86% of employed Americans report that they are happy at work, but of those 53% also say that they are experiencing burn-out, according to a study conducted by Staples Advantage in 2015. What is the explanation for this paradoxical result? Lengthy work days, hyper-connectivity, constant restructuring, and ongoing pressure to innovate are resulting in employees who are increasingly under pressure, even if they like the work entrusted to them. Aware of the situation, leaders are responding by bolstering wellness programs. The position of “Chief Happiness Officer” is exploding in popularity, but is it really effective? Not necessarily. Wellness policies tend to be ineffective so long as they do not address one fundamental problem: the actual conditions under which work is performed.
SOURCES OF COLLECTIVE UNHAPPINESSIn the context of a constantly changing business environment, lack of consistency and conflicting demands are the most troublesome burdens.
Contradictions in the employee experience
“At the center of modern work burnout is the anguish of being unable to meet conflicting demands. We are asked to hurry up and at the same time to maintain the highest level of performance quality; to be creative without bending the rules too much; to be autonomous but disciplined. The objective criteria of what constitutes ‘good’ work are not clearly spelled out, hence the feeling of never reaching one’s full potential, of always having to do more, which breeds perfectionism. It’s a vicious circle,” says Marc Loriol, researcher at CNRS. Paradoxically, for the sake of efficiency, leaders set objectives that
grant staff members considerable freedom to strive for greater productivity, while also continuing to track employees’ office hours, expanding their own means of control. They allow telecommuting but do not provide the appropriate tools. “Management tends to give with one hand the responsibilities it takes away with the other. We give titles and ambitious assignments without providing employees with the means to succeed – such as a team worthy of the name or a planning timetable,” explains Cassandra, a GM of 37 years in the cosmetics industry, who feels on the verge of burn-out.
The pressures of new methods of working
Endless meetings, constant streams of emails, messages on LinkedIn, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, and corporate intranets… On average, employees spend more than 80% of their time in meetings or responding to requests, to the detriment of in-depth, focused work. Even teamwork can cause fatigue and undermine productivity, according to the latest work of Adam Grant. It is an endless race: Western employees work more today than their counterparts 30 years ago did, and these increased working hours are lowering overall productivity while also endangering physical and mental health. These risks have led some companies to respond by demanding new guidelines. In 2012 in Germany, the Volkswagen Group decided, under pressure from unions, to restrict internet access to professional Smartphones used by team members between the hours of 6:15 PM. and 7 AM. The disconnection ultimately proved unhelpful, however, as it simply created a new set of frustrations.
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Based on “Collaborative Overload”, by Rob Cross , Reb Rebele and Adam Grant (Harvard Business Review , January-February 2016) ; “The Cult of Overwork” by James Surowiecki, (The Financial Page, The New Yorker, January, 2014) ; “Good Bosses Create More Wellness than Wellness Plans Do” by Emma Seppala (Harvard Business Review, April 2016).