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We're All Stressed. But Why

September 1, 1997
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Stress Management, Featured Article
I was 11 when we started eating dinner in the doctors’ lounge. The evenings were always the same. My mother got my brother and sister and I into the family car, and we argued about which fast food chain to visit until my mother lost patience with listening to it and just decided. At the hospital, we walked in silence through the stark, smelly halls, carrying bags filled with fried chicken or burgers until we found the door marked "Doctors Only." We always ignored the sign and barged right in as if the place were ours. The TV was always blaring, usually tuned to a sporting event, and the men (they were all men in those days) in their lab coats or greens were too tired to look away from it when we came in. While the three of us got the food out, my mother had my father paged, and a few minutes later he would join us for a hasty dinner. We talked about our homework and then he was gone again.

The whole experience was about as bleak as it sounds. My father was just out of medical school and in the midst of his internship at a teaching hospital. He was on an insane call schedule that required him to spend nights in the hospital, just in case anyone in the ER might need him. The result was that sometimes we didn’t see him at all for several days.

The internship may be an extreme example, but there are others in this month’s cover story illustrating the same basic problem: employees forced to sacrifice personal relationships to meet job demands.

When I was a kid, no one even gave lip service to the notion of work/family balance. Today, many organizations say they believe in helping employees establish that balance. It often seems, however, that for every step forward there are two backward. Downsizing, mergers, the pace of change and even technology (e-mail, voicemail, laptops, pagers and other devices that make it tough to ever really get away) have all taken their toll.

One giant step backward has been a change in the establishment of expectations. My father’s internship (and subsequent residency) was hard on everyone in the family. What made it bearable was that from the outset we knew what we were in for and why. We understood the necessity of the long hours and when they would happen. We knew how long it would last and what the rewards were. In short, we understood that for my father to ever have a practice of his own, we all had to sacrifice for the short term.

That’s one example of the sort of work contract that used to be common: Do X and your reward will be Y. Few people work under such terms anymore.

Too many of today’s employees are working long hours and making personal sacrifices without really knowing why they’re doing it or how long it will last. Will the extra project lead to a promotion? A lateral move? More money? Another job? Most people aren’t sure. Will the situation last six days? Six months? Forever? Few people know. What they do know is unspoken:Without making the extra effort, the consequences will be dire.

Some job stress is inevitable, and in today’s world we all face it. But stress without context is even more stressful and, unchecked, can be unendurable. HR professionals can work to help clarify those expectations and to communicate them. Done right, that effort can boost productivity, retention and, ultimately, profits. It won’t be easy. But isn’t that what effective HR is all about?

Workforce, September 1997, Vol. 76, No. 9, p. 6.

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