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Job stress, burnout on the rise

With mass layoffs, pay cuts, seemingly endless workdays and disappearing vacations, Americans are coping with an enormous amount of job stress. Feeling unable to keep up with the demands of their jobs, many are reaching burnout levels. — By Jane Weaver

You’re doing the work of three people at your job. Some weeks you spend more time at work than at home. You missed your child’s soccer game ... again. In the morning, you feel more exhausted than rested. Watch out, you may be a candidate for worker burnout.

With mass layoffs, pay cuts, seemingly endless workdays and disappearing vacations, Americans are coping with an enormous amount of job stress. Feeling unable to keep up with the demands of their jobs, many are reaching burnout levels.

In its series on “How we work: Punching the clock in the new economy,” has chronicled Americans who are toiling longer and harder at their jobs. While fewer people working longer days may be good for profit-minded corporations, those increases in productivity can come at a price for individuals.

“As the workforce has shrunk, people are overloaded and stress is the result,” says Ronald Downey, Kansas State University professor of Industrial and Occupational Psychology. “If the stress keeps on unending, then they’re in trouble.”

Trouble starts when employees take on more job responsibilities, but lose their sense of control over their work. Working excessively long hours begins to take a heavy toll on family life and social relationships, adding to the stress level, researchers say.

It’s well-known that stress can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and other physical ailments, research indicates.

Early signs of job stress are headaches, short tempers, trouble sleeping and low morale, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

And it’s not just physical health. An estimated 60 percent of work absences are from psychological problems — at a cost of over $57 billion yearly — according to the American Psychological Association.

“People don’t have enough time to do the things they’re being asked to do,” says Dr. Ron Restak, an expert in brain function and author of The New Brain.

Too much multi-tasking leads to distraction and a loss of concentration.

“You cannot accomplish two things at the same time as efficiently as you would if you were doing them separately. A lot of accidents and a loss of efficiency can occur from that,” says Restak.

In fact, health costs are almost 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environment Medicine.

“Body systems start to fail,” says Downey. “Then you have stress syndrome and you break down.”

A fatal work ethic
In Japan, it’s known as “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

The Japanese government has reported 10,000 cases a year of managers, executives and engineers who have died from overwork, a fallout of the country’s prolonged economic slump.

It’s hard to say whether it’s reached that extreme in the U.S., but the number of full- or part-timers who report high job stress rose to 45 percent in 2002, up from 37 percent the year before, according to a NIOSH study. An estimated 40 percent of U.S. workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful, with 25 percent calling their jobs the number one stress factor in their lives, the organization reported.

Everyone reacts to stress in different ways and recognizing when you’re reaching burnout levels can be difficult, says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell.

“The most stressed-out ones don’t know they’re having problems,” says Kahn, who is also president of WorkPsych Associates, a New York executive and corporate consulting firm. “They don’t realize that things are getting to them.”

Increased absenteeism isn’t always a giveaway.

The new buzzword is “presenteeism” which happens when people are too afraid to call in sick. Instead they show up, but are still too stressed-out to be productive, says Dr. Richard Chaifetz, chairman and chief executive of ComPsych, a Chicago firm which provides human resources services.

“A lot of people realize it’s better to show up and be less than 100 percent productive,” says Chaifetz. “But if they’re not focused, their performance will go down.”

No escape
Much of the problem comes from the blurring of the lines between work and home life, with workers tethered to their jobs through cell phones, pagers and e-mail, researchers say.

An estimated 70 percent of more than 1,500 participants felt they don’t have a healthy balance between their work and their personal lives, according to a May survey on work/life balance by online job board TrueCareers.

“There are no clear demarcations anymore,” says Restak. “When people left work for the day, that was it. Employers were reluctant to call them at home. No people don’t feel like they’re ever off duty.”

Household with two working parents or single parent households are especially vulnerable to burnout from work overload, says professor Downey.

“Before, men didn’t have to worry about meals or their kids and it relieved pressure,” says Downey. “Now men and women are worried about their children if they’re sick and how to get to games.”

Not all job-related stress leads to burnout. For some workaholic types, boasting of burnout is an ego-booster, a macho way to feel indispensable in an otherwise bleak jobs market, say experts.

For them, “it’s almost a badge of courage,” says Dr. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.

“Some people thrive in a pressure cooker and doing many things at once,” he says.

Desk slaves, free yourselves
Even as American workers are putting in more hours, a genre of anti-work ethic books has emerged, including such publications as Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, by Joe Robinson and The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations, by Al Gini.

Meanwhile, some corporations are making efforts to alleviate overwork by offering paid sabbaticals or on-site classes in meditation to help employees deal with long days.

“The consequence of burnout is that productivity begins to slip,” says Chaifetz. “The smart organizations are the ones that can balance the needs for increased productivity with appropriate employee morale.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, says American companies who want to compete in a global economy should follow the European model of shorter workweeks and month-long vacations.

“There is no evidence that excessive hours are necessary for competitive success,” says Pfeffer. “But somehow we’ve gotten in our minds that to succeed in this world is to work yourself to death.”