By Lynda Gratton
The topic of emotional vitality has recently become increasingly popular in HR circles – and the general consensus is that if you are an employee, your emotional vitality is suffering at the hands of your employers.
This might be important news to individuals, but why are so many companies interested? Why do they care if people are stressed or tired?
The reason is that as work becomes more complex, balance and creativity are becoming increasingly vital to competitive advantage – and it’s a well-established research finding that while tired, stressed people are perfectly able to do their normal everyday tasks, they are also less able to be creative.
Stress is your biggest risk
So, what exactly are organisations doing to destroy their employees’ emotional vitality? The #1 answer everywhere is stress – and there are three reasons why.
- Demands and obligations – Stressed people often cite the number demands and obligations placed upon them at work as a key cause of stress. What this tells us is that stress often originates from the design of work, with many employees finding themselves faced with ridiculous demands as a result of poor management and duplication of effort. To combat this, companies need to design work to manage the demands the demands placed on people and to reduce the amount of unimportant tasks people are required to perform.
- Discretionary time – My research shows that when it comes to stress, the issue is not the hours people work but whether they have the capacity to take time out to rejuvenate themselves. We could all work for 12 hours a day. In fact, many of us have been selected for our jobs because we have the ability to do so. The important thing is that we can’t do it all the time. What matters is not simply taking time off, but when we do it and whether we feel we can do so. There’s nothing wrong with expecting employees to be always-on as long as they know that is the nature of the job and they have ample time to recuperate.
- Constraint – If you ask what drives Gen Y workers what drives them mad at work, presenteeism is often the answer. Younger employees resent the need to stay in the office until 10pm and the constraint of having to be “seen”. In fact they find it upsetting, since working additional hours affords them little advantage. Crucially, this is not about flexible working but about job design and recuperation.
These issues matter because stress is a huge problem – one so big, it’s actually business risk. In fact next time you conduct a risk analysis, you should probably include stress on your risk list. And as you can see, job design is key when it comes to mitigating this risk.
The importance of the work-home cycle
As research by academics such as Hans-Joachim Wolfram shows, the work-home cycle also has a huge role to play when it comes to managing and combating stress. This cycle can be either caustic and draining, or positive. Work doesn’t have the monopoly on stress – a person’s home life can be stressful too – but for the most part, people leave home feeling authentic and resilient at home because it is a place where they can feel authentic and have the opportunity to recuperate in a supportive environment. However, if people leave home feeling guilty or anxious, it can affect their stress levels at work. By the same token, if an individual leaves work feeling networked, inspired by things they have learnt, this has a positive spillover into their home life: in this context, work is good and the knowledge and connections gained there can be a source of support for the family.
To get the balance of the work-home cycle right, organisations need to stop thinking about work and home as two unconnected spheres, because they are incredibly connected. Companies must think about how they support families and about whether employees have enough scope to ensure a cycle of positive spillover.