Work stress is fixed with better priorities

Work Stress

Everywhere you turn these days, someone is talking about work stress. We are all over-worked! We’re all too stressed! The sky is indeed falling!

Some of this is true, but much of it is not.

Here’s the basic deal: work stress is real, but it’s real for different reasons than we think it is. Consider this: in the 1930s, economists were predicting we’d work six-hour weeks by now. That obviously hasn’t happened. In 1988, management consultant Peter Drucker said we’d all be working for lean companies with low levels of middle management. That hasn’t happened either.

I think this is what we need to do: figure out how real work stress is, then determine where work stress comes from. Then, let’s go ahead and try to solve the problem. Ready? And awaaaaaaaay we go.

Work stress: How real is it?

To many people, the answer is obviously “very real.” Most people I’ve ever worked with feel completely overwhelmed at their jobs and always talk about “doing work at home” and “putting in 16-hour days.” More on that in a second.

Here are results of a new study from Groupon (I’m not sure why exactly Groupon does these studies) called “Too Much Work, Too Much Stress.” They surveyed 2,000 people. (It’s not a huge number, no.) Some of the key findings include:

  • 20% of the respondents said they worked 10 hours/day
  • 60% of the respondents said there wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything
  • 50% said workload was preventing them from work-life balance
  • 53% said they still had significant financial concerns
  • On a 1-10 scale, stress at home averaged a 5; at work, it averaged a 6.4

That’s a snapshot of numbers. It’s one study without a ton of people, so you can’t take a million different executions from it, no. But most studies about work stress tend to fall in this range in terms of numbers. In general, people feel like work stress is increasing.

(Funny sidebar: if you take the 50% number and the 53% number above, that means people are working harder, but not making more money. And right there, you just explained Donald Trump as a U.S. Presidential nominee.)

Work stress: Where does it come from?

At base level, most people want to do well at their jobs, please their bosses, get raises, not get fired, etc. So that’s the ultimate root of work stress: you’re a social animal and you don’t want to let down other people. Got it? Cool.

But then we throw technology into the mix, and it gets complicated. Yesterday I did these things in succession:

  • Took an Uber to an office to pick up a check
  • Took an Uber back from the office to a Wells Fargo
  • Deposited the checks
  • On my phone outside the Wells Fargo, transferred money from checking to savings to cover my taxes (I freelance)
  • Responded to a message on LinkedIn right after I did that

Everything above took about 55 minutes total. None of it was possible 15 years ago.

My point is this: technology is supposed to make our lives easier. So, why if we have all this technology are people still reporting so much work stress? If you use Google or Microsoft for Business, there are hundreds of “work hacks” baked into those programs. You should be less stressed, right? Not more?

It’s not that simple.

The psychology of work stress

Work isn’t a logical place. It’s made up of human beings, so it’s an emotional place. You need to analyze most work contexts from a human perspective, although many do not.

Here’s what I mean. At work, most people are trying to:

But it gets tricky at most jobs, because the point of the company is usually “make money.” (Not always, but often.) Unfortunately, not every role in the company makes money. (About 2 in 5 do.) So if you’re a middle manager in marketing with less-than-identifiable ROI, how do you prove your relevance?


Well, No. 1, you hit targets for your bosses. They may be no-ROI deliverables, but hell, you still hit them.

No. 2 is: you tell everyone how busy you are. Busy doesn’t mean productive, but most miss that crucial point. Rather, many of us tend to focus on the quantity of work we do — not the quality. This helps us in two ways:

  • It’s a defense mechanism for people heaping more crap on your plate
  • It makes you feel relevant and competent without necessarily being either

This is, essentially, where work stress really comes from. It’s a natural output of our desire and hope to be seen as irreplaceable as the robots arrive to automate our jobs.

But there’s a way to beat it.

Work stress and priority alignment

Most companies are miserably bad at priority alignment. Here’s some research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management on that topic, and here’s more from Microsoft.

Priorities are crucial in an organization because everyone has to know what they are supposed to be working on. Most managers assign everything a “sense of urgency,” which ironically means absolutely nothing is really urgent. And honestly, many people come to work and fiddle around all day because no real priorities were ever set for them. I’m an over-educated person and I’ve had 3-4 jobs where I basically just surfed the Internet all day and made about $73,000. Not a lot of money, no. But I bet execs at those companies would like that $73,000 somewhere in their bonus and not my wallet, right? Job role/design is a disgrace at most companies.

But this is how you beat back work stress: you explain to people what priorities really are. Think of it like this:

  • The statement “All 14 things on your desk are crucially important and I needed them yesterday!!!” (work stress)
  • … becomes “Hey, those 1-2 things are important. Work on those. The other 11-12? Those can wait.” (less work stress)

Managerial semantics to many, but a reduction in work stress to others.

In your personal life, you beat back stress by doing things you enjoy or trying to be calm. You get to “calm” by focusing on what matters. It’s the same in work. If you have no ability to focus on what matters, you can’t be calm. That’s work stress in a nutshell, right there.

So, how do we fix this?

Reducing work stress

You can never totally eliminate it. It’s baked into human nature. But there are some approaches that would work.

Better Priority Alignment: That’s all described above, and also here.

Understand Some Work Science: For example, 55 hours of work/week is a hard ceiling on productivity. I realize we deify the Type-A male workaholic bellowing about 80 hours last week, but we shouldn’t. It doesn’t mean he was productive in those 80.

Use Meetings/Calls Better: Meetings and calls are most of your time, so put some context and preparation behind them.

Uninterrupted Work Time: You can manipulate your schedule to allow for this. If all you do is go to meetings and sit on calls, you do no real work. If you do no real work, you’re not a valuable employee. Again, it might seem semantic, but if an executive views you as a cost hit and revenue drops, are you safe? You are not safe.

Understand The Realities Of Work-Life Balance: For example, we all think about it wrong. Right now it’s 100% a buzzword at most companies, but it can be a strategic advantage.

Think About What Makes You Happy: No one gets to their deathbed and says “I wish I had more Excel rows to manage.” Happiness is about time, not about money. If you’re chasing work stress to chase money, re-evaluate your priorities. The money is there for plenty of guys who work 38 hours/week too. They just manage their time better.

What else would you add about work stress?


Ted Bauer

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