Unhappy workers: the paradox of stress and workplace productivity

"People generally have the misconception that, in order to be successful, they have to postpone their happiness." Photo: VisualHunt A Stanford University researcher tell us why compassion, rather than stress, is actually better for workplace productivity

Focus Asean
August 8, 2016
Unhappy workers: the paradox of stress and workplace productivity
A Stanford University researcher tell us why compassion, rather than stress, is actually better for workplace productivity. Photo: VisualHunt

VIntage typewriter notebook on table
“People generally have the misconception that, in order to be successful, they have to postpone their happiness.” Photo: VisualHunt

A Stanford University researcher tell us why compassion, rather than stress, is actually better for workplace productivity

A quick flick through Darrin McMahon’s illuminating book, Happiness: A History, does not make for much of an enjoyable read. Just listen to some of the solemnness quoted: King Croesus said in the sixth century BC that “no-one who lives is happy”. Samuel Johnson, in between writing one of the most influential English dictionaries, had the time to muse that one could only be happy when drunk. A century or so later, the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed happiness to be lying in a boat, drifting aimlessly, and believing oneself to be a god.

Today, although Bhutan might be the only country to have transposed gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product as the indicator of national health, we are constantly reminded that it is not only important to be happy but also productive – a commingling that is often difficult to achieve. Indeed, while Confucius might have once stated that “choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” combining a vocation with a decent monthly salary is something that evades most people.

Chronic stress

A 2014 report by the Conference Board, the New York-based nonprofit research group, found that 52.3% of Americans surveyed were unhappy at work. The group has conducted such a study every year since 1987, when 39.9% said they were unhappy.

The same year, global recruitment firm Randstad Workmonitor surveyed workers across Asia to discover their thoughts on labour. Half of all Singaporeans who were asked said they were not working in their perfect job, and three quarters felt that their job was just a way of making a living and nothing more. The study ranked Singapore as second in the number of employees dissatisfied in their jobs, just behind the number one-ranked Japan.

Yet in the past two decades, many companies around the world have started to pay closer attention to their employees’ moods. There is good reason. A 2012 study by Cynthia D. Fisher, a professor of management at Bond University’s School of Business in Australia, found that happy employees are less inclined to leave their jobs, are better at satisfying customers, are safer and more healthy, and tend to boost productivity.

Emma Seppala explains the paradox of workplace stress
Emma Seppälä is a science director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

Q&A: Emma Seppälä on the science of happiness

Emma Seppälä is a science director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. She provided Focus Asean with some insight into why so many people have the wrong approaches to their work life and how we can be more productive if relaxed, rather than stressed.

We usually think that, if we are successful, we will be happy. We also believe that, to be successful, we may have to sacrifice our happiness now. What’s wrong with this idea?

People generally have the misconception that, in order to be successful, they have to postpone their happiness. Ironically, what research is showing is that happiness is the fast track to success. If, instead of overworking and burning out, you take time to relax, to cultivate calmness, to stay present, and to be compassionate to yourself and others, you will be more productive, resilient to stress, charismatic and influential, and more creative and innovative.

Why does being focused on the future end up harming our success?

We are always thinking about what’s next on your to-do list and believe that crossing things off one at a time will help us be more productive. Whether you’re a web designer, teacher, fireman, or army officer, you are encouraged to keep checking things off the to-do list, amassing accomplishments, and focusing your efforts on the future. There’s always something more you can do to further yourself at work: an extra project or responsibility you can take on, more schooling you can complete to ensure a promotion, or an additional investment to wager on just in case! There’s always that co-worker who is putting in longer hours, showing you that you too can and should do more. And so you strive nonstop to exceed your goals, playing catch-up with your ambitious to-do list. However, research shows our mind wanders 50% of the time. As a consequence, we are less productive and fail to connect with others. Instead, if you spend more time being present and focusing on the task or conversation at hand, you will not only see your work performance improve but also becoming more charismatic.

What are some of the negative consequences of thinking success and stress go hand in hand?

More than 80% of visits to doctors are due to stress but we believe you can’t have success without stress. We drink caffeine and over-schedule ourselves. As a consequence, we live in a constant state of “fight or flight” overdrive and eventually end up burning ourselves out. Burnout and lack of engagement are plaguing professions across the board.

How do chronically stressed people affect the people they work with?

Stress makes us self-focused and decreases our emotional and social intelligence. We’re more likely to blow a fuse or say the wrong thing, we’re more likely not to notice how others around us are feeling. We become less effective leaders and colleagues. As a consequence, we unwittingly sabotage our work relationships and therefore the loyalty of those around us. Research shows a strong link between leadership behaviour and heart disease in employees. Stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart.

Why do most people avoid taking all their vacation dates and why does this work against their ability to succeed? Is being non-productive just as important as being productive?

Research [demonstrates] that CEOs currently value creativity above all other skills in their employees yet research also shows there is currently a “creativity crisis” with creativity scores dropping dramatically. One reason may be that we over-focus. Research shows that taking time off from work to unfocus by being idle and engaging in fun and diverse activities – though it may seem unproductive – will actually make you more creative and innovative. Vacations are key to creativity because they help you relax, they diversify your experiences and they create an opportunity for fun.

When people say they’re a workaholic, they declare it as a badge of honour.  You reveal that workaholism can actually sabotage our work and should be seen as a red flag. How so?

A major theory of success we live by is that, in order to succeed and be happy, you need to focus on the future. People think that success requires extreme sacrifices in the present – foregoing personal happiness, enduring negative feelings and tremendous stress – because the eventual payoff is worth it. They get addicted to productivity; they are driven by perfectionism. The result is workaholism. What they don’t realise are the costs of workaholism: damaged physical and psychological health, decreased productivity and performance, decreased attention span, sleep problems and even family problems.

Does perfectionism lead to one’s downfall?

While perfectionism is certainly valuable and can push you to do your best, it also has a dark underbelly because it leads to impossibly high standards and worrying that can lead to burnout. Perfectionism in the workplace (as opposed to in sports or education) leads to even greater risks for burnout. Because they have impossibly high standards, perfectionists live in a constant state of high stress. It is no surprise that perfectionism has been linked to suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, and poor performance.

One of the keys to success that you discuss is how we should focus on our effort, not our strengths.  What is the downside to focusing on our strengths?

Many people believe they should only stick to working at things they are good at, in other words their “strengths.” They believe they are good at some things and bad at others. However, this kind of thinking is false: our brain is wired to learn new things. Research also shows that, when you believe in strengths, you tend to become more depressed in the face of failure, tend not to grow from your mistakes, or learn new skills.

How does self-compassion empower us at the office?

Many people are self-critical. They think that self-criticism will help them work harder and keep striving. However, research shows that self-criticism makes you less resilient in the face of failure, and less likely to grow from your mistakes. Instead, being compassionate with yourself makes you more resilient, improves your ability to excel in the face of challenge, to develop new skills and to learn from mistakes.

Is there a difference between good stress and bad stress?

Acute stress can be very good in the short run: physically, it mobilises your body to recover from injury (after a surgery or accident, for example) and psychologically it can help you get things done by motivating you and sharpening your attention skills. However, when you are chronically stressed then the stress starts to wear on your nervous system. It slowly wears the body down, exhausts you, and harms your cognitive skills.

Why do so many managers feel the need to be feared?

The traditional paradigm just seems safer: be firm and a little distant from your employees. The people who work for you should respect you, but not feel so familiar with you that they might forget who’s in charge. A little dog-eat-dog, tough-it-out, sink-or-swim culture seems to yield time-tested results and keeps people hungry and on their toes. After all, if you’re a leader who seems like you care a little too much about your employees, won’t that make you look “soft”? Won’t that mean you will be less respected? That employees will work less hard?

Does being compassionate make you more successful?

We often believe we have to “look out for number one” in order to be successful. Instead of remaining focused on yourself, expressing compassion to those around you and creating supportive relationships with your co-workers, boss, and employees will dramatically increase their loyalty and commitment to you, thereby improving everyone’s productivity, performance, and influence. Research shows colleagues and employees will like and respect you more; they will be more loyal and more likely to help you. Best of all, you will feel happier and will be healthier. 

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