Does Work Make You Crazy?

March 20, 2011 by Ken Nowack

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness”

Richard Carlson

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Perceptions of stress at work are quite high with several recent studies by Envisia Learning Inc. suggesting that 40% to 65% of all executives and employees rate their jobs as being very or extremely stressful with significant impact on work/family balance and overall health1.

News alert (in case you might have not known already) — Work-related stress can be a direct cause of clinical depression and anxiety among employees.

A recent finding in Psychological Medicine comes from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has followed a group of 1000 children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, New Zealand throughout their lives. The study subjects have been assessed at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 26, and most recently at the age of 32, in 2004-05.

The study included 406 women and 485 men. All were asked at age 32 about their perceptions of work stress. In general, men reported higher psychological job demands, lower social support, and higher physical job demands than women.

High psychological job demands, such as long hours, heavy workload, or poor relations with one’s boss, were found to be associated with clinical depression, anxiety, or both in both women and men.

It was found that women who reported high psychological job demands (using a standard approach to measuring work load and decisional control over things on the job), such as working long hours, working under pressure or without clear direction, were 75 per cent more likely to suffer from clinical depression or general anxiety disorder than women who reported the lowest level of psychological job demands.

Men with high psychological job demands were 80 per cent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than men with lower demands. Men with low levels of social support at work were also found to be at increased risk of depression, anxiety or both.

This study shows that high levels of workplace stress may be an important contributor to common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. These disorders certainly contribute directly to employer costs for medical claims, absenteeism, presenteeism and disability.

It’s seems so easy to just begin to suggest individually based remedies to help employees cope more effectively with stress on the job. However, my research review of stress management interventions suggests that individually based approaches, without targeting the organization, are unlikely to have sustain impact over time2.  So, without addressing things like work load, decisional control, team support and leadership practices these individual approaches to stress management will have limited effects on organizational outcomes like absenteeism, health and productivity.

In his book Primal Leadership, Dan Goleman states “Roughly 50 to 70 percent of how employees perceive their organizational climate can be traced to the actions of one person: the leader. More than anyone else, the boss, creates the conditions that determine people’s ability to work well.”  Additionally, research by Robert Hogan and his colleagues have suggested that at least a dozen studies tend to suggest the base rate for leadership incompetence is about 50 percent. Our own research and others suggests that the leadership practices and perceived fairness of management might alone prevent talent from getting sick and going crazy at work3.

If that doesn’t work, there is always the Serenity Prayer….Be well….

  1. Nowack, K. (2006). Optimising Employee Resilience: Coaching to Help Individuals Modify Lifestyle. Stress News, International Journal of Stress Management, Volume 18, 9-12 []
  2. Nowack, K. (2000). Occupational stress management: Effective or not?. In P. Schnall, K. Belkie, P. Landensbergis, & D. Baker (Eds.), Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, Hanley and Belfus, Inc., Philadelphia, PA., Vol 15, No. 1, pp. 231-233 []
  3. Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference, HR Trends 17, 40-42 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, and is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Wellness

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