Category Archives: Health & Wellness

Book Summary & Review — Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton

According to Adrian Gostick, one of the main reasons for writing the book had to do with his (now) 25-year-old son, Anthony (Tony) Gostick, who had been struggling with anxiety since high school and had always wanted his dad to write about this topic. Tony soon realized that he wasn’t alone and that many of his peers and even his managers were also feeling anxiety.

As Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, his friend and coauthor, traveled the world talking and working with organizations and their executives, the theme that kept coming up again and again was that of anxiety in the workplace and what leaders can do to help their employees deal with anxiety — how to help (i.e., having the tips & tools) employees feel more supported and more resilient in the workplace. 

The book is organized by eight sources* of anxiety in the workplace, with a chapter for each strategy (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 26):

  • Employees’ uncertainty about the organization’s strategy contending with challenges, and how it affects job for security.
  • Work overload and the need for managers to help balance loads and help prioritize.
  • A lack of clarity about prospects for career growth and development, as well as the need for clarity in everyday work situations.
  • How perfectionism has become the enemy of getting things done.
  • Fear of speaking up, contributing, and debating issues.
  • Feeling marginalized as “others” for women, people of color, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and religious minorities.
  • Being excluded socially by team members, with the sense of alienation from working remotely an emerging variation of this problem.
  • A lack of confidence and feeling undervalued.

*To get some clarity, I emailed Gostick and Elton to inquire about the citation(s) of these “eight leading sources of anxiety in the workplace.” This was Adrian Gostick’s reply: “Those 8 are our conclusions of leading sources of anxiety in the workplace based on our research and interviews. They are proprietary. It didn’t seem right to use someone else’s list as our conclusion. . .” Within each of the 8 are sources [he’s referring to the hodgepodge of sources in the “Notes” section] to back up the claims. With that said, we aren’t claiming this is an exhaustive list, but our conclusion based on experience, research and interviews.”

**Although I’m disappointed to not have received greater clarification on how these “eight leading sources of anxiety in the workplace” came to be, I do understand The Culture Works’ (a Utah-based global training and consulting company founded by Gostick & Elton) reluctance (like many other private consultancies) to disclose their research data.

At the end of each chapter is a very handy chapter summary.

Chapter 1 The Duck Syndrome – Highlights (no summary page)

“Despite a great deal of coverage in the media about rising anxiety levels, the stigma at work remains potent. Most people aren’t willing to discuss what they’re going through with anyone but their closest family and friends, and often not even with them” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 10).

“Only one in four people who suffer from anxiety say they have talked about it to their boss. The rest? They hide their symptoms. Many have been doing it since their school days” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 11). 

*This is not from the book, but I really like Arifeen Rahman’s description of the duck syndrome (below):

“At Stanford the term ‘Duck Syndrome’ describes students struggling to survive the pressures of a competitive environment while presenting the image of relaxed California chill. Imagine a calm duck gliding across a fountain. Underwater, the duck’s feet are paddling furiously – against the terrifying possibility that it may sink or even worse: be revealed as trying too hard” (Rahman, 2019).

Gostick and Elton (2021) say that this Duck Syndrome is alive and well in the workplace. They wrote that, similar to these struggling college students who appear fine, at work, “many people who might seem to be doing fine are, in reality, in danger of going under” (p. 11).

“According to a study by Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School professors, workplace stress and anxiety may be a contributing factor in more than 120,000 deaths annually. In short, tens of billions of dollars, massive employee burnout, and the mental and physical well-being of our workforces are all at stake when considering how to mitigate anxiety” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 13).

Gostick and Elton (2021) stated: “we are not suggesting leaders should try to become therapists” (p. 20). However, they contend that, “managers must take responsibility and do what they can to alleviate some of the strains work life is placing on so many of their people” (p. 22).

“Are managers willing to be present with an employee as that person makes sense of their mental health issue? Do they know how far to help without it becoming a counseling session? This is vital knowledge for managers these days” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 22).

Good summary of Anxiety at Work:  

“The hopeful news this [Anxiety at Work] book offers is that leaders of teams can adopt a set of eight simple practices we’ve [Gostick and Elton] identified that can greatly reduce the anxiety their people are feeling. Using these practices and the lessons throughout the book will help any leader convey that they genuinely care about those they are privileged to lead—sending them home each night feeling a little more valued, listened to, and included” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 23-24).

“Working to make team members feel understood, accepted, and secure is an extraordinary team-bonding opportunity. Research leaves not the slightest doubt that it’s also a powerful productivity booster. Devoting a little extra time and attention to this new way of managing will pay off in spades, and that is a great anxiety reliever for leaders as well, many of whom are concerned with their own job security” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 28).

In today’s workplaces, the pace of change is intensifying and competition ever-present. Managers will never be able to completely stop their employees from feeling anxious, stressed, or worried. And there’s not much managers can do about the challenges that batter the workplaces (Gostick & Elton, 2021). However, “within our teams, we can go a long way to relieving tensions, providing support, inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty, and creating a safe place for people to spend their days” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 28-29).

Chapter 2 Summary – Lead through Uncertainty (p. 67)

* Uncertainty can trigger various responses in people, often with negative consequences on performance. The most common uncertainty for today’s employees is whether or not a job will last.

* Uncertainty is exacerbated when managers don’t communicate enough about challenges facing their organizations and how those issues may affect their people and their teams.

* A good deal of employee uncertainty is about their own performance and development, i.e., How am doing? and Do I have a future here? By meeting one-on-one regularly to evaluate performance and growth opportunities, leaders can help team members avoid misreading situations while enhancing their engagement and commitment to the organization.

* Leaders can use a set of methods to help reduce uncertainty: 1) make it okay to not have all the answers, 2) loosen your grip in tough times, 3) ensure everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them, 4) keep people focused on what can be controlled, 5) have a bias to action, and 6) offer constructive feedback.

Chapter 3 Summary – Help with Overload (p. 95)

* Leaders often fail to appreciate that constantly demanding more and more work in less and less time will lead to employee frustration, rising anger levels, and eventually anxiety and burnout.

* Managers may believe it is an individual failure when an employee is overwhelmed, and yet more than 90 percent of employees feel burned out at least some of the time. The problem is often organizational.

* Most approaches businesses take to helping people cope with crushing workloads are aimed at fixing the person instead of focusing on underlying issues with the amount of work assigned and with the ways in which employees are managed.

* When employees feel anxiety from overload, managers can start by helping them break work into optimal chunks.

* Other methods to help team members better cope with workload expectations and reduce anxiety levels include: 1) create clear roadmaps, 2) balance loads, 3) rotate people, 4) closely monitor progress, 5) help people prioritize, 6) avoid distractions, and 7) encourage R&R.

Chapter 4 Summary – Help Chart Career Development (p. 124)

“Of course, classes and virtual training in foundational business skills can be quite valuable, but the learning that will most excite employees, and make the most immediate impact on their performance, is about how to tackle the specific challenges they’re facing in their work day-to-day” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 116).

* Research shows younger workers are more eager to move up or out, and more than 75 percent of Gen Zers say they believe they should be promoted within their first year on the job. Creating more steps on the career path can help.

* Some 90 percent of younger workers “highly value” career growth and development opportunities, and organizations that effectively nurture their people’s desire to learn are 30 percent more likely to be market leaders.

* Some 87 percent of millennials ranked job security as a top priority when looking for a job. That is more than likely going to be even higher in the post-pandemic world.

* Following a set of methods can reduce employees’ anxiety about where they’re heading in their careers. They include: 1) create more steps to grow, 2) coach employees about how to get ahead, 3) help employees assess their skills and motivations, 4) use a skill development flow, 5) make learning real-time, 6) tailor development to the individual, 7) carefully calibrate growth opportunities, and 8) encourage peer-to-peer support.

Chapter 5 Summary – Manage Perfectionism (p. 149)

* There are certain jobs when flawless execution is vital. Perfectionism isn’t about a rational quest to get things right when they have to be; it’s a corrosive impulse to appear perfect, and often to push others for flawlessness as well.

* Studies have found perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety. They can also spend so much time tinkering or deciding on a course of action that they get little done.

* A key difference between unhealthy perfectionism and healthy striving is being able to define realistic expectations and knowing when to say “that’s good enough.”

* To identify someone who might have perfectionist tendencies, look for those who seek excessive guidance, seem loath to take any sort of risk, and treat most decisions as if they were a matter of life and death. Perfectionists can also tend to become overly defensive when criticized, and they can become preoccupied with their missteps or the mistakes of others.

* A series of methods can help lead those with perfectionist tendencies, including: 1) clarify what good enough is, 2) share the wisdom of innovators, 3) treat failures as learning opportunities, 4) regularly check in on progress, 5) team them up, and 6) discuss the issue openly.

Chapter 6 Summary – Manage Healthy Debate (p. 170)

* Many people today are conflict-avoidant—sidestepping uncomfortable situations and holding back on giving honest feedback.

* The best work groups are places of high trust and high candor, where team members debate to drive problem-solving. When employees are free to speak up and know their voices will be heard, it can increase engagement, enhance psychological safety, and bolster self-confidence and a sense of ownership.

* Leaders facilitate this by encouraging debate in a safe environment. They set ground rules and encourage all voices to be heard, de-escalate quarreling, ask team members to clarify their opinions with facts, and create clear plans and timelines for moving forward.

* Managers can spot employees who may be conflict-averse if they shy away from difficult conversations, try to change the topic or flee the scene when things get tense, get uncomfortable during debates, or resist expressing their feelings or thoughts during meetings.

* Methods that managers can use to coach their employees to find their voices and work through difficult conversations include: 1) address the Issue, Value, Solution, 2) don’t delay, 3) stick to facts, 4) use your words, 5) assume positive intent, 6) have plan, 7) give and take, and 8) get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Chapter 7 Summary – Become an Ally (p. 188)

* There has been a historic pattern of anxiety in particular groups within the workplace—those too often made to feel like “others.” Of particular concern are women, people of color, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, members of religious minorities, and those with disabilities.

* Many in these communities must hide their true identities. But when managers create cultures where people feel comfortable being themselves, dramatic performance gains can be unlocked as everyone is able to focus all their attention on work.

* Many leaders do not understand the level of implicit bias that occurs in our work cultures. Microaggressions are biases that reveal themselves in often subtle ways and leave people feeling uncomfortable or insulted. They can take a psychological toll on the mental health of recipients and can lower work productivity and problem-solving abilities.

* Methods to help those who are marginalized feel valued and included in any team include: 1) listen up, 2) sponsor, 3) stand up, and 4) advocate.

Chapter 8 Summary – Build Social Bonds (p. 209)

* Exclusion can be toxic to anxiety levels. Fear of missing out (FOMO) may harm mental well-being since humans have such a strong need to belong. Some 71 percent of professionals say they have experienced some degree of exclusion within their team.

* There is much team leaders can do to spot those who may seem to be left out—all the more important when some or all of a team works remotely: Which person is regularly cut off during group discussions? Who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone? Regular one-on-ones are the best way to understand what’s really going on.

* Leaders can encourage inclusion by ensuring that all team members can contribute in meetings and have their voices heard in a calm and organized manner, buddy new hires up with friendly seasoned employees, and spend time in every meeting recognizing contributions.

* Other methods for helping move a team from exclusion to connection include: 1) build camaraderie, 2) find a common core, 3) foster connections and friendships, 4) provide frequent validation, and 5) include remotes.

Chapter 9 Summary – Build Confidence with Gratitude (p. 226)

* One of the simplest and most effective ways to motivate employees to achieve is by regularly expressing gratitude. Research shows offering positive reinforcement produces impressive boosts in team performance and significantly reduces anxiety levels in team members.

* Leaders don’t express gratitude to their people about work well done anywhere nearly as frequently or effectively as they should.

* High-performing employees are often gratitude sponges and perceive a lack of attention from a manager as a sign that things are not good; silence can cause worry to creep up on even the best of workers.

* Regular expressions of gratitude are like deposits in a Bank of Engagement. They build up reserves for when an employee’s work has to be corrected. Research shows gratitude also helps people develop a greater capacity to handle stress.

* Other practical methods to turn doubts into assurance include: 1) make gratitude clear, specific, and sincere, 2) match gratitude to magnitude, 3) preserve gratitude’s significance, 4) provide gratitude to high-flyers, too, and 5) keep gratitude close to the action.

How Anxiety Fills the Gap

“Leaders often shy away from discussing hard truths. They fear that such a discussion might dishearten their workers or cause them to bolt. And yet, there’s something exhilarating for employees about facing facts head-on. Such inclusion helps people feel like they are being brought into the inner circle to brainstorm solutions to challenges. Ambiguity either prolongs inevitable bad news or widens the trust gap. Or both” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 62).

How to Turn Less into More

“To lessen anxiety, we’ve found some good questions to ask in these individual check-ins include: (1) Do you feel like you can complete the project by deadline without having to work unreasonable hours? (2) Is there anyone else on the team who could help so you could meet the deadline? (3) Is there any part of this project that might be delayed? (4) Do you need any additional training or resources to be successful? (5) What have you learned that we might do differently next time we are up against a task like this?” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 87).

Clear Paths Forward

“If leaders are seeking to retain the best young workers, and reduce unnecessary career anxiety in their people, then addressing concerns about job security, growth, and advancement are vital” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 100).

How “It’s Not Perfect” Can Become “It’s Good, I’ll Move On”

“Jared, you’ve got high standards, just like me. I see that you always try to make sure all the details are attended to and everything is done exactly right. That can be a good thing. Now, as I want you to progress in this organization, I’ll tell you something I had to learn. Focusing on improving things from 95 percent to 100 often bogs down opportunities. It’s easy to get tunnel vision in getting something perfect that can cost more than it does to move on to the next project. Let me give you an example I saw where you might have applied this lesson” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 146).

From Conflict Avoidance to Healthy Debate

“Managers should address mean-spirited tensions head-on, and team members who stir up hostility should be coached. But there is a big difference between hostility and debate” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 152).

In high-performing teams with high trust and high candor, team members welcome debates and report that disagreements and strenuous debates help “drive inventive problem-solving, and can be highly motivating” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 152).

“When managers perceive that a conflict-avoidance issue may exist, they can do a great deal to address it by working with employees to stand up for themselves. They may also help them take time to consider their own opinions before agreeing to anything that might violate their values, and stick to their guns when challenged” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 154).

Becoming an Ally

“As we spoke with individuals in marginalized communities, a few things they wanted managers to understand about addressing bias included: 1) Don’t try to convince a person from a marginalized group of all the things that have gone wrong in your life to better relate to their issues (you were poor, your parents died, you have a learning disorder, etc.); this is not a competition. 2) Don’t ante up by saying that your daughter is gay or that you have lots of Black friends. 3) Be compassionate but don’t be “shocked” by racism or other forms of bias; if you are, you have been actively ignoring what’s been happening because it did not affect you directly. 4) Don’t preach about your “wokeness” to the issue; show it” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 179).

Transform Exclusion into Connection

“There’s actually quite a lot that team leaders can do to encourage inclusion; for instance, looking carefully for anyone on the team who may seem to be left out (all the more important when some or all of a team works remotely), which person is regularly cut off during group discussions, who is regularly chatting with whom, and who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone. By watching, a manager can gain awareness and insight” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 191).

Turn Doubts into Assurance

“One of the most effective ways leaders can combat anxiety is to foster an attitude of gratitude throughout their organizations—not just top-down, but peer-to-peer” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 218).

“When leaders align rewards with the level of achievement, they help those who are anxious make more positive assumptions about their work. For small steps forward, verbal praise or a note of thanks is appropriate, but bigger achievements require a tangible reward presented in a timely manner” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 221).

WHAT I REALLY LIKE

By following the strategies, tips, and techniques provided by Gostick and Elton in Anxiety at Work, leaders will not only become better at reducing the stress and anxiety on their teams and in their employees, but they will also become better leaders. Inherent in many of these suggested practices is the assumption that one is already a capable boss and that these anxiety-reducing practices for leading your team will make you an even better boss. And, if you’re a subpar leader, Gostick and Elton’s recommendations will most certainly help raise your leadership skills.

For example, in Ch. 2, Gostick and Elton wrote (2021, p. 67): “A good deal of employee uncertainty is about their own performance and development, i.e., How am doing? and Do I have a future here? By meeting one-on-one regularly to evaluate performance and growth opportunities, leaders can help team members avoid misreading situations while enhancing their engagement and commitment to the organization.” In Ch. 3, they stated (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 95): “Leaders often fail to appreciate that constantly demanding more and more work in less and less time will lead to employee frustration, rising anger levels, and eventually anxiety and burnout.” In Ch. 6, the authors maintained (p. 170): “The best work groups are places of high trust and high candor, where team members debate to drive problem-solving. When employees are free to speak up and know their voices will be heard, it can increase engagement, enhance psychological safety, and bolster self-confidence and a sense of ownership.” In Ch. 8, Gostick and Elton said (p. 209): “There is much team leaders can do to spot those who may seem to be left out—all the more important when some or all of a team works remotely: Which person is regularly cut off during group discussions? Who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone? Regular one-on-ones are the best way to understand what’s really going on.” Finally, in Ch. 9, they declared (p. 226): “One of the simplest and most effective ways to motivate employees to achieve is by regularly expressing gratitude. Research shows offering positive reinforcement produces impressive boosts in team performance and significantly reduces anxiety levels in team members.”

These are all classic management and leadership advice! I LOVE it!

CAUTION/CAVEAT:

As a former mental health professional, I want to make two important points. 

Point Number One: 

There’s an implicit assumption in Anxiety at Work that the “anxiety at work” is work-related and that managers and leaders need to have tips and tools to help their employees who are experiencing anxiety at work. What is very important to understand, however, is that individuals who experience anxiety also experience anxiety in other areas of their lives OUTSIDE of work. 

There was no clearly explained causes of anxiety mentioned in Anxiety at Work (I’m referring to the clinical definition & diagnosis of anxiety). According to the American Psychiatric Association (2017), “the causes of anxiety disorders are currently unknown but likely involve a combination of factors including genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental. Anxiety disorders can run in families, suggesting that a combination of genes and environmental stresses can produce the disorders.” In general, for a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the fear or anxiety must: (1) Be out of proportion to the situation or age inappropriate, and (2) Hinder ability to function normally (APA, 2017). 

As Dr. Edmund Bourne (a clinical psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of anxiety disorders and related problems for 30 years) explained in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook (2015, p. 8): “Anxiety is an inevitable part of life in contemporary society. It’s important to realize that there are many situations that come up in everyday life in which it is appropriate and reasonable to react with some anxiety. If you didn’t feel any anxiety in response to everyday challenges involving potential loss or failure, something would be wrong.”

“Anxiety disorders are distinguished from everyday, normal anxiety in that they involve anxiety that 1) is more intense (for example, panic attacks), 2) lasts longer (anxiety that may persist for months or longer instead of going away after a stressful situation has passed), or 3) leads to phobias that interfere with your life” (Bourne, 2015, p. 8).

Point Number Two:  

Seek appropriate mental health help for anxiety disorders (see APA, 2016; APA, 2017; NAMI, 2017). Gostick and Elton (2021) wrote: “for employees feeling anxiety symptoms at any level, referral to a company employee assistance program (EAP) or licensed counselor can be extremely helpful” (p. 20). Anxiety at Work is written with the primary focus on helping managers and leaders aid their employees, rather than providing an individual worker with the tools to cope with anxiety.

If you experience anxiety that is (1) hard-to-control, (2) where you excessively worry about a host of issues—health, family problems, school, money, work—that results in both physical and mental complaints (e.g., muscle tension, restlessness, easily tired and irritable, poor concentration, and trouble sleeping), and (3) you experience it on most days for 6+ months, PLEASE seek appropriate, qualified, and licensed mental health help (see APA, 2016; APA, 2017; NAMI, 2017).

In addition to seeking clinical help, I would strongly suggest reading books that specifically address anxiety, such as:

  • “The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points” by Alice Boyes
  • “The Anxiety Skills Workbook: Simple CBT and Mindfulness Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety, Fear, and Worry” by Stefan G. Hofmann 
  • “Anxiety Happens: 52 Ways to Find Peace of Mind” by John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert
  • “The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times” by Rick Hanson, Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Martin N. Seif, Sally M. Winston, David A. Carbonell, Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M Karle
  • “Coping with Anxiety: Ten Simple Ways to Relieve Anxiety, Fear, and Worry” by Edmund J. Bourne and Lorna Garano

Takeway:

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton’s Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done is a fantastic contribution to the field of management and leadership as well as occupational health psychology (a field of psychology concerned with the health, safety, and well-being of employees, and covers four connected areas: the employee; the job environment; the organizational environment; and the external environment). In Anxiety at Work (2021), Gostick and Elton utilized stories and examples of real managers and their employees “to create a simple guide for managers that they can read very quickly” (p. 25) and included recommended practices that leaders can implement immediately (Gostick & Elton, 2021). Anxiety at Work is an important resource and guide for managers and leaders of teams, functions, and organizations. The tips and practices are great for helping leaders create and maintain a lower-stress work environment.

However, it is important to note that Anxiety at Work is not a guide for those experiencing anxiety at work and in other domains of life. Anxiety at Work is not a replacement for seeking help from a licensed and trained mental health clinician nor can it adequately help employees (on an individual level) better deal with and manage anxiety. The book is written to target the job and the organizational environment (i.e., what managers & leaders can do and need to do), not the individual employee.

With that caveat in mind, I really like Anxiety at Work and highly recommend it for leaders at all levels of an organization.

As Gostick and Elton (2021) wrote, you must acknowledge “the frantic duck-paddling going on under the surface in your team” (p. 227) and “begin to minimize anxiety, offer support for people to work through their feelings, and build resilience for challenges to come” (p. 227). Anxiety at Work helps leaders better understand that mental health and employee well-being are just as important as sales quotas and customer satisfaction.

Best of all, Anxiety at Work provides leaders with practical solutions: (1) to help reduce uncertainty; (2) to help team members better cope with workload expectations and reduce anxiety levels; (3) to reduce employees’ anxiety about where they’re heading in their careers; (4) to lead those with perfectionist tendencies; (5) to coach their employees to find their voices and work through difficult conversations; (6) to help those who are marginalized feel valued and included in any team; (7) to help move a team from exclusion to connection; and (8) to turn doubts into assurance.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2017, January). What Are Anxiety Disorders? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders

American Psychological Association (APA). (2016, October 1). Beyond worry: How psychologists help with anxiety disorders. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/disorders

Bourne, E. J. (2015). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook (6th ed.). New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Bourne, E. J., & Garano, L. (2016). Coping with Anxiety: Ten Simple Ways to Relieve Anxiety, Fear, and Worry (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2018). Anxiety Happens: 52 Ways to Find Peace of Mind. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Gostick, A., & Elton, C. (2021). Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done. Harper Business.

Hanson, R., McKay, M., Davis, M., Eshelman, E. R., Seif, M. N., Winston, S. M., Carbonell, D. A., Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2020). The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Hofmann, S. G. (2020). The Anxiety Skills Workbook: Simple CBT and Mindfulness Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety, Fear, and Worry. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (2017, December). Anxiety Disorders. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders

Rahman, A. (2019, July 26). Duck Syndrome. https://www.kqed.org/perspectives/201601138907/duck-syndrome

Disclosure: I received a print copy of Anxiety at Work as a complimentary gift in exchange for an honest review.

What Burnout Is and Why It Isn’t Confined To The Occupational Sphere

What Is Burnout?

Burnout isn’t just being tired or “fed up” with work. “Burnout is far more than feeling blue or having a bad day. It is a chronic state of being out of synch with your job, and that can be a significant crisis in your life” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2). With burnout, a person is no longer able to work (exhaustion) and no longer wants to spend effort at work (distancing). Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, mental distancing, and impaired cognitive functioning, such as poor attention and concentration, and a poor working memory (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

In their book, Banishing Burnout, Leiter and Maslach (2005) wrote that: 

Burnout is lost energy. You are constantly overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2).

Burnout is lost enthusiasm. Your original passion has faded and been replaced by a negative cynicism” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2).

Burnout is lost confidence. Without energy and active involvement in your work, it’s hard to find a reason to keep going” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 3).

Burnout has become serious enough that the World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) included it in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, though not a medical condition. According to ICD-11: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

According to psychology professors, Michael Leiter, Christina Maslach, and Wilmar Schaufeli (2009): “burnout is a psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion; feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (p. 90). 

Another definition of burnout is that it is: a work-related state of exhaustion occurring among employees. Burnout is characterized by extreme tiredness, reduced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional processes, and mental distancing. These four core dimensions of burnout are also accompanied by depressed mood and by non-specific psychological and psychosomatic distress symptoms (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

Although there are varying perspectives on the definition of what constitutes burnout, what is common to all definitions is that, “burnout occurs at an individual level; that it is an internal psychological experience involving feelings, attitudes, motives, and expectations; and that it is a negative experience for the individual, in that it concerns problems, distress, discomfort, dysfunction, and/or negative consequences” (Maslach, Leiter, & Schaufeli, 2009, p. 89). 

And while burnout is an individual phenomenon, the impact of burnout can reverberate throughout an entire team or even department. In their book, Anxiety at Work, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton talk about how work overload can have an effect on not just one individual, but also the entire team: “Allowing overload to escalate into anxiety and burnout can have negative ricocheting effects on an entire work group” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 75).

Symptoms of Burnout

4 Core Symptoms of Burnout:

1. Exhaustion: severe loss of energy that results in feelings of both physical (tiredness, feeling weak) and mental (feeling drained and worn-out) exhaustion. Specific symptoms include; lack of energy to start the new working, feeling completely used-up after a whole day of working, feeling tired quickly even after spending minimal effort at work, and inability to relax after work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

2. Emotional impairment: manifests itself in intense emotional reactions and feeling overwhelmed by one’s emotions. Specific symptoms include; feeling frustrated and angry at work, irritability, overreacting, feeling upset or sad without knowing why, and feeling unable to control one’s emotions at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

3. Cognitive impairment: indicated by memory problems, attention and concentration deficits and poor cognitive performance. Specific symptoms include; difficulties to think clearly and learn new things at work, being forgetful and absent-minded, indecision, poor memory, attention and concentration deficits, and trouble staying focused at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

4. Mental distance: Psychologically distancing oneself from the work is indicated by a strong reluctance or aversion to work. One withdraws mentally – and sometimes even physically – from work and avoids contact with others, for example with customers, clients, and colleagues. Indifference and a cynical attitude are characteristic of mental distance. Little or no enthusiasm and interest for the work exists and one feels that one functions on autopilot (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

3 Secondary Symptoms of Burnout:

1. Psychological distress. This refers to non-physical symptoms that are the result of a psychological problem, such as sleep problems, worrying, feeling tense and anxious, feeling disturbed by noise and crowds, and weight fluctuations without being on a diet (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27-28).

2. Psychosomatic complaints. This refers to physical complaints that cannot be explained by a physical disorder, but are exacerbated by or result from some psychological problem. Examples are, palpitations and chest pain, stomach and intestinal problems, headaches, muscle pains and getting sick often (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 28).

3. Depressed mood. This refers to a gloomy and sad mood and to the inability to experience pleasure. Depressed people feel powerless, suffer from guilt and are disappointed in themselves. Please note that depressed mood is a normal, temporary reaction to disappointment or loss and should be distinguished from mood disorder, which is a psychiatric syndrome (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 28).

Burnout is caused by an imbalance between high job demands and not enough resources. Issues outside of work as well as personal vulnerability may facilitate the onset of burnout. Burnout also leads to feelings of being incompetent and poor performance at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

Six Areas of Person-Job Mismatch

Leiter and Maslach (2004) proposed that six areas of job-person mismatch are the critical sources of burnout. From surveys and interviews of more than 10,000 people across a variety of organizations in different countries, Maslach and Leiter (2005) found most person-job mismatches fall into six categories: work overload (too much work, not enough resources); lack of control (micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power); insufficient rewards (not enough pay, acknowledgment, or satisfaction); breakdown in community (isolation, conflict, disrespect); absence of fairness (discrimination, favoritism); and value conflicts (ethical conflicts, meaningless tasks).

Both individuals and organizations can use the six-category framework to diagnose which categories are especially troublesome for them, and then to design interventions that target these problem area (Maslach & Leiter, 2005).

According to Maslach (2017), the six positive “fits” to tackle the person-job mismatches and promote engagement and well-being are (1) a sustainable workload; (2) choice and control; (3) recognition and reward; (4) a supportive work community; (5) fairness, respect, and social justice; and (6) clear values and meaningful work.

Burnout Is Not Confined To The Occupational Sphere

Some researchers (e.g., Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014; Hallsten, 1993; Kristensen, Borritz, Villadsen & Christensen, 2005; Pines, Neal, Hammer & Icekson, 2011; Pines & Nunes, 2003) have argued that burnout is not just job-related and should not be confined only to the workplace, and that we need to move away from a work-specific to a generic, cross-domain or context-free approach to better understand burnout (e.g., Hallsten, 1993; Kristensen, Borritz, Villadsen & Christensen, 2005; Pines, Neal, Hammer & Icekson, 2011; Pines & Nunes, 2003). They contend that the fundamental cause of burnout is unresolvable, chronic stress and, as such, burnout can be developed outside of the workplace (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014). “Burnout can only be considered a multi-domain syndrome, given that chronic stress is not a job-restricted phenomenon” (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014, p. 359).

Indeed, even Maslach (2006) has acknowledged that, “Although burnout has been identified primarily as a phenomenon in the world of work, the significance of the social context and interpersonal relationships for burnout suggests that burnout might be relevant to other domains of life” (p. 39). 

Researchers who support burnout as an occupational phenomenon (e.g., Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Schaufeli & Taris, 2005; Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020) have extended the definition of work to also include athletes, volunteers, and even students. They maintain that because work refers to all structured, goal-directed activities that are mandatory in nature, athletes, volunteers, and students also “work” and, as a result, may also suffer from burnout (Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020). 

Other researchers openly support the view that burnout extends beyond and outside the workplace. For example, Mikolajczak, Gross, Stinglhamber, Lindahl Norberg, and Roskam (2020) have presented a case for why parental burnout is distinct from job burnout. These researchers (e.g., Mikolajczak, Gross, & Roskam, 2019) have described parental burnout as an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness). There’s also a parental burnout assessment (PBA) in which the parental burnout phenomenon is reconstructed based solely on the testimonies of burned-out parents (Roskam, Brianda, & Mikolajczak, 2018). Although both parental burnout and job burnout share common consequences, such as problematic alcohol use, problem sleeping, somatic complaints, there are specific consequences for job burnout versus parental burnout. Specific consequences for parental burnout include parental neglect and parental violence, while a specific consequence for job burnout includes intent to leave the company.

Another type of burnout is caregiver burnout. “A caregiver can be any relative, partner, friend or neighbor who has a significant personal relationship with, and provides a broad range of assistance for a child or an adult with a chronic or disabling condition. These individuals may be primary or secondary caregivers and live with, or separately from, the person receiving care” (American Medical Association, 2018).

“Caregiver burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion that can create negative and unconcerned caregiver attitudes. Caregiver burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help or support they need, and when the demands on a caregiver’s mind, body and emotions are overwhelming, leading to fatigue and sometimes hopelesness. Serving as a caregiver for a loved one is often mentally and physically demanding, making it difficult for the one providing care to tend to their own needs. Once the individual begins to feel the effects of burnout, it becomes difficult to care for themselves, as well as the patient in their charge” (American Medical Association, 2018).

Research studies have suggested that family caregivers (also referred to as informal caregiving) of adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia may also suffer from burnout (Almberg, Grafström, & Winblad, 1997; Alves, Monteiro, Bento, Hayashi, Pelegrini, & Vale, 2019; Chan, Cheung, Martinez-Ruiz, Chau, Wang, Yeoh, & Wong, 2021; Yilmaz, Turan, & Gundogar, 2009). James and Paulson (2020) recently developed the Informal Caregiver Burnout Inventory (ICBI), a measure of burnout for informal caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

If we accept that a fundamental cause of burnout is chronic stress (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014; Maslach et al., 2001), and if we agree that chronic stress can exist outside of one’s job or workplace, then “burnout cannot be confined to the occupational sphere because chronic stress is not confined to the occupational sphere” (Bianchi et al., 2014, p. 359). 

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Almberg, B., Grafström, M., & Winblad, B. (1997). Caring for a demented elderly person—burden and burnout among caregiving relatives. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 25(1), 109-116.

Alves, L., Monteiro, D. Q., Bento, S. R., Hayashi, V. D., Pelegrini, L., & Vale, F. (2019). Burnout syndrome in informal caregivers of older adults with dementia: A systematic review. Dementia & Neuropsychologia, 13(4), 415-421.

American Medical Association (AMA). (2018). Caring for the caregiver: A guide for physicians. https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/ama-assn.org/files/corp/media-browser/public/public-health/caregiver-burnout-guide.pdf

Bianchi, R., Truchot, D., Laurent, E., Brisson, R., & Schonfeld, I. S. (2014). Is burnout solely job-related? A critical comment. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 55(4), 357-361.

Chan, C. Y., Cheung, G., Martinez-Ruiz, A., Chau, P., Wang, K., Yeoh, E. K., & Wong, E. (2021). Caregiving burnout of community-dwelling people with dementia in Hong Kong and New Zealand: A cross-sectional study. BMC Geriatrics, 21(261).

Gostick, A., & Elton, C. (2021). Anxiety at work: 8 strategies to help teams build resilience, handle uncertainty, and get stuff done. Harper Business.

Hallsten, L. (1993). Burning out: A framework. In W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach & T. Marek (Eds.), Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research (pp. 95-113). Taylor & Francis.

James, N., & Paulson, D. (2020). Development of a novel measure of informal caregiver burnout. Innovation in Aging, 4(Suppl 1), 477. 

Kristensen, T. S., Borritz, M., Villadsen, E. & Christensen, K. B. (2005). The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory: A new tool for the assessment of burnout. Work & Stress, 19, 192-207.

Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2004). Areas of worklife: A structured approach to organizational predictors of job burnout. In P. L. Perrewé & D. C. Ganster (Eds.), Research in occupational stress and well-being: Vol. 3. Emotional and physiological processes and positive intervention strategies (p. 91–134). Elsevier Science/JAI Press.

Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. Jossey-Bass.

Maslach, C. (2017). Finding solutions to the problem of burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(2), 143-152.

Maslach, C. (2006). Understanding job burnout. In A. M. Rossi, P. Perrewe, & S. Sauter (Eds.), Stress and quality of working life: Current perspectives in occupational health (pp. 37-51). Information Age Publishing.

Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. P. (2005). Reversing burnout: How to rekindle your passion for your work. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 3(4), 42-49.

Maslach, C., Leiter, M. P., & Schaufeli, W. (2009). Measuring burnout. In S. Cartwright & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of organizational well-being (pp. 86-108). Oxford University Press.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B. & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., & Roskam, I. (2019). Parental burnout: What is it, and why does it matter? Clinical Psychological Science, 7, 1319-1329.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., Stinglhamber, F., Lindahl Norberg, A., & Roskam, I. (2020). Is parental burnout distinct from job burnout and depressive symptoms? Clinical Psychological Science, 8(4), 673-689.

Pines, A. M., Neal, M. B., Hammer, L. B. & Icekson, T. (2011). Job burnout and couple burnout in dual-earner couples in the sandwiched generation. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74, 361-386.

Pines, A. M. & Nunes, R. (2003). The relationship between career and couple burnout: Implications for career and couple counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 40, 50-64.

Roskam, I., Brianda, M.-E., & Mikolajczak, M. (2018). A step forward in the conceptualization and measurement of parental burnout: The Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 758.

Schaufeli, W. B., Desart, S., & De Witte, H. (2020). Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT)—Development, validity, and reliability. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(24), 9495.

Schaufeli, W. B., De Witte, H. & Desart, S. (2020). Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT) – Version 2.0 Test Manual. KU Leuven, Belgium: Unpublished internal report.

Schaufeli, W. B. & Taris, T. W. (2005). The conceptualization and measurement of burnout: Common ground and worlds apart. Work & Stress, 19, 256-262.

World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

World Health Organization. (2020). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th ed.). https://icd.who.int/

Yilmaz, A., Turan, E., & Gundogar, D. (2009). Predictors of burnout in the family caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease: Evidence from Turkey. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 28(1), 16–21.

Self-Insight Is Sparked by “Crystallization of Discontent” Moments

“The twists and turns of your life can be so unexpected, and that’s a good thing to learn.” -Christina Baker Kline (American novelist)

In The Power of Moments (“Defining moments shape our lives, but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be authors of them” [Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 5]), Chip and Dan Heath (2017) talk about self-insight, “a mature understanding of our capabilities and motivations” (p. 116).

“[S]elf-insight rarely comes from staying in our heads. Research suggests that reflecting or ruminating on our thoughts and feelings is an ineffective way to achieve true understanding. . . .Better to take a risk, try something, and distill the answer from experience rather than from navel-gazing. Action leads to insight more often than insight leads to action” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 117).

Lea Chadwell had always dreamed of starting her own company, so she took a risk and opened a bakery she named, “A Pound of Butter,” which makes custom cakes for birthdays and weddings, and pastries to local restaurants. However, the charm of owning her own business began to fade. “Baking cakes for her own family was fun. But baking cakes for demanding customers was stressful” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 115).

One weekend, as she was rushing against a deadline to finish a wedding cake, she loaded the cake into her car and was about to drive off when she remembered that the front door of her bakery was left wide open. “It was her lightning-bolt moment: I’m making myself crazy being this stressed out. And she realized, ‘I wasn’t in love with baking anymore,’ she said later. ‘It was like this albatross of butter around my neck’” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 115).

Being a business owner made her miserable and she felt overwhelmed. She closed her bakery business after 18 months. The experience taught her about her capabilities and her values. Chadwell doesn’t regret starting or having to close her bakery. “What she gained was the insight that comes from experience. She came to accept. . .some qualities that made her the wrong person to run her own business. ‘I’m unorganized. Impractical. Fickle. . . . While these traits make me a great candidate for a Wacky Friend, they are just awful to try to form a business around. I suspect if I hadn’t quit, I’d have failed, and it actually really sucks to admit it. But, there’s the painful lesson I’ve learned. I’m great when I’m working for others; they rely on me. Working for myself? I’m a terrible boss’” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 116).

“Chadwell’s self-insight was sparked by a classic “crystallization of discontent” moment—the moment when she almost drove away from her bakery with the door wide open. In an instant, the fragments of frustration and anxiety she’d experienced were assembled into a clear conclusion: I’m not good at this. It’s not me” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 116).

The crystallization of discontent occurs when “contradictory events link together to form a large pattern of negative, dissonant thought” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 304). “These negative feelings and doubts have become linked to a broader pattern of meaningful relations that contradicts the high-level beliefs, instead of being a mere collection of isolated feelings and misgivings that in themselves seemed minor and that bore no relationship to one another” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 304).

The crystallization of discontent “typically initiate some serious reconsideration” whereby a person “assesses the options and alternatives, and many people will actively begin searching for alternatives” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 305). “The crystallization of discontent prompts a reassessment of the relationship or commitment. Isolated problems, frustrations, and bad days can be ignored as low-level setbacks that do not reflect negatively on one’s overall level of satisfaction and commitment. But a large pattern of problems and frustrations brings one up to a broader level of meaning and raises the issue of whether the positives outweigh the negatives. The person’s calculation of whether the involvement is worthwhile can no longer ignore the large body of problems” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 306).

“Baumeister (1991, 1994) claimed that people arrive at life changing decisions by first experiencing a crystallization of discontent. He portrayed the crystallization of discontent as part of a subjective process in which the individual concludes that the negative aspects of a certain life condition outweigh the positives. Until that point, the individual engages in maintaining the view that the positives outweigh the negatives (e.g., by contextualizing or otherwise minimizing the importance of the negatives), thereby enabling the person to keep a rosier big picture and to maintain the current life condition. But when the person perceives bad days as turning into bad years, the person is more likely to conclude that the future will contain much of the same. At this point, the person arrives at a crystallization of discontent and is motivated to make a major life change” (Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005, p. 1182).

In the crystallization of discontent — “The negative aspects link up with each other to form a broad, undesirable pattern: this is not just a bad day, but a bad year. When the problems were regarded merely as isolated exceptions, there was no reason to expect more of them, but once one sees them as part of a broad negative pattern, then further unpleasant develoments can be anticipated. The positive aspects must now be compared against an accumulated set of interrelated negative aspects, rather than being compared against the isolated negative aspects one at a time” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 325-326).

“Sometimes, at least in retrospect, a single and possibly minor incident will seem to stimulate this crystallization of discontent. It symbolizes a latent, broad set of dissatisfactions. The negative feelings about the involvement are thus recognized at a higher, more meaningful level; whereas once they were merely a temporary, brief, even one-day matter, now they are part of an ongoing pattern that reflects badly on the involvement over months or years. After the crystallization of discontent, each small frustration is no longer just another isolated problem but can readily link up to the broader context of general dissatisfaction. Each grievance reminds you of past grievances and warns of more to come” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 326).

“Connection reveals the very essence of meaning, which is to link things—objects, events, possibilities, other ideas—together. Meaning influences events by enabling people to see them as interrelated and hence to respond differently to them. The crystallization of discontent [is] perhaps the clearest example of this. A person’s life may contain exactly the same amount of problems, costs, and unpleasant facts after this crystallization as before it. What changes, however, is that these negatives are seen as one large pattern rather than a collection of isolated exceptions that are unrelated to each other. Connecting them, through meaning, is a crucial step in major life change. As long as these facts can be kept unconnected, the person is much less likely to initiate a major change” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 360).

Researchers have found that insight is an important and positive predictor of well-being (Harrington & Loffredo, 2011). “Insight was the most robust positive predictor” (p. 50) of well-being and “powerfully predicted both the subjective and eudaemonist constructs of well-being” (Harrington & Loffredo, 2011, p. 51).


I’ve experienced several “crystallization of discontent” moments in my life, all of which required me to stretch (oftentimes uncomfortably so) and, in the process, I learned more and more about myself each time.

One “crystallization of discontent” moment happened in my early 20s, as an undergraduate student working on my Bachelor’s. It was the summer of 1992 and I was supposed to be preparing to take the MCAT (medical school entrance exam). My parents even hired a tutor to help me master Organic Chemistry. But, at the last minute, I took action and called my tutor and canceled, telling her that I never wanted to become a medical doctor and that I was too cowardly to tell my parents and had just gone along for three years with what they wanted me to be. 

Another “crystallization of discontent” moment occurred in my early 30s. Having spent almost five years in a Master’s program and soon graduating with a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I experienced a very powerful “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003. I “knew” very clearly in my head and heart that although I had spent years studying counseling and practicing how to be an effective counselor, I really did not enjoy counseling nor could I picture myself being a counselor and doing counseling as a long-term career. It was a frightening realization and stunning admission because how could I still be unhappy and dissatisfied when I had already pivoted away from another career field and had finally (I thought) found a career in mental health counseling?” In hindsight, there were a number of signs of my discontent throughout my time in the counseling Master’s program, but I ignored them each time. 

My “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003—starting shortly before and continuing on after getting my graduate degree in counseling psychology—was, perhaps, the most powerful because it led me to the intentional decision to apply for a job in a school system (i.e., took action) over 7,000 away on a tropical island called Saipan, a career decision that ultimately changed not only my career but also my life. In fact, it was this decision that eventually led me to the training/learning & development and leadership & talent development space. And it was on the island of Saipan that I met and married my wife (who experienced her own “crystallization of discontent” moments that led her to leave Tokyo and seek out jobs in Sydney, Australia, and on the islands of Guam and Saipan).

Takeaway: 

Chip and Dan Heath (2017) observed that, “Self-understanding comes slowly. One of the few ways to accelerate it—to experience more crystallizing moments—is to stretch for insight” (p. 117-118). My “crystallization of discontent” moments in 1992 and 2003 were moments of insights that my journey in life includes many winding paths, twists, and turns; that I have to make multiple course corrections and pivots (i.e., take action) to find my bearings, and this is OK!

This perfectly captures my experiences with my own “crystallization of discontent” moments: “Often, what looks like a moment of serendipity is actually a moment of intentionality. What . . . [the people featured in the Power of Moments book] experienced as the shock of an insight was actually . . . the whiplash caused by realizing they could ACT and then willfully jolting their lives in a new direction. They were not receiving a moment, they were seizing it” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 262).

Have you ever had “crystallization of discontent” moments? Did you recognize and seize these moments?

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Bauer, J. J., McAdams, D. P., & Sakaeda, A. R. (2005). Crystallization of Desire and Crystallization of Discontent in Narratives of Life-Changing Decisions. Journal of Personality, 73(5), 1181-1213.

Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. The Guilford Press.

Baumeister, R. F. (1994). The crystallization of discontent in the process of major life change. In T. F. Heatherton, & J. Weinberger (Eds.), Can personality change? (pp. 281-297). American Psychological Association. 

Harrington, R., & Loffredo, D. A. (2010). Insight, rumination, and self-reflection as predictors of well-being. The Journal of Psychology, 145(1), 39-57.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon & Schuster.

I Felt the Fear and Did It Anyway – The Risk I Took to Blossom

“And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anaïs Nin

Today — January 26, 2021 — is a day of personal celebration for me because 6210 days or 204 months or 17 years ago, exactly to the day, I took a job on a tiny island (I started on January 26, 2004) that forever changed my life, both professionally and personally.

From 2002 to 2003, I went through my SECOND career identity crisis around the time that I was about to graduate from a Master’s Counseling Psychology program in the spring of 2003. It was a very scary and confusing time for me because I had, at least I thought, already gone through my FIRST career identity crisis a few years before that when I finally decided to become a mental health counselor. Now, as I’m nearing graduation from my Master’s program and having actually counseled people, I realized that I didn’t really like listening to people’s problems all day long and I was so afraid that I would spend the rest of my career life doing something that would be emotionally draining.

After much soul searching, praying, and reflection, I decided to take a job in a school system on an island in the North Pacific Ocean called Saipan (on the other side of the world from my home in Dallas, Texas [USA]). In late January 2004, after a 20+ hour flight and traveling almost halfway around the world, I landed on a tiny island in the North Pacific Ocean, and for the next few years experienced some amazing adventures, did some pretty exciting things, and got to see and do something very different.

In 3½ years on Saipan, I played beach volleyball with professional players, saw guys husk coconuts with their teeth, flew on airplanes not much bigger than a Hummer, learned Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) from an MMA fighter, created my first website, trained over 800 teachers and professionals on Crisis Intervention and Classroom Management, was invited to offer testimony to the CNMI Legislators on Assisted Outpatient Treatment, helped research and edit the CNMI Assisted Outpatient Treatment Act, produced a “School Crisis Response Handbook,” and had my School Crisis Response Training presentation videotaped. Oh, I also met a wonderful woman who, despite my shortcomings, agreed to become my wife.

Making that decision and taking that plunge was one of the SCARIEST and BEST decisions of my life! That job led me to crisis training, which ultimately helped me to make a career pivot into leadership & talent development and learning & development, the space within which I work today.

The funny thing is that the people who helped me the most were actually strangers on an Internet forum about computers! I had shared that I was yearning for adventure, excitement, and something different and a few people told me that I might regret it if I didn’t do something about it. In essence, they were my sounding board and they echoed back to me what I had been telling myself but could not hear over all of my internal interference.

The advice I would give someone in a similar situation is that, oftentimes, the “answers” to our problems are right inside of us. We usually “know” what to do, but we’re just too afraid to do it. Whether it’s changing careers, make some tough choices, etc. – we know what we should do or need to do, we just let our fears and doubts interfere with us taking action.

For me, the most AMAZING part of all of this (far beyond career success) is that the Saipan island job led me to meet my now wife (who was also tired of life in Tokyo and wanted adventure). And because I took that huge career pivot, even when I was scared, I’m now sitting here looking at my 6½ year-old-daughter — who would never have existed had I let my fear paralyzed me and I had stayed in Dallas.

I love this quote:

“The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.” -Susan Jeffers

I found this to be so true! It is terrifyingly liberating to be doing something you’re afraid of. This is an important life lesson for me and I will share it with anyone who will listen. It is also a lesson that I will share often with my daughter.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Jeffers, S. (2006). Feel the Fear . . . And Do It Anyway: Dynamic Techniques for Turning Fear, Indecision and Anger into Power, Action and Love (20th Anniversary Edition). Ballantine Books.

Nguyen, S. (2014, July 26). I Will Teach My Daughter Not To Be Afraid. https://workplacepsychology.net/2014/07/26/i-will-teach-my-daughter-not-to-be-afraid/

Resilience Is Adapting Successfully to Adversity, Hardship, and Tragedy

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” -Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

Looking Back at 2020

As 2020 comes to an end and as we reflect back on this year, humanity has gone through one of its most trying ordeals—the COVID-19 pandemic—since, perhaps, the Spanish flu of 1918. The words “resilient” and “resilience” have been used often to characterize our ability to continue to press onward despite the severe ramifications the coronavirus has caused.

To everyone who has been impacted by tragedy, trauma, hardship, adversity, disaster or other significant life stressors, this post is for you. Whether it’s losing a loved one, losing a job, losing your home, or way of life, few of us have been spared. But know this: Human beings are incredibly resilient creatures. For centuries, we, individually and collectively, have overcome unbearable misfortunes and defied impossible odds to push on. And, despite the adversities, hardships, and tragedies, we have learned and continue to learn to adjust, adapt, and even thrive to our new circumstances.

Resilience Isn’t “Bouncing Back”

A very common description of resilience is that it’s “bouncing back” from adversities or difficulties. However, this “denies the reality of working through difficulties. Anyone who has faced a major obstacle in life will have been changed by it. They move forward with a different perspective, with changed values, and with hard-won learning. The word ‘bounceback’ does not reflect how tough that process can be” (Pemberton, 2015, p. 2-3).

Resilience Is Coming Back Rather than Bouncing Back

In his book, Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach, Michael Neenan explains how resilience isn’t about bouncing back, but rather coming back:

“Coping with hard times usually involves pain and struggle as you push forward to find a brighter future. As part of the self-righting process, you need time to adapt to the new realities in your life and to process your feelings about the changes and losses you’re experiencing. This process of adjusting to new conditions suggests that coming back, as opposed to bouncing back, from adversity is the more realistic response. Bouncing back presents a picture of a rapid, pain-free, almost effortless return from adversity. Also, if you pride yourself on being the bouncing back type, you’re more likely to put yourself down if your latest ‘bounce’ doesn’t take off. For example, faced with an unfamiliar situation where your usual problem-solving skills are proving ineffective, you conclude that you’re not making progress because you’re weak or incompetent and feel ashamed that your failings have been exposed for all to see” (Neenan, 2018, p. 175).

Definitions of Resilience

“Resilience is the human ability to adapt in the face of tragedy, trauma, adversity, hardship, and ongoing significant life stressors” (Newman, 2005, p. 227).

“Resilience comprises those inner strengths of mind and character—both inborn and developed—that enable one to respond well to adversity, including the capacities to prevent stress-related conditions, such as depression or anxiety, or their recurrence; recover faster and more completely from stress and stress-related conditions; and optimize mental fitness and functioning in the various areas of life” (Schiraldi, 2017, p. 2).

The Key To Resilience Is Hardiness

Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago worked with 450 employees at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) before, during, and after the greatest divestiture in history. By the end of 1982, IBT had downsized from 26,000 to 14,000 employees. About two-thirds of the employees in the study suffered significant performance, leadership and health declines due to the extreme stress. However, the other one-third actually thrived during the upheaval despite experiencing the same amount of disruption and stressful events as their co-workers. They remained healthy and vigorous by seeing the workplace changes as opportunities rather than disaster. They performed better than their less hardy coworkers and found creative ways to professionally advance, despite ongoing workplace changes. Those who thrived had three key attitudes (the 3Cs) of commitment, control, and challenge that Maddi and colleagues came to call hardiness (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

“Hardiness is a pattern of attitudes and skills that provides the courage and strategies to turn stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities instead” (Maddi, 2007, p. 61).

Three Resilient Attitudes

Resilient people have the hardy attitudes of the 3Cs: commitment, control, and challenge (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

1. COMMITMENT. People who are strong in the commitment attitude get involved with (instead of withdraw from) what’s happening, despite how stressful it may be, seeing this as the best way to learn from their experiences (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011). They view their work as important and worthwhile enough to warrant their full attention, imagination, and effort. They stay involved with the events and people around them even when the going gets rough (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

Strategies to Develop Commitment in Yourself (HRG, 2019):

    • Establish a support system that will help you to prevail
    • Commit to yourself
    • Quiet your mind and focus
    • Recognize and appreciate that this process is going to be a challenge & stay the course

Leader Actions to Foster Commitment in Others (HRG, 2019):

    • Give recognition, awards, praise for accomplishments
    • Be visible; spend time with team and peers
    • Support individual professional development (education, learning opportunities)

2. CONTROL. People who are strong in the control attitude believe that making an effort to influence outcomes by the decisions they make is more likely to lead to meaningful outcomes (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011). Instead of allowing themselves to sink into passivity and powerlessness in the face of stresses, they do their best to find solutions to problems. When considering where to apply their efforts, they recognize the situational features that are open to change and accept those outside of their control (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

Strategies to Develop Control in Yourself (HRG, 2019):

    • Don’t entertain more negativity
    • Develop coping mechanisms
    • Break tasks down into manageable chunks
    • Recognize (what is creating the anxiety)
    • Create healthy boundaries
    • Increase your release of endorphins get physically active

Leader Actions to Foster Control in Others (HRG, 2019):

    • Provide tasks that are challenging but within employees’ capabilities to achieve
    • Provide resources and time needed to accomplish goals

3. CHALLENGE. “People who are strong in the challenge attitude believe that stress is normal and that fulfillment is not to be found in easy comfort, security, and routine but rather in the continual growth in wisdom through what is learned from the negative and positive experiences of an active, changing life” (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011, p. 370). They confront stressful changes, try to understand them, learn from them, and solve them. They embrace life’s challenges, not deny and avoid them. (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

Strategies to Develop Challenge in Yourself (HRG, 2019):

    • Become an expert
    • Actively seek feedback
    • Be realistic
    • Be open to continuous learning
    • Try new things
    • Recognize lessons in failures

Leader Actions to Foster Challenge in Others (HRG, 2019):

    • Always emphasize value of change for learning
    • Model enjoyment, fun in variety
    • Treat failures as chance to learn

Viktor Frankl: Purpose and Meaning

“People who sense that their lives have meaning and purpose are generally happier and more resilient” (Schiraldi, 2017, p. 155).

Viktor Frankl (the Austrian psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor), in his books Man’s Search for Meaning and Recollections: An Autobiography, reminds us that we can learn to deal with anything in life if we can find meaning in it.

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which can not be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (Frankl, 1984, p. 87).

“But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life” (Frankl, 1984, p. 88).

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how'” (Frankl, 1984, p. 126).

“I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning” (Frankl, 2000, p. 53).

“By knowing we have choices in life, have a purpose, and can execute those choices, we become stronger, more resilient—hardier in our lives. This hardiness gives us added strength when we encounter our next life challenge” (Stein & Bartone, 2020, p. 22).

Never forget: “Humans are remarkably resilient in the face of crises, traumas, disabilities, attachment losses, and ongoing adversities. In fact, resilience to stress and trauma may be the norm rather than the exception” (Southwick, Litz, Charney, & Friedman, 2011, p. xi).

“What you’ve been through will help somebody else get through it.” -Joel Osteen

“One day you will tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become part of someone else’s survival guide.” -Unknown

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1959)

Frankl, V. E. (2000). Recollections: An Autobiography. Basic Books.

Hardiness Resilience Gauge (HRG). (2019). Hardiness Resilience Development Debrief. Multi-Health Systems Inc.

Maddi, S. R. (2007). Relevance of Hardiness Assessment and Training to the Military Context. Military Psychology, 19(1), 61-70.

Maddi, S. R., & Khoshaba, D. M. (2005). Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You. AMACOM.

Maddi, S. R., Khoshaba, D. M., Harvey, R. H., Fazel, M., & Resurreccion, N. (2011). The Personality Construct of Hardiness, V: Relationships With the Construction of Existential Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(3), 369-388.

Neenan, M. (2018). Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Newman, R. (2005). APA’s Resilience Initiative. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(3), 227-229.

Pemberton, C. (2015). Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches. McGraw Hill.

Schiraldi, G. R. (2017). The Resilience Workbook: Essential Skills to Recover from Stress, Trauma, and Adversity. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Southwick, S. M., Litz, B. T., Charney, D., & Friedman, M.J. (2011). In S.M. Southwick, B.T. Litz, D. Charney, & M.J. Friedman (Eds.), Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (pp. xi-xv). Cambridge University Press.

Stein, S. J., & Bartone, P. T. (2020). Hardiness: Making Stress Work for You to Achieve Your Life Goals. John Wiley & Sons.

3 Reasons Physical Offices & Face-to-Face Meetings Are Not Going Away

The traditional, physical office is not going away any time soon despite advances in technology allowing people to work remotely, either at a home office, coworking space, virtual office, or another remote location (such as a coffee shop, library, or bookstore). Similarly, face-to-face meetings will not disappear, even though we can use email, phone, text, or virtual conference calls to conduct business meetings.

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic reignited the debate about remote work, with some suggesting that it will be the new normal even after COVID-19 (Verbeemen & D’Amico, 2020).

There are 3 reasons why remote work will not be the new normal and why physical offices and face-to-face meetings will stick around:

  1. The reactive response of companies to initiate a temporary work-from-home solution resulted in a bad experience to long-term remote work.
  2. Companies won’t invest time or money to address remote work structurally in their organizations.
  3. Our brains are wired to connect with others because humans have a need for meaningful social connection.

Reason #1 – Companies’ Haphazard Response to Initiate a Temporary Work-From-Home:

Shifting the workforce to remote work as a haphazard and forced reaction to COVID-19 will leave a bad taste in many people’s mouths about their experience working remotely. This GitLab article, titled “What Not to Do When Implementing Remote” is a fantastic resource:

“Remote work isn’t something you do as a reaction to an event — it is an intentional approach to work that creates greater efficiency, more geographically and culturally diverse teams, and heightened transparency.

What is happening en masse related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) is largely a temporary work-from-home phenomenon, where organizations are not putting remote work ideals into place, as they expect to eventually require their team members to resume commuting into an office.” -GitLab

In a Forbes article titled, “Remote Work Advocates Warn Companies About COVID-19 Work-From-Home Strategies,” Laurel Farrer wrote: “all of this unexpected remote work adoption has telecommuting experts concerned instead of celebrating.”

Reason #2 – Companies Not Willing to Invest Time & Money:

Most companies are not investing and will not invest time and money to tackle remote work structurally in their organizations.

Verbeemen & D’Amico (2020) wrote that remote work “will only be a real success if companies start tackling remote working structurally.” Organizations must secure the infrastructure for remote work and implement remote work in a structural way:

“Companies that see salvation in a fast adoption of tools without structural adjustments, risk a loss of efficiency and frustration among employees and stakeholders. It is not enough to simply provide the necessary infrastructure and tools. Some companies already had the infrastructure and tools available at the start of the crisis, but are only now realizing their full potential. Tools are important, but a successful migration also requires leadership, clear guidelines and real commitment” (Verbeemen & D’Amico, 2020).

Here are some findings:

  • At a global level: 56% of global companies allow remote work, but 44% of global companies don’t allow remote work (Owl Labs Global State of Remote Work Report 2018).
  • At a company level: Only 30% of senior managers feel their organization is well prepared for the rise of remote work (Future Positive Report).
  • At a leadership level: While 82% believe that leaders in the new economy will need to be digitally savvy, less than 10% of respondents strongly agree that their organizations have leaders with the right skills to thrive in the digital economy (The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age).
  • At a worker level: 38% of remote workers and 15% of remote managers received no training on how to work remotely (Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report 2019).

Werk (a people analytics company) conducted a comprehensive study [The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study] on the state of flexibility in corporate America. “According to [the] research, there is a significant gap between the supply and demand of workplace flexibility. 96% of employees in the U.S. workforce need some form of flexibility at work, yet only 42% have access to the type of flexibility they need, and only 19% have access to a range of flexible options. This gap is even more pronounced for women, where only 34% have access to the flexibility they need.”

Even though organizations are becoming aware that they need to adopt a more human-centric view, one that supports the employees’ needs (e.g., remote work, wellness programs, etc.), “innovation in terms of how the workplace and jobs are structured has been slow. If companies are going to truly adapt, stay nimble, and poise themselves for growth in the Human Era, they must reconsider the fundamentals of how jobs are designed and how, where, and when work gets done” (The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study Report).

In the Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work Report 2019, remote employee managers were asked about their biggest challenges and concerns when it came to managing their remote employees. Here’s what they said — They are most concerned about reduced employee productivity (82%), reduced employee focus (82%), lower employee engagement and satisfaction (81%), and whether their remote employees are getting their work done (80%).

Somewhat troubling in that Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work Report 2019 was what remote managers said were their least concerns: Managers are least concerned with employee loneliness (59%), the career implications of employees working remotely (65%), employees overworking (67%), and difficulty managing them (68%).

Gallup research suggests there are three areas in which managers struggle to engage their remote workers (Mann, 2017):

  1. Not recognizing or praising good work.
  2. Not talking to remote workers about career goals and personal growth.
  3. Not providing opportunities to connect with coworkers.

“While remote work is a valid strategy to maintain business continuity in times of crisis like the outbreak of COVID-19, suddenly allowing remote work with no clear policy or processes in place will not have the same positive outcomes as investing adequate resources into preparing leaders and employees for success in a remote environment.” -Tammy Bjelland, CEO Workplaceless

What I see happening—and I believe this trend will continue—is a semi-hybrid company [in which most employees are co-located/on-site and a handful who work remotely] that uses a semi-flexible schedule approach requiring significant time onsite [for co-located employees] and some time offsite/remote. In this semi-flexible schedule approach, organizations require most of their workforce to work and attend meetings onsite but will allow some leaders and staff (at the discretion and whim of their managers) the flexibility to occasionally work and/or attend meetings remotely.

Reason #3 – The Human Brain is Wired to Connect to Others:

The third and my strongest argument why remote work won’t be the new normal is that human beings have an innate and basic need for in-person interactions and the bias toward and preference for face-to-face interactions.

A Futurestep poll of 1,320 global executives in 71 countries found that 61% of senior managers think telecommuters are not as likely as conventional office workers to be promoted, despite the fact that over three-quarters also think teleworkers are equally productive as (42%) or more productive than (36%) their office-dwelling colleagues (Vickers, 2007 citing Bridgeford). Managers might recognize that teleworkers are productive, but they are still accustomed toward face-to-face interactions.

Indeed, remote workers are at risk of getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions (even if they work just as long and hard) due to what is called, “passive face time” or the notion of just being “seen” in the workplace even if we don’t interact with anyone in the office (Elsbach & Cable, 2012).

Face-to-face meetings are crucial to business success (Goman, 2016). Even those who make a case for remote work must concede that, “collaborating face-to-face probably is better than collaborating remotely” (Clancy, 2020). When extensive collaboration is required, remote work “may be less productive than colocation [where coworkers are physically clustered together in the same physical workplace]” (Clancy, 2020).

Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer, shared some sage advice about the value and advantage of face-to-face meetings:

“No matter what industry you work in, we are all in the people business. Regardless of how tech-savvy you may be, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to capture the attention of participants, engage them in the conversation, and drive productive collaboration.” -Michael Massari (Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer)

Contrary to the belief that making a phone call saves time over a face-to-face meeting, Massari said this:

“If I have to go outside my division to ask for resources from someone I don’t know, I can usually get what I need in a five-minute in-person conversation. If I have to rely on a phone call, it is going to take over 30 minutes to explain who I am, why my request is important, and why the other person should help me. That’s because it is so much faster and easier to establish trust when people physically meet.” -Michael Massari (Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer)

Researchers have found that, “people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.” (Bohns, 2017). As a matter of fact, a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email (Bohns, 2017).

In a survey of 760 business executives conducted by Forbes Insights in June 2009, respondents were asked to choose the meeting method that was most conducive to fostering a certain business action or outcome. “Executives preferred face-to-face meetings when the decision-making process was fluid, requiring the kind of give-and-take typical of complex decisions and sales” (Forbes, 2009).

“Surprisingly given the advances in information technology, CEOs today spend most of their time in face-to-face meetings. They consider face-to-face meetings most effective in getting their message across and obtaining the information they need. Not only do meetings present data through presentations and verbal communications, but they also enable CEOs to pick up on rich nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and mood, that are not apparent to them if they use e-mail or Skype” (Rothaermel, 2016, p. 43).

Beyond the business desire to close a deal, “the benefits of in-person social interaction—from bonding with co-workers to using time at the pool or café to cement a client relationship—are among the more subtle, less measurable advantages executives cited” (Forbes, 2009).

The COVID-19 pandemic and the importance and need for social distancing and remaining indoors and away from others exacerbated our experiences of cabin fever, isolation, and loneliness.

Research has provided consistent evidence linking social isolation and loneliness to worse cardiovascular and mental health outcomes (Leigh-Hunt, Bagguley, Bash, et al., 2017). Indeed, “social isolation [not being alone but one’s experience of feeling lonely] has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008, p. 5).

Although people claim that their goal is to be able to work from home, when they actually have to do their work from home, those individuals reported higher levels of stress (Scott, 2020). For a great article on what’s stressful about working from home (e.g., lack of structure; lots of distractions; difficulty setting boundaries; social isolation; and lack of focus) see How to Handle the Stress of Working From Home.

“Those who work at home may find that the solitude can be a double-edged sword. It is, of course, easier to focus when you’re in your own home with no co-workers coming by your desk to chat at random times. But while this solitude can feel blissful at times, when we have no mandate for social interaction during the workday—when we don’t automatically run across people outside of those we live with—we can become lonely before we realize it” (Scott, 2020).

As evidenced, during the COVID-19 pandemic, by the boredom, loneliness, and isolation—with some people even going so far as paying money to join virtual Zoom parties (starting at $10 and going up to $80 for a private room in Club Quarantee to virtually party alongside Instagram-famous DJs and burlesque dancers)—human beings desire, indeed we need, human connections, and in particular in-person interaction and connection.

There’s value in face-to-face interaction & collaboration. Human beings crave human connection and interaction. “[O]ur brains are wired to connect with other people” (Lieberman, 2013, p. x). Lieberman says human beings are wired in a way such that our well-being depends on our connections with other people. “We depend on the most complicated entities in the universe, other people, to make our food, pay our rent, and provide for our general well-being” (2013, p. 238).

“Everything we have learned about the social brain tells us that we are wired to make and keep social connections, that we feel pain when these connections are threatened, and that our identity, our sense of self, is intimately tied up with the groups we are a part of” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 248-249).

But these interactions are not just about the number of people you spend time with. Rather, these connections need to satisfy our need to have close, satisfying relationships. Indeed, “loneliness is typically rooted in the quality rather than the quantity of social interaction: Lonely people spend plenty of time with others, but they do not come away from these interactions feeling satisfied” (Baumeister & Bushman, 2014, p. p. 410).

Loneliness is a state of mind and causes us “to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.” (Cherry, 2020).

Experts contend that humans are social creatures and we function better when we are around other people (DiGiulio, 2018). Even more strongly, a case can be made that our need to connect with others is as strong and fundamental as our need for food and water (Cook, 2013). Physical connection between humans is so strong that the power of touch can even create an analgesic, painkilling effect (Lamothe, 2018).

During this COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to foster relational connection to curb the rise of loneliness (Stallard & Stallard, 2020). “Research suggests that the majority of individuals today lack sufficient social connection. This connection deficit may exacerbate the negative effects of stress and diminish physical and emotional resilience that people will need to fight the COVID-19 virus” (Stallard & Stallard, 2020).

In his TEDx Talk, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman said: “Our urge to connect and the pain we feel when this need is thwarted, is one of the seminal achievements of our brain that motivates us to live, work, and play together. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t connect with other people nothing will come of it. You can’t build a rocket ship by yourself.”

“To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 9).

According to social psychologists, our need for affiliation or connection to others is universal and all human beings have this need. “Some individuals claim that they have little or no need for affiliation—for connections to other people. But research findings indicate that even such persons really do have affiliation needs. How do we know that’s true? When such people learn that they have been accepted by others, both their moods and self-esteem increase. That would only be expected to happen if such acceptance satisfied a basic need for affiliation. . . . In short, all human beings—even people who claim otherwise—have strong needs for affiliation—to feel connected to others. They may conceal these needs under a mask of seeming indifference, but the needs are still there no matter how much such people try to deny them” (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 218).

Researchers examined the emotional experience of connectedness between pairs of close friends in digital (text, audio, and video) versus in-person environments. They recruited 58 female university students aged 18-21 years (consisting of 29 pairs of close female friends). Although adolescent and emerging adults’ digital communication is primarily text-based, the researchers discovered that the greatest bonding actually occurs during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013).

“Despite our remarkable ability to utilize tools and technologies to improve our lives in many ways, humans are constrained by the evolutionary context in which human social interaction developed” (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013).

Takeaway: Traditional physical offices and face-to-face meetings are here to stay and remote work will not be the new normal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are three reasons why. First, most people’s introduction to and experience with remote work occurred as a direct, but reactive response of companies to initiate a temporary work-from-home solution. Second, most companies will not be spending the time and money to tackle remote work structurally in their organizations. Third, the human brain is wired to connect with other people and human beings have a need for meaningful social connection. It’s a beautiful, defining quality of being human.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

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Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Social Psychology and Human Nature (3rd Ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Bloomberg & Lhooq, M. (2020, April 14). People are paying real money to get into virtual Zoom nightclubs. https://fortune.com/2020/04/14/zoom-nightclubs-virtual-bars-video-calls-coronavirus/

Bohns, V. K. (2017, April 11). A Face-to-Face Request Is 34 Times More Successful Than an Email. https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email

Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company.

Cherry, K. (2020, March 23). The Health Consequences of Loneliness. https://www.verywellmind.com/loneliness-causes-effects-and-treatments-2795749

Clancy, M. (2020, April 13). The Case for Remote Work. Economics Working Papers: Department of Economics, Iowa State University. 20007. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/econ_workingpapers/102

Cook, G. (2013, October 22). Why We Are Wired to Connect. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/

Cuncic, A. (2020, March 27). How to Cope With Loneliness During the Coronavirus Pandemic. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-cope-with-loneliness-during-coronavirus-4799661

DiGiulio, S. (2018, January 9). In good company: Why we need other people to be happy. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/good-company-why-we-need-other-people-be-happy-ncna836106

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Elsbach, K., & Cable, D. M., & Sherman, J. W. (2010). How passive ‘face time’ affects perceptions of employees: Evidence of spontaneous trait inference. Human Relations, 63(6), 735-760.

Farrer, L. (2020, March 5). Remote Work Advocates Warn Companies About COVID-19 Work-From-Home Strategies. https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurelfarrer/2020/03/05/ironically-remote-work-advocates-warn-companies-about-covid-19-work-from-home-strategies/#536739222051

Forbes. (2009). Business Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face. Forbes Insights. https://images.forbes.com/forbesinsights/StudyPDFs/Business_Meetings_FaceToFace.pdf

Fritscher, L. (2020, April 23). Cabin Fever Symptoms and Coping Skills. https://www.verywellmind.com/cabin-fever-fear-of-isolation-2671734

Fuller, J. B., Wallenstein, J. K., Raman, M., & de Chalendar, A. (2019, May). Future Positive Report: How Companies Can Tap Into Employee Optimism to Navigate Tomorrow’s Workplace. BCG, Harvard Business School.

GitLab. What not to do when implementing remote: don’t replicate the in-office experience remotely. https://about.gitlab.com/company/culture/all-remote/what-not-to-do/

Goman, C. K. (2016, March 11). The Immeasurable Importance Of Face-To-Face Meetings. https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2016/03/11/the-immeasurable-importance-of-face-to-face-meetings/#440d18934937

Lamothe, C. (2018, January 3). Let’s touch: why physical connection between human beings matters. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/03/lets-touch-why-physical-connection-between-human-beings-matters

Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Oxford University Press.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013, September 19). The social brain and its superpowers – TEDxStLouis. https://youtu.be/NNhk3owF7RQ

Leigh-Hunt, N., Bagguley, D., Bash, K., et al. (2017). An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Public Health, (152)157-171.

Mann, A. (2017, August 1). 3 Ways You Are Failing Your Remote Workers. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236192/ways-failing-remote-workers.aspx

Owl Labs. 2018 Global State of Remote Work. https://www.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2018

Owl Labs. The State of Remote Work Report. https://www.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work

Owl Labs. [New Research] 2019 State of Remote Work. https://www.owllabs.com/blog/2019-state-of-remote-work

Ready, D. A., Cohen, C., Kiron, D., Pring, B. (2020, January). The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age: Reimagining What It Takes to Lead.

Rothaermel, F. T. (2016). Strategic Management (3rd Ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.

Scott, E. (2020, March 17). How to Handle the Stress of Working From Home. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-stress-of-working-from-home-4141174

Sherman, L. E., Michikyan, M., & Greenfield, P. M. (2013). The effects of text, audio, video, and in-person communication on bonding between friends. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(2), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2013-2-3

Stallard, M. L., & Stallard, K. P. (2020, March 26). COVID-19 Is Coinciding With a Loneliness Epidemic. https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/03/covid-19-coinciding-loneliness-epidemic/164153/

Verbeemen, E., & D’Amico, S. B. (2020, April 9). Why remote working will be the new normal, even after COVID-19. https://www.ey.com/en_be/covid-19/why-remote-working-will-be-the-new-normal-even-after-covid-19

Vickers, M. (2007). Adapting to Teleworker Trends. American Management Association’s Moving Ahead Newsletter, 2(10). http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/Adapting-to-Teleworker-Trends.aspx

Werk. The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study. https://werk.co/documents/The%20Future%20is%20Flexible%20-%20Werk%20Flexibility%20Study.pdf

Workplaceless. (2020, May 1). Preparing for Emergency Remote Work. https://www.workplaceless.com/blog/emergency-remote-work

How to Work Remotely During COVID-19 and Maintain Your Emotional Health

I have been asked about tips and strategies to help individuals be effective in working remotely during this COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Here are my thoughts.

Tips for Effectively Working Remotely:

1. Technology & Tools: Make sure you have the technology, equipments, and softwares to continue to be productive and get your work done. Practice and become comfortable with the various tools that your team and/or company requires you to use. For instance, for videoconferencing, be sure to know how to use the applications that your team uses (e.g., Zoom, WebEx, etc.). Also, even if you are familiar with the app, learn to use it and understand its limitations. Many videoconferencing tools are good to use for video through your laptop or computer’s built-in camera. However, the audio can, and is often spotty. So many times, it is best to “dial in” to the video call, and also call in on your cell phone for the audio portion.

Another thing to consider are the restrictions placed on you by your company’s IT department when you use your work laptop to work remotely. Some companies will require you to use a secure two-factor authentication process by going through an app, such as Duo Mobile, to log into your work laptop. Depending on how reliable the app and service is, this process can be quite cumbersome.

When doing video calls, preparation can go a long way in making your calls more tolerable for you and your colleagues (Chen, 2020). You will want to check your webcam, microphone, and internet speed. Also, be aware of what is in the background behind you (pets, kids, personal or identifiable items, etc.) and, as much as possible, minimize distractions and be sure that you can pay attention.

Equally important is to remember that when a video call will not work (newsflash: not everyone is comfortable using or being on a video call), try something else — like calling them on the phone.

*For Leaders:* If you are a leader leading a team, don’t forget that the virtual tools and technology serve to help you connect with your team. They aren’t meant to replace you in communicating and connecting with your team members.

I love this message from Patrick Lencioni reminding leaders to be exceedingly human:

“Demonstrate your concern for the very real fears and anxieties that your people are experiencing, not only professionally and economically, but socially and personally. Even though you don’t have definitive answers to all of their questions, don’t let that keep you from listening to them and empathizing with their fears.” -Patrick Lencioni

Here’s a great reminder that remote teams need real communication:

“You are a human manager learning to communicate with other humans aided by the power of technology. These efforts should allow you to think about the value of the human experience as supported by the best version of technology we can leverage for the goal. The power really is in your human hands; the technology just helps it virtually travel around the world” (Bisbee & Wisniewski, 2020).

2. Workspace: You need to set up a work office environment. Setting up a workspace will mentally prepare you and can be a good way to help separate your work & home space.

3. Rituals, Structure, and Breaks: You will want to develop rituals and be consistent about how you will start and end your day, as well as give yourself time to eat lunch and take short breaks throughout the day. You’ll also need to create a system or devise a method so that both you and those around you understand and know your work schedule.

4. Watercooler Conversations: When you are physically at the office, you can and do run into colleagues in the break room and are able to catch up with them or even solve or work through a challenge just by engaging in an unplanned watercooler conversation. When you work remotely, this is not possible so be sure to design a way to engage with your coworkers and/or your boss. Some teams use an instant messaging app like Microsoft Teams, Skype, or Slack to stay connected.

5. Chunk Your Time: Block times throughout the day that will work with your schedule, while trying to balance working at “home”. For instance, being at home and especially currently with many of the school children also in the home, you might not be able to follow a strict 8-5 schedule as you would normally follow in your office. In that case, break that up or chunk it into smaller chunks of time. For example, you might schedule 6am – 8am; 10am – 12pm; 2pm – 4pm; and 7pm – 9pm or 8am – 11am; 1pm – 3pm; 6pm – 9pm.

6. Be Prepared to Work More or Longer Hours: Make no mistake, working from home requires MORE (not LESS) of your time. As a matter of fact, people who telecommute, especially those who have done so for an extended period of time will tell you that it actually requires you to work more, not less.

Tips for Maintaining Your Emotional Health & Mental Sanity:

1. The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has created a unique scenario because it is the reason why this forced social experiment of remote work is suddenly on everyone’s mind. Indeed, many companies are suddenly requiring their employees to work from home to help contain the spread of the virus. It is important to understand and acknowledge some of the things you may experience as a result of this disruption to your regular routines (i.e., if you typically come into the office to work), such as fear and anxiety; depression and boredom; and anger, frustration or irritability.

2. To better handle and cope with this situation, try the following:

  • limit the amount of news you consume; get news from reliable sources
  • set up and follow a daily routine
  • stay connected to your coworkers, friends, and family
  • adopt a strong internal locus of control; realize there are things within your control & things outside of your control
  • take breaks and make time to unwind
  • practice gratitude and try to look for the positives
  • try meditation, mindfulness, or other relaxation exercises
  • get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

American Psychological Association. Keeping Your Distance to Stay Safe. https://www.apa.org/practice/programs/dmhi/research-information/social-distancing

American Psychological Association. (2020, March 16). Seven crucial research findings that can help people deal with COVID-19. https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2020/03/covid-19-research-findings

Bisbee, B., & Wisniewski, K. (2020, March 18). Remote Teams Need Real Communication. Association for Talent Development. https://www.td.org/insights/remote-teams-need-real-communication

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Manage Anxiety & Stress. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/managing-stress-anxiety.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Taking Care of Your Emotional Health. https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/selfcare.asp

Chen, B. (2020, March 25). The Dos and Don’ts of Online Video Meetings. NYTimes.com. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/technology/personaltech/online-video-meetings-etiquette-virus.html

Neeley, T. (2020, March 15). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/03/15-questions-about-remote-work-answered

Nguyen, S. (2015, August 22). The Pitfalls Of Telecommuting. https://workplacepsychology.net/2015/08/22/the-pitfalls-of-telecommuting/

People with Secure High Self-Esteem Don’t Need or Seek External Validation

The older I get, the more reflective and observant I become. It might be because I’m older and a bit wiser, but I think it’s more about me learning important life lessons, appreciating and valuing what I have, not looking around comparing myself to others, or seeking other people’s approval or validation, and most of all being the best version of me.

Individuals who are self-assured and have secure high self-esteem aren’t bothered when others criticize their appearance, attack or make fun of their work, or try to humiliate them. Why?

If you are a Secure High Self-Esteem person, you:

  1. Know and stand firm in the belief that you do not want, need, or seek approval or validation from others;
  2. Recognize that the attacks unleashed on you or directed at you often have nothing (or very little) to do with your message, project, product, service, or who you are as a human being; and
  3. Always respect and accept yourself. You understand and appreciate your strengths, but you also acknowledge your weaknesses.

I see so many people who constantly struggle because they either see themselves as victims of life, that life is a dogfight with only a winner and a loser, or they try desperately to seek approval or validation from other people. I can relate because I once saw myself as a victim (woe-is-me mentality) and, before I finally found my voice and myself, I also sought approval and validation from others around me. I truly believe the best gift you can give yourself is self-validation.

“Something remarkable happens when you truly stop seeking other people’s approval, you automatically gain it, and find that others will then seek your approval.” -Steve Aitchison

Secure self-esteem comes from inside you. It is associated with high self-determination, knowing who you really are, and behaving independently (Vonk, 2006). What’s more, researchers have also found that even with “high” self-esteem, there’s an important distinction between someone with a stable high self-esteem vs. someone whose high self-esteem is unstable and contingent (Kernis, Lakey, & Heppner, 2008).

Secure high self-esteem involves “favorable feelings of self-worth that arise naturally from successfully dealing with life challenges, being authentic and expressing one’s true self in everyday life, and having relationships in which one is valued for whom one is and not for what one achieves” (Kernis, Lakey, & Heppner, 2008, p. 479).

People with secure high self-esteem are happy with themselves and like who they are, warts and all. Their sense of self-worth is stable and they’re able to accept their weaknesses. They “do not feel a need to be superior to others; for these individuals, high self-esteem is a given and does not need to be validated on an everyday basis” (Kernis, Lakey, & Heppner, 2008, p. 479).

Stephen Covey, in his classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (2004), talked about the Abundance Mentality vs. the Scarcity Mentality.

Abundance Mentality is the belief that there’s plenty out there for everyone. Scarcity Mentality is the thinking that there’s only so much and that there’s not enough for everyone. Those with a scarcity mindset believe “if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else” (Covey, 2004, p. 219).

Those with a Scarcity Mentality will hoard or even steal recognition and credit, and power or profit. They’re unhappy for or jealous about the success or happiness of others around them.

“It’s almost as if something is being taken from them when someone else receives special recognition or windfall gain or has remarkable success or achievement” (Covey, 2004, p. 219).

It’s very sad because, instead of seeing their lives as being filled with abundance, they see themselves as lacking.

Covey (2004) said this is because the sense of self-worth for those with a scarcity mindset “comes from being compared, and someone else’s success, to some degree, means their failure” (p. 219).

“People with a Scarcity Mentality harbor secret hopes that others might suffer misfortune — not terrible misfortune, but acceptable misfortune that would keep them ‘in their place.’ They’re always comparing, always competing. They give their energies to possessing things or other people in order to increase their sense of worth” (Covey, 2004, p. 219-220).

The author of The EQ Difference (2005) uses “The Famine Voice” in place of a Scarcity Mindset, and “The Abundance Voice” rather than a Abundance Mindset.

I especially like how The Abundance Voice is described (Lynn, 2005): “[T]he abundance voice proclaims that, indeed, life’s riches are plentiful. She believes that somehow there will always be enough, and she refuses to be ruled by thoughts of scarcity. She can convince you that a crumb of bread, when served with a smile, is indeed a feast” (p. 67).

Takeaway: Secure High Self-Esteem people (1) Know and stand firm in the belief that they don’t need or seek approval or validation from others; (2) Recognize that attack(s) directed at them usually have nothing to do with their project, product, service, or who they are as a human being; (3) Always accept and respect themselves. They understand and appreciate their strengths, while also acknowledging their weaknesses; and (4) Have an Abundance Mindset. They believe there is plenty of riches to go around and that life isn’t a competition, with a winner or loser. They are simply content running their own race.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press.

Kernis, M. H., Lakey, C. E., & Heppner, W. L. (2008). Secure Versus Fragile High Self-Esteem as a Predictorof Verbal Defensiveness: Converging Findings AcrossThree Different Markers. Journal of Personality, 76(3), 477-512.

Lynn, A. B. (2005). The EQ Difference: A Powerful Plan for Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work. AMACOM.

Vonk, R. (2006). Improving Self-Esteem. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Self-Esteem Issues and Answers: A Sourcebook of Current Perspectives (pp. 178-186). Psychology Press.

Self-Regard: Warts & All

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional intelligence and the Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence. According to the Bar-On model, “emotional-social intelligence is a cross-section of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and facilitators that determine how effectively we understand and express ourselves, understand others and relate with them, and cope with daily demands” (Bar-On, 2006, p. 14).

One particular factor of the Bar-On model, self-regard, has piqued my interest as I observe and reflect on human behaviors and interact with working professionals and other adults.

Self-regard is respecting oneself while understanding and accepting one’s strengths and weaknesses. Self-regard is often associated with feelings of inner strength and self-confidence (Multi-Health Systems, 2011).

“Self-regard is the ability to respect and accept yourself—essentially liking the way you are. To have healthy self-regard is to appreciate your perceived positive aspects and possibilities, as well as to accept your negative aspects and limitations and still feel good about yourself . . . This conceptual component of emotional intelligence is associated with general feelings of security, inner strength, self-assuredness, self-confidence, and self-adequacy” (Stein & Book, 2011, p. 68).

In The EQ Difference, Lynn (2005) describes different voices that are part of our internal dialogue. The ones that I believe apply to today’s post are the victim voice (you’re a victim, it’s never your fault), the failure voice (you’re a failure), the self-doubt voice (“a future-focused pessimist waiting to kill your tomorrow” [p. 64]), the famine voice (there never is & never will be enough), the comparison voice (compares everything with what others have), the envy voice (being jealous you don’t have what others have), and the bad luck voice (everyone else gets good luck, except you).

If you struggle with self-regard (i.e., feelings of inner strength and self-confidence), you may notice that a number of these internal “voices,” not only appear but, dominate your mind.

We all, to some extent and on some level, have one or more of these internal dialogues going on in our mind. The difference is that individuals with well-developed self-regard know their strengths and weaknesses, and still like themselves, warts and all [an expression meaning including qualities or features that aren’t attractive or appealing] (Stein & Book, 2011). And, by doing so, they’ve learned to quiet the sometimes noisy voices in their heads.

“Because individuals with healthy self-regard know their strengths and weaknesses and feel good about themselves, they have no trouble openly and appropriately acknowledging when they have made mistakes, are wrong, or don’t know all the answers. Feeling sure of oneself is dependent upon self-respect and self-esteem, which are based on a fairly well-developed sense of identity. People with good self-regard feel fulfilled and satisfied with themselves” (Stein & Book, 2011, p. 68).

What about self-regard and leadership? Individuals with low self-regard tend to doubt their own abilities and second guess their decisions, and this doubt holds them back from effectively and confidently leading a team (Multi-Health Systems, 2014).

In FYI: For Your Improvement (a guide for coaching and development), Lombardo and Eichinger talked about the importance of self-knowledge and why knowing yourself is vital to success in work and in life:

“Deploying yourself against life and work is greatly helped by really knowing what you’re good, average and bad at, what you’re untested in, and what you overdo or overuse. Known weaknesses don’t get you in as much trouble as blind spots. You can loop around and compensate for a known weakness. A blind spot is the worst thing you can have. You can really get into performance or career trouble with a blind spot, because you don’t know or are unwilling to admit you’re not good at it” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000, p. 328).

When you like yourself—warts and all—and hold yourself in high self-regard, you know your strengths, weaknesses, and limits. You seek feedback and are able to learn from mistakes. You’re open to criticisms, receptive to discussing your shortcomings, and are not defensive (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).

People with high self-regard, those with inner strength and self-confidence, don’t (1) blame others for their own mistakes, (2) go out of their way to hurt or discredit people, (3) feel the need to put others down to feel better about themself, or (4) inflate themselves or act like a know-it-all in order to prove their worth.

“The real champions in life are so humble and gracious. They just continue doing what they do without all the posturing. If you’ve got the real thing, you don’t have to flaunt a loud imitation.” -Denis Waitley

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Bar-On, R. (2006). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Psicothema, 18, supl., 13-25.

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). FYI: For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide (3rd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Lominger Limited, Inc.

Lynn, A. B. (2005). The EQ Difference: A Powerful Plan for Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work. New York, NY: AMACOM.

Multi-Health Systems (MHS). (2011). EQ-i 2.0 User’s Handbook. Toronto, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Multi-Health Systems (MHS). (2014). EQ 360 Leadership Report. Toronto, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Stein, S. J., & Book, H. E. (2011). The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success (3rd ed.). Mississauga, ON: Jossey-Bass.

Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)

I received an email asking if I would write about Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) from an Industrial and Organizational (I/O) psychology perspective.

Interestingly, much of the research on ROWE has been coming from the field of sociology. Two sociologists from University of Minnesota’s Flexible Work and Well-Being Center, Dr. Phyllis Moen and Dr. Erin Kelly (Kelly is now at the MIT Sloan School of Management), were the original researchers invited in 2006 to observe and study ROWE as it was being implemented at Best Buy (Flexible Work and Well-Being Center, 2015).

Background of ROWE

Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) was pioneered by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson while they were employed at Best Buy. The seeds of ROWE began in 2001 when a leader at Best Buy corporate headquarters needed help to make Best Buy a top choice among talented people who were seeking jobs. A survey was conducted asking employees what they wanted most from work. Overwhelmingly, the answer was: trust me with my time, trust me to do my job, and I’ll deliver results, and be a happier employee too (Ressler & Thompson, 2008). In a pilot program (called Alternative Work Program) that gave employees a choice from a set of flexible schedules, Ressler observed that “if you gave people even a little control over their time they immediately began to see the benefits both at work and at home.” Employees who were in the pilot program were happier and more productive and they didn’t want it to end (Ressler & Thompson, 2008). Thompson joined in 2003 and what was learned during the pilot program began to grow and change. The program was refined and eventually came to be known as Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE).

Overview of ROWE

In ROWE, employees can work whenever and wherever they want as long their work gets done. ROWE values delivering results over face time at work. “Job performance is evaluated solely on the basis of whether the necessary results are achieved by employees, not whether they’ve put in ‘face-time’ at the office” (Colquitt, LePine, & Wesson, 2015, p. 155).

The idea behind ROWE is that when employees have control over their lives and they are able to work when and where they feel most productive and they’re able to balance work and family demands, they will be more incentivized to produce.

Ressler and Thompson (2008) wrote in their book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, that ROWE is based on a simple idea:

“In a Results-Only Work Environment, people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. . .In a ROWE, you can literally do whatever you want whenever you want as long as your work gets done. You have complete control over your life as long as your work gets done” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 3). You can go grocery shopping, take a nap, or go to the movies and never have to ask for permission or tell your boss where you’re going. As long as work gets done and you get results, then it’s your life (Ressler & Thompson, 2008).

Benefits of ROWE

The benefits of ROWE include (Correll, Kelly, O’Connor, & Williams, 2014):

  • Increased employees’ control over their work schedule and improved work–life fit
  • Reduced work-family conflict and negative work-family spillover
  • Positive effect on employees’ sleep duration, energy levels, self-reported health, and exercise
  • Reduced turnover
  • Increased job satisfaction and organizational commitment

Things That Do Not Change under ROWE

There are some things under ROWE that do not change (Kelly & Moen, 2009):

  • Positive and negative home-to-work spillover
  • Family-to-work conflict
  • Overall assessment of health
  • Well-being scale
  • Psychosocial job demands scale
  • Job control scale (decision authority, skill discretion)
  • Job involvement scale
  • Satisfaction with coworkers
  • Satisfaction with manager
  • Work engagement scale
  • Psychological distress
  • Emotional exhaustion

ROWE is Flexible Work Arrangement (FWA) to the Extreme

ROWE is a type of flexible work arrangement. Flexible work arrangements refer to choices about the time (i.e, when; flextime or scheduling flexibility) and/or location (i.e., where; telecommuting or flexplace) that work is conducted (WorldatWork, 2005; Allen, 2013).

Ressler and Thompson (2008) point out that in a flexible work arrangement: permission is needed, there are limited options, is management controlled, requires policies/guidelines, the focus is on “time off,” and there’s high demand but low control. In a ROWE, you do not need permission, options are unlimited, it’s employee controlled, requires accountability/clear goals, the focus is on “results,” and there’s high demand but also high control.

“[N]o matter how flexible a nontraditional schedule is it’s still a schedule. Flexible schedule is an oxymoron. Which is why in a ROWE there are no schedules” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 69).

“If you get results, then anything else you do with your time is completely up to you. What work looks like in terms of where it takes place and during what hours is no longer important. You work when and how you work best. You are in complete control” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 67).

The Promise of ROWE

Ressler and Thompson (2008) wrote, “in a ROWE you don’t overwork because there is no incentive to overwork” (p. 198). You don’t have to do all-nighters or be the first in the office and the last one to leave because you are rewarded solely on delivering results. “Once you’ve delivered those results, you stop working and do something else. It’s nice” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 198).

The Fanfare and Fizzle

In 2013, in a complete reversal from its initial enthusiastic endorsement of ROWE, Best Buy terminated the program (Wong, 2013). Under a new CEO, Best Buy cited the urgency to turn around its struggling consumer electronics retail business as the reason for ending its Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) program (Lee, 2013). As the company’s spokesperson explained (Lee, 2013): “Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

But Best Buy was not the only organization to try out and then later abandon ROWE. The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also tried ROWE and soon discontinued the program. A 2011 evaluation of the ROWE pilot revealed that managers were uncertain as to how to evaluate their employees based on their work results. And employees also struggled because they did not understand if they were meeting their expected results (Glazer, 2013).

The Risks and Obstacles of ROWE

Ressler and Thompson argue that ROWE is appropriate in all workplaces but there are situations where it isn’t recommended or appropriate, such as customer service departments, or when employees are new or inexperienced and require more support, or when you’re not certain that team members will complete their tasks at the level of quality and by the deadlines agreed upon (MindTools.com, 2016). As a matter of fact, even researchers of flex work arrangements (Kelly & Moen, 2014) admit that some workers, like those in retail and service positions, must still do their work “at work.”

Despite the promise made by Ressler and Thompson that “in a ROWE you don’t overwork” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 198), there is research on telecommuting that dispute this claim.

In a previous post on the pitfalls of telecommuting, I wrote that those who telecommute (work from home or another remote location) will tell you that it actually requires you to work more, not less (Noonan & Glass, 2012). In fact, researchers have found that “telecommuters worked between 5 and 7 total hours more per week than nontelecommuters” (Noonan & Glass, 2012, p. 40).

Kelly and Moen (2007) offered this thought when they first began studying ROWE: “Organizational needs—getting the work done—are still emphasized in the ROWE setting, and it is an open question whether increased control is actually beneficial when work demands are very high” (p. 497).

Michelle Conlin (2006) wrote, at the end of her Bloomberg article on ROWE, that, “Some at the company [Best Buy] complain that productivity is up only because many Best Buyers are now working longer hours.”

While a majority of employees say flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, help them to achieve a better work/life balance (Wright, 2014), evidence suggests that it’s not as rosy as one might think. For example, teleworkers reported more time-based family interference with work (FIW) than did non-teleworkers. Indeed, the ability to telecommute or work from home “may enable negative work and nonwork spillover rather than avert it” (Allen, 2013, pp. 706-707).

“The most telling problem with telecommuting as a worklife solution is its strong relationship to long work hours and the “work devotion schema.”” (Noonan & Glass, 2012, p. 45).

“Since telecommuting is intrinsically linked to information technologies that facilitate 24/7 communication between clients, coworkers, and supervisors, telecommuting can potentially increase the penetration of work tasks into home time. Bolstering this interpretation, the 2008 Pew Networked Workers survey reports that the majority of wired workers report telecommuting technology has increased their overall work hours and that workers use technology, especially email, to perform work tasks even when sick or on vacation” (Noonan & Glass, 2012, p. 45).

Moen, Kelly, and Lam (2013) tested “A key question [regarding] whether ROWE actually reduced employees’ time strain, in terms of reducing their work-time demands and/or increasing their time control” (p. 159). The researchers found that “exposure to ROWE increased time control (time adequacy, schedule control) but did not change time demands (work hours, psychological time demands)” (Moen, Kelly, & Lam, 2013, p. 166).

“ROWE flexibility initiative did not reduce psychological time demands, probably because ROWE-type interventions do not diminish the amount, intensity, or expectations of time investments in work” (Moen, Kelly, & Lam, 2013, p. 167).

Takeaway: A Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) sounds great — as a concept. However, the challenges of implementing and the realities involved in working in a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) can reveal major limitations as to its appropriateness for every workplace. In fact, even researchers of flex work arrangements concede that some workers, such as those in retail and service positions, will still need to continue doing their work “at work.” What’s more, contrary to the claim that “in a ROWE you don’t overwork,” some employees working in a ROWE reported that they actually work longer hours.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Allen, T. D. (2013). The Work–Family Role Interface: A Synthesis of the Research from Industrial and Organizational Psychology. In N. W. Schmitt & S. Highhouse (Eds.), Handbook of psychology (Vol. 12 Industrial and organizational psychology, 2nd ed) (pp. 698-718). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., & Wesson, M. J. (2015). Organizational behavior: Improving performance and commitment in the workplace (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Conlin, M. (2006, December 10). Smashing The Clock. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2006-12-10/smashing-the-clock

Correll, S. J., Kelly, E. L., O’Connor, L. T., & Williams, J. C. (2014). Redesigning, Redefining Work. Work and Occupations, 41(1), 3-17.

Flexible Work and Well-Being Center. (2015). University of Minnesota. Retrieved from http://www.flexiblework.umn.edu/publications.shtml

Glazer, S. (2013, July 19). Telecommuting. CQ Researcher, 23(26), 621-644. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/

Hollon, J. (2013, March 6). Goodbye ROWE: Best Buy Ends Flex Work Program It Was Famous For. Retrieved from https://www.eremedia.com/tlnt/goodbye-rowe-best-buy-ends-flex-work-program-it-was-famous-for/

Joly, H. (2013, March 17). Best Buy CEO on leadership: A comment I made was misconstrued. Star Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.startribune.com/best-buy-ceo-on-leadership-a-comment-i-made-was-misconstrued/198546011/

Kelly, E. L., & Moen, P. (2007). Rethinking the ClockWork of Work: Why Schedule Control May Pay Off at Work and at Home. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 9(4), 487-506.

Kelly, E. L., & Moen, P. (2009). Brief Summary of the Flexible Work & Well-Being Study. PDF posted on WorkplacePsychology.Net

Kelly, E. L., & Moen, P. (2014, January 23). Building Flexibility Into The Way We Work. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erin-l-kelly/building-flexibility-into_b_4241132.html

Lee, T. (2013, December 13). Best Buy ends flexible work program for its corporate employees. Star Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.startribune.com/no-13-best-buy-ends-flexible-work-program-for-its-corporate-employees/195156871/

MindTools. (2016). Managing in a Results-Only Work Environment. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/managing-results-only-environment.htm

Moen, P., & Kelly, E. L. (2007). Flexible Work and Well-Being Study: Final Report. Retrieved from http://www.flexiblework.umn.edu/publications_docs/FWWB_Fall07.pdf

Moen, P., Kelly, E. L., & Lam, J. (2013). Healthy work revisited: Do changes in time strain predict well-being? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(2), 157-172. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0031804

Nguyen, S. (2015, August 22). The Pitfalls of Telecommuting. WorkplacePsychology.Net. Retrieved from https://workplacepsychology.net/2015/08/22/the-pitfalls-of-telecommuting/

Noonan, M. C., & Glass, J. L. (2012). The hard truth about telecommuting. Monthly Labor Review, 135(6), 38-45. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/06/art3full.pdf

Ressler, C., & Thompson, J. (2008). Why work sucks and how to fix it. New York: Penguin Group.

WorldatWork. (2005). Flexible Work Schedules: A Survey of Members of WorldatWork and AWLP. Retrieved from https://www.worldatwork.org/waw/adimLink?id=17161

Wong, V. (2013, March 7). How Best Buy Has Changed Its Tune on Flexible Work. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-03-07/how-best-buy-has-changed-its-tune-on-flexible-work

Wright, A. D. (2014, June 13). 10% Would Take Less Pay to Telecommute, Study Says. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/less-pay-to-telework.aspx

Job Dissatisfaction and Mental Health

Stressed business people with heads in hands | Credit: Caiaimage/Robert Daly
Stressed business people with heads in hands | Credit: Caiaimage/Robert Daly

I was contacted by a journalist with The Guardian, a popular UK newspaper, for my thoughts about why having too little to do at work is bad for your mental health. I am reposting my responses below.

Question: Is having too little to do, or being under-stimulated, at work similar to being overworked?

Answer: If we assume that having too little to do or being under-stimulated at work falls under the umbrella of boredom (Mann, 2007) and that there’s a relationship between boredom at work and employee mental well-being (Warr, 2005), and that mental health is comprised of many dimensions (two of which are subjective well-being and positive self-regard), then being bored at work (not enough to do or not stimulated) and being overworked are similar, albeit they occupy different points on the spectrum. With regard to being overworked, researchers have found that changes in job demands predict future burnout (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Van Rhenen, 2009).

Question: Is having too little to do, or being under-stimulated at work, bad for your mental health? If so, why does this cause stress/poor mental health?

Answer: Related to my previous answer, being bored (having too little to do or being under-stimulated and when associated with poor mental well-being & poor positive self-regard) and being overworked can both be bad for a person’s mental health.

When we talk about an employee’s subjective well-being, it’s important to distinguish between “context-free” well-being and “domain-specific” well-being (Warr, 2005). A person’s well-being with respect to his or her job is a job-related “domain-specific” well-being (i.e., limited to the workplace & job). It’s also possible and we do see this happen, where it’s family-related “domain-specific” well-being. That is, situations in an employee’s family life/environment have a negative impact on his/her subjective well-being and the employee carries this into the workplace.

We can see how just these two streams in the “domain-specific” well-being can be challenging to separate within a person’s mental state of mind. Put it simply, we can take work stress home, but the reverse is also true, we can just as easily take home stress with us to work.

One very important note we need to remember is this: an employee’s job may influence his/her well-being, the employee’s well-being may impact how he/she perceives the job, or characteristics of the employee can determine well-being or perception of the job (Warr, 2005). Also critical to mental health are feelings that we have about ourselves as a person. In addition to subjective well-being is the concept of positive self-regard. We can think of positive self-regard in terms of a person’s self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-worth (Warr, 2005).

Question: What is the optimum level of work for good mental health?

Answer: There is no magic formula for what level of work would contribute to good mental health. As I have shared, the reason is because the factors that lead to good or poor mental health are many and they can be difficult to separate from other related factors (Warr, 2005).

That said, there are still things that organizations can do to help their employees stay engaged in their jobs.

In his book The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman (2014) shared that one key lesson to getting employees engaged in their work is to offer “opportunities for them to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness on a daily basis.” He explained that employee autonomy is when workers have a sense of choice. Companies can promote employee autonomy by explaining the reason/logic when tasks are presented, by giving employees the flexibility about how and when a task is done, and by giving employees options on where they can do their work (e.g., telecommuting).

Takeaway: If we tie our discussion about boredom at work (i.e., having too little to do or being under-stimulated) as well as being overworked to mean being generally dissatisfied with a job, then there’s a strong connection between job dissatisfaction and mental health. Research suggests that an employee’s level of job satisfaction is an important factor influencing his or her health (Faragher, Cass, & Cooper, 2005). In analyzing nearly 500 studies involving over 250,000 employees, researchers have found a very “strong relationship between job satisfaction and both mental and physical health,” and that “dissatisfaction at work can be hazardous to an employee’s mental health and well-being” (Faragher, Cass, & Cooper, 2005, p. 108).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Faragher, E.B., Cass, M., & Cooper, C.L. (2005). The relationship between job satisfaction and health: a meta-analysis. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 62(2), 105-112. doi:10.1136/oem.2002.006734

Friedman, R. (2014). The best place to work: The art and science of creating an extraordinary workplace. New York: Perigee.

Mann, S. (2007, February). Boredom at work. The Psychologist, 20, 90-93. Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-20/edition-2/boredom-work

Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement, and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(7), 893-917. doi:10.1002/job.595

Warr, P. (2005). Work, well-being and mental health. In J. Barling, E. K. Kelloway, & M. R. Frone (Eds.), Handbook of work stress (pp. 547-574). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Don’t Waste Time Trying To Discredit Others

better-to-know-quote

Whether in my personal or professional life, when I observe myself and others around me, one of the biggest personal and professional missteps I witness is being a blocked learner. More than blocking learning, I think of it as repelling learning — as if it were a mosquito or bug.

On professional networking sites (e.g., LinkedIn), I now observe, much to my dismay, individuals going out of their way to put other people down and/or intentionally trying to harm other people’s professional reputations. It’s shocking and very sad how ugly some people treat others! It’s also not surprising that the individuals being targeted are quite successful in their fields.

Lombardo and Eichinger (2006) wrote that three problems for blocked learners are: (1) they are closed (unwilling) to learning new skills and methods, (2) they do not seek input from others (why would they since they think they know everything already), and (3) they are not insightful about themselves.

Two remedies Lombardo and Eichinger recommended for blocked learners:

1. Watch other people’s reaction to you. Observe the reactions of other people to the things you’re doing and saying. It’s easier to do this in the real, physical world than when you’re online. For instance, if others on professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, are upset, irked by, or tired of the offenders’ relentless criticisms and put-downs, they may simply ignore or tune the offenders out or unfollow them. Thus, the offenders will never know that their behaviors turned others off.

2. Signal that you’re open to and interested in what other people have to say. Here, the blocked learners are so closed off from learning that they really don’t care how they are perceived by others. In fact, communication really becomes one-way for them. That is, the offenders use professional networking sites (e.g., LinkedIn) as an educational pulpit, where they view themselves as the expert, know-it-all “professors,” and their role is to teach/educate others. And, they go out of their way to point out flaws, mistakes, bogus, and/or unconvincing stories and writings of other professionals (at least according to their own views and biases). For these offenders, their way to improving yourself and the workplace is the only correct path and they are angry, even offended, that other professionals (in other fields) dare to talk about or share different ways to improving yourself and your workplace.

It’s sad to see how much time these offenders waste tracking other people’s conversations on professional networking sites and then spending the time to try to jump in and discredit them. As a father to a toddler, I pose this rhetorical question, “Who has time to do that?” I mean really? In my free time, I like to go the park and play on the swings with my wife and daughter. I don’t have the time nor do I want to spend time trying to find people to discredit. That must be so time-consuming, wasteful, and tiresome!

I often share with my wife and friends that if we’re busy living our own lives and doing our best, we will not have time to worry about what other people are doing! When you’re happy with your life, you won’t have time or energy to worry about other people or feel the need to talk bad about them.

Thus, in attempting to discredit other professionals who, in the offenders’ eyes, should not be in the business of writing about or sharing personal and professional improvement tips, they (the offenders) end up discrediting themselves and revealing, for all the world to see, their bitterness and resentment of someone else’s success. Indeed, engaging in these types of negative, mean-spirited behaviors (of putting others down) shines a very bright and unflattering light on your character or lack of one.

Takeaway: Don’t waste your life and your precious time trying to discredit others. Your way of improving yourself and the workplace is not the only path. Be humble and open to learning from others. Focus on being your absolute best at work and at home. When you are busy living your own life and doing your best, you will not have time or energy to worry about what other people are doing.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

Reference

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2006). Career Architect Development Planner (4th ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Lominger Limited, Inc.

Why It’s Necessary To Fight Work Stress And How To Do It

Tired businesswoman with head in hands looking away | Credit: Caiaimage/Agnieszka Wozniak
Tired businesswoman with head in hands looking away | Credit: Caiaimage/Agnieszka Wozniak

A writer asked for my thoughts about why it is necessary to fight work stress and how to do it. Here’s my response:

Why We Must Combat Work Stress

There are many work-related problems that crop up as a result of work stress. These are similar to stress experienced outside of the workplace (i.e., involving physical, psychological, or behavioral reactions). Employees complain about and/or experience sleep disorders, inability to concentrate or focus, feeling exhausted or burned out, feeling irritable, engaging in arguments or conflicts with coworkers or supervisors, or withdrawing and isolating from others. As mentioned in the “Mental Health at Work” series, if work/job stress is prolonged, frequent, or intense, individuals are at higher risk for psychological problems, such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, panic attacks, or even PTSD. Collectively, these problems, if left unchecked, contribute to larger organizational issues, such as increased absenteeism, medical/disability cost, high turnover, reduced productivity, etc. Indeed, work stress is a serious and growing problem that harms employees and organizations (Quillian-Wolever & Wolever, 2003).

How to Combat Work Stress

It is easier to make a case for why we need to combat work stress than it is to go about combating work stress. Simply stated, it’s hard to manage stress effectively.

For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) has a resource titled, “Coping With Stress at Work” that suggests 7 steps to managing stress in general (e.g., track your stressors, develop health responses, etc.).

However, what that particular resource and many other resources about combating/managing stress fail to point out is that managing work stress is multifaceted and involves individually-targeted as well as organizationally-targeted interventions. Many resources only touch on the individual’s initiative to manage his/her own stress. That is, it’s about how individuals can take steps to manage their own stress in the workplace.

There are different views about what contributes to work stress. Some say it has to do with worker characteristics (or qualities relating to the worker), while others say it has to do with the working conditions (Barling, Kelloway, Frone, 2005).

What we need to do is think about interventions for work stress in terms of levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary [Leka & Houdmont, 2010]). The primary intervention targets the source of the work stress (i.e, the design, management, and organization of work). When we talk about how workers can better respond to and manage stress, that’s the secondary intervention. Secondary prevention intervention (often called stress management) is about changing the ways that individuals respond to risks or job stressors (Barling, Kelloway, Frone, 2005). Finally, there’s the tertiary intervention that provides remedial support for problems that have already manifested (Randall & Nielsen, 2010).

For an excellent reference on the three levels of interventions (primary, secondary, and tertiary) see the article, “Solving the Problem: Preventing Stress in the Workplace (Booklet 3).” And for a comprehensive understanding, check out all three booklets in the Mental Health at Work… From Defining to Solving the Problem series (cited in the links below).

But I don’t want to complicate things too much by talking about the different levels of interventions, so I’ll leave you with some tips for how to fight/manage stress at the individual level (targeting the secondary intervention level).

9 TIPS FOR COPING WITH STRESS [secondary intervention level]
(taken directly from Mental Health at Work… From Defining to Solving the Problem series – Booklet 1).

  1. Learn to identify the signs your body is giving you (increased heart rate, clammy hands, difficulties in concentrating, etc.) as this will help you do what is necessary to reduce stress.
  2. Learn to identify what increases your stress; by acting on the causes of stress, you can better control it.
  3. Learn to delegate – don’t shoulder all responsibilities on your own.
  4. Establish a list of priorities as this will help you to better manage your time.
  5. Suggest changes at work, talk about irritating situations with your colleagues and supervisor, and try to find solutions that are mutually acceptable.
  6. Develop a good support network and recognize that help is sometimes necessary to get through hard times.
  7. Participate in leisure activities. Apart from helping you relax, such activities will help “recharge your batteries.”
  8. Exercise. In addition to the obvious health benefits, exercise will help you sleep better.
  9. Reduce your consumption of stimulating foods and beverages such as coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks, sugar or alcohol.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

American Psychological Association (APA). Coping With Stress at Work. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/work-stress.aspx

Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., Frone, M. R. (2005). Handbook of work stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Management at Université Laval, Québec, Canada. Mental Health at Work… From Defining to Solving the Problem series (Booklet 1, 2, 3). http://www.cgsst.com/eng/publications-sante-psychologique-travail/trousse-la-sante-psychologique-au-travail.asp

Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Management at Université Laval, Québec, Canada. Mental Health at Work… From Defining to Solving the Problem series. “Solving the Problem: Preventing Stress in the Workplace (Booklet 3)”. Retrieved from http://hrcouncil.ca/hr-toolkit/documents/doc115-395.pdf

Leka, S., & Houdmont, J. (2010). Occupational health psychology. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Quillian-Wolever, R., & Wolever, M. (2003). Stress management at work. In L. E. Tetrick & J. C. Quick (Eds.), Handbook of occupational health psychology (pp. 355-375). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Randall, R., & Nielsen, K. (2010). Interventions to Promote Well-Being at Work. In D. Leka & J. Houdmont (Eds.), Occupational health psychology (pp. 88-123). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

IS THE Cost of Stress on the U.S. Economy $300 Billion? I’M NOT SO SURE

Young businesswoman working in office | Credit: BJI / Lane Oatey
Young businesswoman working in office | Credit: BJI / Lane Oatey

In 2011, I wrote an article about the true cost of job stress. In that article, I cited Dr. Rebecca Goldin (a Professor at George Mason University and Director of STATS.org) throughout and shared Dr. Goldin’s observations about the American Institute of Stress’ baseless claim of the $300 billion price tag of stress on the U.S. economy.

Today’s 2016 article is a supplement to the 2011 article, and includes additional information and supporting references.

First, the original URL link to Dr. Goldin’s “Counting the Costs of Stress” article on the stats.org website is no longer valid. I’ve reached out to Dr. Goldin to see if her article is posted elsewhere but did not hear back from her. Luckily, I had saved a PDF copy of the article and have posted it to my own website. Citations to Dr. Goldin’s 2004 article will now to point to a PDF of the article [hosted on my own website] rather than to an invalid URL on the stats.org website.

Second, I’ve located a copy of Dr. Paul Rosch’s 2001 newsletter in which he explained his rationale for how he arrived at the $300 billion price tag. According to Dr. Rosch (2001), via the American Institute of Stress, job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.

Rosch also wrote in the International Stress Management Association newsletter (2001): “Job stress is estimated to cost American industry $300 billion a year from absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity, workers compensation awards and other legal expenses, direct medical and insurance costs, etc.”

In his 2001 Health and Stress newsletter, Dr. Rosch wrote [emphasis added for readability]:

Job stress is estimated to cost American industry in excess of $300 billion a year. When [Dr. Rosch] started writing about this subject over twenty years ago the price tag for job stress was pegged at $150 billion annually and ten years ago it was claimed to be $200 billion. The $300 billion figure posted on our [American Institute of Stress] website has attracted a large number of inquiries over the past several years, particularly from reporters. Most people want to know if this is based on a formula or series of calculations with scientific underpinnings that have statistical significance as opposed to a personal estimate that was picked out of thin air. The answer is as follows: In 1979, Albrecht postulated an annual 4 percent rate of absenteeism and a 5 percent turnover rate in a company with 1000 employees. He assumed that 2 percent of all absences and turnovers were due to stress and that it would cost $1000 for recruitment and training for each turnover. In addition, there would be a 5 percent need for overstaffing to compensate for associated problems. Based on these figures, which were considered to be quite conservative at the time, he estimated that the hidden costs of stress to U.S.companies were $150 billion annually. That was over two decades ago and absenteeism and turnover rates have now almost doubled as have their expenses.”

Rosch added that Albrecht’s calculations did not include the cost of accidents, diminished productivity, direct health insurance, medical, legal and workers compensation costs.

It’s important to point out that Rosch incorrectly explained in his newsletter that Albrecht used a company with 1,000 employees. It was actually 2,000 people (1986, p. 128).

Third, let’s take a deeper dive into how Dr. Karl Albrecht came up with the $150 billion price tag for stress. This passage from Albrecht’s book (1986 [paperback edition]) is especially worth noting:

“Any attempt to estimate a dollar cost of chronic stress in a business organization or in American business in general, would of course involve gross guesswork and speculation. That’s what I [Albrecht] have done (brazenly) in this section. As an intellectual challenge . . . let’s make some crude assumptions about stress effects in a hypothetical business organization and see what the bottom line impact might be” (p. 128).

Albrecht’s hypothetical organization in 1979:

Size: 2,000 people
Sales: $60 million/year
Profit: 5% = $3 million/year
Avg. salary (gross avg. for all employees): $6.00/hour
Personnel cost (salary + overhead costs): $100/person-day
Absentee rate (excluding vacation): 4% = 10 days/person-year
Turnover rate (assume stable workforce size): 5% = 100 people/year
Turnover cost (advertising, hiring, processing, etc.) $1,000/person

Albrecht explained that he took a conservative estimate in determining absenteeism (4%), turnover (5%), and personnel costs ($100/person-day).

For the 4% absenteeism rate, Albrecht speculated that 2% came from unavoidable disabilities and 2% came from stress. “In this 2% figure we include any genuine illness that is stress-induced as well as effects of life stress that may originate outside the job [emphasis added]” (Albrecht, 1986, p. 130).

For the 5% turnover rate, Albrecht speculated that 3% was the result of retirement and voluntary (i.e. quitting) and involuntary turnover (i.e. fired). The other 2% turnover is assumed to arise from stress-related causes which includes “life stress originating outside the job [emphasis added] that interferes with the person’s ability or inclination to remain on the job” (Albrecht, 1986, p. 130).

Albrecht also added an overstaffing ratio (5%). “5% of the work force (sic), or 100 people, are on the payroll because of the reduced performance of the others” 1986, p. 131). He justified this overstaffing ratio in this manner: “if a large proportion of people experience stress levels that degrade their performance capabilities, then we will need more people to get a given amount of work done — and to achieve a given level of sales and profits in our hypothetical company — than we otherwise would” (Albrecht, 1986, p. 131).

And if that weren’t enough, Albrecht tacked on the cost of antisocial acts (“theft, sabotage, deliberate waste or breakage, ‘invisible’ slow downs, and the like”) [Albrecht, 1986, p. 131]. For these antisocial acts (e.g., theft of a machine and “temper tantrum that results in a broken window or a damaged typewriter” (p. 131), Albrecht admitted that “we have no way of knowing which of these costs are stress-linked and which are simply isolated events [emphasis added]” (1986, p. 131).

The result looks like this for stress-linked personnel costs according to Albrecht:

Stress-linked absenteeism: $1 million/year
Stress-linked turnover: $40,000/year
Performance degradation (overstaffing cost): $2.5 million/year
Antisocial acts: $20,000/year
TOTAL $3,560,000/year

Even though Rosch might not have come up with the $300 billion price tag “out of thin air,” the source (Albrecht’s book) from which he based his calculations is quite unconvincing. In fact, Albrecht even admitted as much. Despite his own initial warning to not guess or speculate a dollar amount on the cost of stress, Albrecht marched right into speculation and guesswork.

Albrecht’s original estimate/guesstimate of cost of stress on organizations (1979) was derived from taking a hypothetical firm and extrapolating the cost of stress per person for that firm to 80 million U.S. workers: $1,780 (total stress cost divided by number of employees) x 80 million = $142.4 billion (“a national cost figure for stress-induced loss of effectiveness and efficiency approaching $150 billion no longer seems unbelievable” [Albrecht, 1986, pp. 132-133]).

So Rosch cited Albrecht’s $150 billion price tag from 1979, then modified that original amount (sometime around 2001) by doubling the $150 billion to $300 billion, and (almost) everyone (the general public, the media, writers/authors, professors, and researchers) jumped onboard and accepted it as a certainty.

The undeniable truth is this: Two men made up those numbers ($150 billion & $300 billion) in an attempt to guesstimate the cost of stress. Albrecht, the first man in 1979, “brazenly” made lots of “crude assumptions” and came up with an arbitrary number as an “intellectual challenge.” Roughly two decades later, Rosch, the second man, then based his calculations off the “crude assumptions” of the first (Albrecht). Thus, whatever number Rosch arrived at is pointless because it does not have anything to stand on. Albrecht offered sage advice in his book: “Any attempt to estimate a dollar cost of chronic stress in a business organization or in American business in general, would of course involve gross guesswork and speculation.” Unfortunately, no one, including Albrecht himself, followed that nugget of wisdom.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

The American Institute of Stress. Workplace Stress. Retrieved from http://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/

Albrecht, K. (1979). Stress and the manager: Making it work for you. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Albrecht, K. (1986). Stress and the manager: Making it work for you. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Goldin, R. (2004). Counting the costs of stress. STATS.org.

International Stress Management Association (ISMA-USA). (2001) Newsletter. Vol. 3. Issue 1. [PDF]

Rosch, P. J. (2001, March). The quandary of job stress compensation. Health and Stress, 1-8.

Are You Depressed Because of Your Job or Are You Depressed Regardless?

Businessman sitting on floor in corridor | Credit: Blend_Images
Businessman sitting on floor in corridor | Credit: Blend_Images

A Careers Reporter for Business Insider contacted me about signs that a person’s job is making him/her depressed. I’ve been wanting to write about mental illness and the workplace but just never got around to doing it and was happy that this gave me a chance to do so.

Here is what I wrote back:

The APA Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed.) defines depression as follows:

“Depression: a negative affective state, ranging from unhappiness and discontent to an extreme feeling of sadness, pessimism, and despondency, that interferes with daily life.”

According to “Mental Illness in the Workplace” (Harder, Wagner, & Rash, 2014), depression is the most prevalent type of mental illness both inside the workplace and outside of it.

Signs of depression (and I’m referring to clinical depression) include significant sadness lasting most of the day and occurring most days of the week. What’s more, many depressed people also have trouble sleeping and/or eating. They’re tired or are chronically fatigued, can’t concentrate, feel worthless, have thoughts about suicide, or have lost experiencing joy from activities that they once enjoyed (Harder, Wagner, & Rash, 2014).

Other signs to look for, particularly in the workplace, are employees who look sad, angry, unmotivated, withdrawn, or who are tired with frequent mistakes or errors at work and/or decrease in performance or performance that’s inconsistent or unpredictable. They may also have interpersonal relationships that are stormy or diminished (Harder, Wagner, & Rash, 2014).

So how would you know if your job is making you depressed? We would want to look at workplace factors that include the following:

  • High job strain – Is the job highly and psychologically demanding, with low decision flexibility?
  • High stress, high threat – Does the job expose the employee to a high stress, high threat environment?
  • Lack of or low support system – Is there support from colleagues and managers?

If we were to take what I just shared and put them into a list, it might look like this:

Is Your Job Making You Depressed?

  1. High job strain – Is the job highly and psychologically demanding, with low decision flexibility?
  2. High stress, high threat – Does the job expose the employee to a high stress, high threat environment?
  3. Lack of or low support system – Is there support from colleagues and managers?
  4. Being or feeling sad, angry, unmotivated, or withdrawn.
  5. Feeling tired and making frequent mistakes or errors at work and/or being less productive or demonstrating performance that’s inconsistent or unpredictable.

But, and I believe this is very important, we should also phrase it this way . . .

Are You Depressed Regardless of The Job You Have? In other words, it might just be that an individual is depressed no matter what type of job he/she has. And if that’s the case (that it’s really about a person who is or might be depressed), then we would want to look for a combination of symptoms below:

  1. Significant sadness lasting most of the day, and occurring most days of the week.
  2. Difficulty sleeping and/or eating.
  3. Feeling tired or is chronically fatigued.
  4. Unable or trouble concentrating.
  5. Feeling worthless.
  6. Have thoughts about suicide.
  7. Does not enjoy activities that you once enjoyed.
  8. Rocky or reduced interpersonal relationships.
  9. These problems are significantly interfering with your daily life.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Harder, H. G., Wagner, S., & Rash, J. (2014). Mental illness in the workplace: Psychological disability management. Burlington, VT: Gower.

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.