Work, business & professional services

Should stress at work be illegal?

Feeling stressed at work is so common today it is almost unusual to find someone who isn’t. Describing what we mean by stress is less obvious and may be why, until now, it has been difficult to legislate against stress in the workplace. Even so, Austria introduced an anti-stress law in January 2013 and Germany is considering doing the same thing, recently commissioning an in-depth study into a clear definition of work-related stress.

In Germany, 14% or workdays were missed because of psychological illness like burnout, a rise of 50% in 12 years. The same study found that half of early retirements are caused by psychological illness. It makes sense, in an aging society, to make sure that people who are working are supported to keep working. The German labour minister commented that, while noise can be measured in decibels, there is no measurement for stress (other than signs like time lost at work). Unions support the need for an anti-stress act, based on the way smartphones and email are used to keep the workforce on call: there is no longer a reliable end to the working day. In fact, a reliable end to the working day may even be a human right.

According to an OECD study in 2010, Europeans were finding it hard to stop work life from impinging on personal life. At the top of the table was Greece, where people work 44.1 full-time hours per week, followed by Austria at 43.1, UK at 42.8 and Germany at 41.7 hours per week. No doubt, these averages obscure the fact many people work much, much harder than this. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not collect hours worked by managers, only non-managerial positions, which skews average hours down.

There are good examples of companies who take this kind of thing seriously. In 2011, Volkswagen stopped sending emails to employees outside working hours. This year, Daimler offered workers the opportunity to have their emails deleted while on holiday. These ideas are certainly a step forward in respecting the rights of workers to have time off, not just on their 4-weeks holiday, but when they get home at the end of the day.

For some people, work-life balance is meaningless because their work is their life and they like being busy every moment of the day. Smartphones were made for them. They are the kind of people who don’t believe in having time for family or bushwalking or staring at the wall. The modern economy was probably meant for them.

Ref: The Guardian (Aus), 18 September 2014, ‘Germany ponders ground-breaking law to combat work-related stress’ by P Oltermann.
The Daily Telegraph (UK), 29 August 2014, ‘Save us from the office that follows you home’ by T Chivers.
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Search words: Germany, illness, burnout, work, stress, anti-stress act, human rights, psychological illness, OECD, Austria, Volkswagen, Daimler, out-of-hours, smartphone, work-life balance.
Trend tags:Anxiety, connectivity

Getting better at getting better

The Japanese had a lot to teach America and the rest of the world about improving their manufacturing through techniques known as “lean production” and kaizen or “continuous improvement”. The process of improvement through incremental gains had a huge effect on the business world and continues today in other areas of life, such as basketball, football, athletics, classical music, and chess. The standard of performance continues to be lifted higher than it has ever been – often making the standards that used to exist look unbelievably poor.

For example, there used to be only 2 chess players in the 1970s who had Elo ratings (skill levels) higher than 2700. Today, thanks to challenging computer programs, all players can daily practise against a brilliant opponent and improve their game to a level of sophistication in strategy never thought possible. Now more than 30 players have achieved that skill level.

In classical music, pieces that were previously thought to be too difficult for any but the most talented musicians, can now be played by conservatory students. The Times music critic even declared that virtuosos are “a dime a dozen”. This means there are more talented musicians competing for declining opportunities to work – which pushes the standard even higher. It is a punishing career for those with the talent but lacking the stamina.

The same is true for sport, where the best players will now employ a whole team of trainers – scientists, nutritionists, engineers – to bring out their absolute best. Chris Hoy, the British cyclist, harnessed the best of sports technology: he practised in a wind tunnel, wore biofeedback sensors and rode an $80,000 carbon-fibre bike to his victory, albeit only a fraction of a second better than the next cyclist. Yet, even though the best cyclists are so much better, there are still many more cyclists just behind them who are nearly as good.

You might think that every field has seen the same extraordinary advances in the last 40 years. In fact, there are three areas – medicine, customer service, education – where the trajectory is either flat or down. Companies still seem to see customer service as a cost centre rather than a source of innovation potential future profit. For the most part, consumers are expected to serve themselves. Medicine, while discovering many new useful technologies, is still subject to serious errors and much of the spending in the system is wasted. 

Schools are little better than they were 30 years ago – at least in America and Australia - and test scores have barely moved, even though they spend more per pupil than ever. The crux of the problem is lack of training, the very thing that is pushing our sportspeople, chess players and musicians to their very best. For some reason, there is no incentive to train teachers to be the best they can be. There is a misguided belief that people are either suited to it or they are not. Yet in Finland, Japan and Canada, where teachers are trained and paid seriously, the education system performs very highly. Teachers do not work alone: there is a systematic approach to learning, emphasis on preparation, focus on small details and constant feedback, all examples of the way athletes train.

This begs the question: do we care more about our sportspeople than we do our teachers? What other areas might benefit from better training?

Ref: The New Yorker (US), 10 November 2014, ‘Better all the time’ by J Surowiecki.
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Search words: incremental gain, training, technology, biometric sensor, biofeedback, chess, sport, classical music, performance revolution, Japan, lean production, kaizen, customer service, medicine, education, quality, Finland.
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Work by a window, but don’t use your phone in the dark

Anyone who has worked in a windowless room will know that feeling of torpor and sluggishness at the end of the day. Now there is research to prove it. Windowless rooms affect quality of life and create erratic sleep patterns, compared to workers who sit near windows. If your desk is too far from a window, it can deny you 46 minutes of sleep. Added to this, many people don’t even go outside in the middle of the day to eat their lunch or, if they do, disappear into indoor shopping malls.

According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, light in the office is crucial to setting the body’s internal clock. A sunny day provides 10,000 lux, compared to indoor office lighting of 300-500 lux. Earlier research found nurses were less likely to experience burnout if they were exposed to at least three hours of daylight a day. Office lighting is not made up of blue light, which is the wavelength of light provided by the sun that regulates circadian rhythms.

On the other hand, blue light is the last thing you need at night. This is the type of light provided by electronic devices, like the smartphone, tablet or TV. People who use these devices before and in bed will have interrupted sleep patterns because blue light disrupts melatonin production. Worse, they can damage their eyes, suffer from mental illnesses and even have a higher risk of cancers.

Since a third of Britons suffer from poor sleep, it is worth paying attention to the importance of light in your work life. And darkness in your night life.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 5 August 2014, ‘For a good night’s sleep, work by a window’. Anon (UK).
Business Insider (Aus), 10 September 2014, ‘Smartphones ruin more than your sleep -- They may also be destroying your vision’ by K Loria.
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Search words: insomnia, desk, window, daylight, lux, circadian rhythm, exercise, blue light, smartphones, vision, cataracts, melatonin, depression.
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Teenagers won’t work weekends

Many parents have memories of working in canteens, delivering milk or newspapers or stocking supermarket shelves on Saturdays. But the number of teenagers with Saturday jobs has fallen in the last 17 years, which makes it harder for them to get a job later on. Employers look at their CVs and prefer young people who have at least worked on weekends or during holidays. 

This trend is worldwide and is nothing new. Teenagers today are more likely to stay at school than to go into full-time work. In the UK, the proportion of 16-17 year olds in work has fallen from 50% in 1992 to about 20% today. About 40% of secondary students worked on Saturdays or through the holidays in 1992, compared to only 20% today. 

Even ten years ago, American teens were studying harder in more courses and spending time in extracurricular activities than ever before. They have to compete with international students, who already have a strong study ethic. Emphasis on studying hard for future careers has reduced the attraction of menial part-time work, such as retail or hospitality, which doesn’t contribute directly to their career.

While many teenagers are burdened by study, others see no real opportunities for them in an increasingly unwelcome labour market. Employers claim legislation has made it more difficult to employ them, for example, under 16s cannot work before 7am and they cannot drive. They find it easier to employ adults, who are prepared to work more flexible hours because of their financial responsibilities.

Unfortunately, more adults are losing permanent jobs and becoming available for the type of insecure work once done by young people. This may widen the generation gap further.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 6-7 September 2014, ‘Teens shun Saturday jobs because of exams, labour shifts and, like, apathy’ by G Jackson.
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Search words: exams, teenagers, Office for National Statistics, school, Saturdays, holidays, retail, hospitality, joblessness, adults, regulations.
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Activity tracking at work

Digital tracking is the norm online, and many of us now accept cookies and advertising targeted to our preferences. But would we accept being tracked at work? This is a reality for employees at BP, eBay, Buffer, Coca-Cola, Autodesk and Bank of America. Their intentions are not all bad, but it’s hard to imagine how continual gathering of data about a person can benefit them in the end.

Activity trackers like Fitbit do encourage employees to adopt healthier habits in exchange for discounts on health insurance. Tesco has employees wear armbands that track where they go so they can be sent on tasks specific to location. Bank of America asked call centre employees to wear sensors for six weeks, which recorded where they went, who they talked to and how their body movements changed over time. It discovered that people who were more social were also more productive. This was an unexpected result: the bank changed office structure to encourage employees to chat more.

While activity trackers tend to lift productivity, one academic claims the “transparency paradox” causes people to obsess over their targets and cheat or take risks. So-called ‘wearables’ also raise questions about privacy and whether there is a good reason to track people in the first place, let alone use the data.

If an employee is still wearing a tracker outside work, the employer will be able to get a picture of their private life. They could use all tracker data to create a ‘biometric CV’, to prove that someone is better suited to, say, odd hours or stressful conditions. Is it reasonable to fire someone, or even promote someone, based on tracking data? How would you like it?

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 18 October 2014, ‘Off the clock, on the record’ by A Rutkin.
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Search words: badge, tracking, Shine, fitness, armbands, Autodesk, Fitbit, sensors, Mindshare, transparency paradox, targets, privacy, wearables, GPS, biometric CV.
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