knowledge needed to perform their duties.
This skill misalignment can sometimes be solved by seeking another position, but technology is increasingly changing how specific jobs are performed. Employees who want to remain competitive in the workplace have to seek additional training, which is a daunting prospect for many. Grosoff-Feinblatt says that clients sometimes see any new technology as part of some vast, unknowable, futuristic landscape. Helping clients let go of that notion and instead focus on what they actually need to learn for their position can greatly reduce their anxiety, she says.
Seeking new opportunities
Personal conflict is another frequent cause of work dissatisfaction. Negative workplaces abound and, sometimes, changing jobs is the only answer, but Philipp believes that counselors should also help clients identify what exactly went wrong. Not only does this examination help clients process how the experience affected them, but it also helps them consider their response to the situation — and hopefully avoid replicating it.
“In changing jobs, they may be getting away from a bad situation, but it could be something they see again at a new employer, and recognizing the earlier problems and getting a grasp on a solution earlier can be helpful,” Philipp says.
Philipp teaches clients to use the interview process to better determine whether a different prospective work environment might be a good fit. “So many people go into an interview anxious about how to answer the interviewer’s questions, but to be really prepared for the interview, a candidate should have some of their own questions to ask to help them assess if the company is a good fit,” she says.
For example, if a counseling client left a previous job because co-workers were uncooperative or even engaged in workplace bullying, the person should ask the prospective employer about the team and work environment there. Is the work done in a collaborative environment or more independently? What is the turnover rate for the department? What is the team’s biggest challenge?
As clients examine what they didn’t like about a former workplace, they may also find that they could have reacted to the conflict more effectively, Philipp says. Counselors can help these clients work on developing better resolution skills so that they can respond differently in the future.
Philipp also uses career assessments for clients who are fleeing negative workplaces. The assessments can help determine whether their interests, personalities, values and abilities are in line with the type of work they have been doing. In some cases, the client might want to consider a different career. Career assessments can also help determine what kind of work environment is best for the client.
Whether her clients are searching for a new career or just a new position, Philipp encourages them to become more involved with other people working in the field by expanding their networks through professional associations and LinkedIn. This enables clients to learn more about what is going on within their industry, including the kinds of workplace environments that different employers offer.
Building a better workplace
Playfair says that creating a healthy workplace is complicated and involves multiple factors. However, she has some definite ideas about how employers should start the process.
“It includes paying people enough so that they can meet their basic needs and not have to worry about food or shelter, minimally,” she says. “Offering benefits is wonderful, but know the limitations of your benefits packages. Having an EAP [employee assistance program] doesn’t mean it’s usable. Having ‘good’ health insurance on the medical side doesn’t mean your employees have access to a good network of mental health providers.”
Human resource professionals have to fully understand the benefits that a company offers and be proactive about helping employees take full advantage of those benefits, she continues. Ideally, employers should also allow flexible work schedules so that employees can access services that are available only during business hours.
“Above all, organizations need to be less conflict averse,” Playfair emphasizes. “They need to address abusive behavior, implement good, evidence-based management practices, broadcast compelling and cohesive visions for employees to rally around, and have real dialogues with their employees about how to achieve those visions. This means making it safe for employees to communicate their needs and for them to receive honest feedback from the employer about the feasibility of implementing their ideas and where their idea ranks [among] company priorities.”
Philipp is less convinced that better benefits are the answer, but she agrees that enfranchising employees is critical. “Many employers have made some great improvements to provide benefits to employees to help deal with stress by way of health and wellness programs,” she says. “While there are known benefits to employees participating in those, the better approach, I think, is for employers to make sure their employees’ work environment is optimal to avoiding stress to begin with. Open and regular communication, allowing employees to have a voice and see that their efforts are helping in some fashion, is essential to a healthy workplace. Some employers talk of doing this but don’t really follow through with that idea. Being given lots of free benefits may be nice, but at the heart of why we work [is that] we want our efforts to matter.”
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “Worrying for a living” by Laurie Meyers
- “Behind the book: Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases” by Bethany Bray (online exclusive)
- “Helping clients reach collaborative conflict solutions in the workplace” by Pamela Gordon, Susanne Beier and Brett Gordon
- “Making life work” by Lynne Shallcross
- “Midcourse corrections” by Stacy Notaras Murphy
- “Bringing work home” by Lynne Shallcross
- A Counselors Guide to Career Assessment Instruments, sixth edition, edited by Chris Wood and Danica G. Hays
- Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases, edited by Louis A. Busacca and Mark C. Rehfuss
- Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths, fourth edition, by Norman C. Gysbers, Mary J. Heppner and Joseph A. Johnston
- “Career Errors” presented by Frank Burtnett (ACA261)
- National Career Development Association (ncda.org)
NCDA provides professional development, publications, standards and advocacy to practitioners and educators who inspire and empower individuals to achieve their career and life goals.
- National Employment Counseling Association (employmentcounseling.org)
NECA was founded in 1966 to implement solid and practical interventions to enhance employability and long-term employment.
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.