Stress at work is nothing new. Since we flocked from the trials of rural life into the mills, workhouses and coalmines in the industrial revolution, the plight of the worker has been one of exchanging time for money. We were prepared to sacrifice agency and independence for certainty and security. We have come along way since those times, but the essence of the employment contract remains. The giving over of agency is at the core of the employment contract. What is so enticing about progressing through the ranks of hierarchy and authority is the reward of having more control, more agency and more autonomy. For huge numbers of people in work, there is and never will be any such prospect.
Talking generically about ‘stress at work’ needs some refinement. There is a significant variation in the nature and type of ‘stress’ depending on the sector – public, private or third and then the nature of the work itself. But broadly speaking the employment contract is one of exchange; I get something I want, money, status, security and in exchange I hand over my time and my autonomy to the employer. This creates the potential for a particular kind of stress. We are stressed by the situation but can’t bring about relief from it because we don’t have autonomy over the environment we’re in or the things we have to do or the way they are done. Relieving the stress depends on others, colleagues, our boss, management, the organisation itself.
How we deal with this situation is influenced strongly by our personality, by the relationships with colleagues and most importantly the relationship with our boss. This relationship has been cited as being the number one reason for stress at work and a significant factor in people leaving their job.
How Who We Are Causes Stress
There is another aspect of stress at work that I think is so important but not discussed. I’m going to look at stress through an entirely different lens. I'll use a short video to explain:
I find working from this place incredibly powerful both in a coaching situation and in management development. It provides a tangible way to put people in touch with the perceptions that shape how they see the world, the invisible needs that they are unconsciously seeking to be met. When the environment or other people clash with or don’t fulfil these needs, we are triggered into a stress behaviour, a strategy deployed to try to get the need met. Whilst many people form good friendships at work, for most it is an environment in which they are in relationship with a great many people, relationships which sit within the broader culture of the organisation. So you could look at the workplace as a complex dynamic in which everyone is constantly navigating the needs beneath the interactions and the so the potential for stress behaviours is huge.
When we are doing what we love, the way we like to do it, in an environment that meets our needs we are optimal, but for each of us this is a unique picture. So, there is a fundamental tension between people being optimal and the need to conform to and comply with the structure, processes and relationships that shape an organisation. This coupled with the relinquishing of agency in the employment contract, is at the heart of the issue of stress at work. So a more enlightened approach to this problem might be to address it from this perspective. The solutions from here look very different. Instead of spending money managing the symptoms of stress, which I doubt is making any sizeable dent in the cost of its impact, why not invest instead in an approach that is meaningful and validating, this in itself will engage people in a new relationship with self, with the principal of self-care and self-management and with their work?