The point of progress--in technology, management philosophies, even economics--is to make more people happy. We don't want flashy new gadgets, company reorganizations, or higher GDP just because. We want them, theoretically, because they reduce the sum total of human suffering and enable more people to flourish.
So here's the question: Are all the rapid, mind-blowing changes that we've experienced in our working lives over the past few decades actually accomplishing this fundamental goal? Do iPhones and laptops, flat teams, and supposedly innovation-inducing perks actually make work more satisfying?
Individually, that's a question each of us must answer for him- or herself (and it's one that very much depends on how appealing you imagine it would have been to work in a Don Draper-style office or on an assembly line, as well as on your own character and that of the work you actually do), but if you're haunted by a nagging worry that work is getting worse, not better, you can rest assured that at least you're not alone. A recent, pessimistic article on Knowledge@Wharton rounds up a host of experts who agree with you.
The takeaway from this collection of professors and authors: "Global competition, downsizing, and the constant state of being electronically tethered to the office are combining to create a perhaps unprecedented level of stress."
Why so stressful?
The technology we choose to use and how we employ it is a major contributor to our heightened stress levels, the article asserts. "If you look at the span of the last 50 years, we know people are working more, that more of their waking attention is devoted to work and work-related decisions, and it's a challenge because the ubiquity of technology has enabled 24/7 communication," says Wharton management professor Stewart Friedman, for instance.
He does note, however, that it may be the transition to using this tech that's stressful--rather than the technology itself. "For most of us, we didn't grow up with these tools and are still adjusting to what it means to create meaningful boundaries between work and the other places in our life, so that's a new skill," he adds. Tech may turn out to be less fundamentally stressful once you get used to it, in other words.
But tech isn't the only culprit. The increasingly collaborative nature of the knowledge work many of us do also has its built-in stressors, according to Hendrie Weisinger, co-author with J.P. Pawliw-Fry of a forthcoming book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. We've seen "a change from a manufacturing business culture, which emphasized production output, to a business culture that has become more interpersonally oriented, thus making one's success dependent on what others do. And you cannot control others," he points out.
Finally, stress is contagious, research shows, and it has spread through companies like an infection. "It's not 'my co-worker is stressed, I feel for her'; they feel they are stressed, too. You can transfer more stress and fear across a group than it would otherwise feel," another Wharton management professor, Sigal Barsade, explains.
Is the future any brighter?
The lengthy article is jam-packed with statistics and studies that testify to American workers' rising stress levels and the toll all this angst is taking on productivity, but the content isn't all gloom and doom. It also highlights a few initiatives designed to counter this rise in stress, and also offers a glimmer of hope that coming decades will see our cumulative level of workplace stress start to subside.
"Young people want a different deal," Friedman notes, so "we are starting to see the pendulum being pushed back as more and more people are finding ways of inventing equal boundaries and finding purpose in their work and lives generally."
What's your take: Do you buy this argument that work is increasingly stressful? And do you think it'll improve anytime soon?