If there’s one word you’re guaranteed to hear in the HR-offices at the moment, it’s stress. Has stress become a trend or an actual epidemic? The Danish Association for Stress (Stressforeningen) estimates that 430.000 Danes experience severe symptoms of stress every single day. This is the equivalent of about 8% of the Danish population. It could appear that our workplaces have become a major source of stress, but why is that? Have we all become addicted to our jobs? Are we too perfectionistic at work? Do we prioritize our jobs too much?
“So, what do you do?”
If you ask Danish psychologists and authors Malene Friis Andersen and Svend Brinkmann, the answer can be found in the modern merging of careers and identities. We all know it. Whenever we meet someone new, our first question is “So, what do you do?”. In other words, we evaluate the person standing in front of us based on their job. It sounds superficial, but maybe it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Due to the fact that our careers and identities are so close-knit these days, an easy way to gain insight into a person’s identity is by asking them about their job.
This close connection between our work lives and identities can be explained by the concept of cognitive capitalism. During the industrialization, many jobs consisted of manual labor. At that time, our bodies were our primary work tool. However, times have changed. Today, most people’s primary work tool is themselves, their brains, their cognition. Maybe you recognize this from coming home from work and being asked what’s for dinner – your mind is absolutely exhausted, so you end up ordering take-out (again). We’ve stepped into a new era, known as the cognitive capitalism. Because we use ourselves, our personalities, our brains, creativity, compassion and rationalism in our work, it becomes impossible to distinguish our jobs from our self-perception and identity.
Why is this making us stressed?
You may wonder why using ourselves in our jobs is making us stressed. Shouldn’t it be satisfying and fulfilling to be allowed to use more than just our physical bodies? Maybe you remember your first job and longing to get to use your brain power for more than just saying “Do you need the receipt?” Of course, it can be fulfilling. Danger arises when we have a job where the tasks are poorly defined, where we aren’t responsible, have no insight and aren’t getting enough feedback – in other words, when we have no idea if we’re doing a good job.
Am I not good enough?
If we start to doubt whether we’re doing a good job, if our boss appreciates us and whether we’re even competent at all, we’ll work even harder. Maybe you recognize this from your own experience? When your hard work isn’t acknowledged, you feel a knot in your stomach that says “maybe my boss didn’t like this project? I’ll have to do an even better job next time!”
And we’ll work harder, because if we’re no good in our work life, we’re no good outside of that. As we already mentioned, our work lives and our identities are intertwined. We will work harder and harder to maintain our positive self-perception. In fact, we’ll work so hard we end up stressed to the point of having to go on stress leave.
I don’t know who I am anymore
Why is it so difficult to get back to work after having been away on stress leave? The answer can be found in a question: Who are you now? Maybe you used to be the cool consultant who took on any new task with a smile, never complained and worked 60 hours a week. Then stress got the better of you. When you return, who are you? You may have lost your self-perception of being able to conquer anything. Now you have limits you haven’t been aware of before. A loss of work is also a loss of identity.
The almighty leader
The subheading might make this sound like we’re talking about a dictatorship, but in the workplace the leader has much more power than just structural. The leader has the power to decide who’s good enough, and who isn’t. If the boss criticizes you for your efforts, it may not be that specific in your head – the criticism feels like an attack on you as a person.
We see this in small interactions: you’ve had a long week and grab a bag of candy for the office to celebrate your hard work. Suddenly you hear your boss whisper to a colleague: “Ew, who even likes gummy bears?”. And there it is. The knot in your stomach. All because your boss doesn’t acknowledge your gesture.
In this way the leader has a huge power of definition. They define your work tasks, set the criteria for whether they are successfully completed, and decide if your opinion is legitimate or not. Therefore, the leader has a huge role to play in the potential development of stress among employees.
You deserve a well-defined task and a high-five
If the leader is able to give you well-defined tasks where you know your role and the criteria for success, the chances of you developing stress are minor. In this case, you won’t try to live up to unknown standards.
An appreciative environment is crucial for lowering stress in the workplace. If you’re acknowledged for your efforts and feel adequate and competent, you’re less likely to try to perfect every detail of every task. You will be enough at work, and therefore enough as a human being. Positive feedback is of the essence for well-being in the workplace and may decrease the risk of the development of stress.
“You’re doing a great job!”
Today we can no longer distinguish between who we are in private and who we are at work. Our identities and work lives have merged. This exposes us to the danger of stress if we do not feel good enough at work, because we won’t feel good enough in our private lives. Acknowledgement is crucial, and this goes both ways. Tell your employees or colleagues when they’re doing a great job and that you appreciate them in the office. This way, you’ll minimize the risk of someone developing stress.
Minimizing stress is not the only way to profit from a healthy feedback culture. If you want to know more perspectives on how a healthy feedback culture affects your financial results, read this article: