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The Future Ain't What It Used to Be

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Today's worker encounters a longer workday and more on-the-job stress than ever before. Learn to identify and cope with common workplace stressors.

Today's worker encounters a longer workday and more on-the-job stress than ever before. In this podcast learn to identify and cope with common workplace stressors.

If you have any employment or job search questions, please call Colleen at 314-539-5481 for assistance in connecting with a career center in the St. Louis Metropolitan area.

Duration: 10:21 Audio MP3
© 2010 St. Louis Community College
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The 1939 World's Fair made a hit with its predictions of the future, with a helicopter in every garage and lots of leisure time for everyone. Learned professors waxed eloquent on the need to train people on how to use their leisure time constructively to keep from being bored silly. One academic went so far as to draw a trend line based on the reduction of the length of the work week between 1910 and 1939, predicting that by 1969 we would be working only 15 hours a week.

For a while, it looked like we were moving in that direction, although not as rapidly as predicted. Perhaps you can remember when some craft unions negotiated a 32 hour work week back in the late sixties. We were certainly on the road to the good life back then, not to mention a "great society." What's happened since?

The rest of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century happened. The Arab oil embargo of the 70s, the hyperinflation of the 80s, four recessions, corporate reorganizations and downsizings, 10% unemployment, office automation, the flattening of organizations, 9-11, the roller coaster of energy prices, the longest war in US history. Need I go on?

We now have a workforce that is more stressed, more anxious, and which works longer and harder than any time since the Great Depression. What happened to all those predictions of increased leisure time? Remember how computers were supposed to lead us to a paperless office and a golden age of automated work places?

Let's go to the numbers:

  • Today's average work week is now 46 hours, with about 38% reporting that they work 50 hours.
  • Many managers report that they spend 12 hours a day on work-related duties - thank you Blackberry!
  • About half of all employees frequently skip lunch because of job demands.

Do you recognize yourself in any of those figures? The fact is that most workers feel more pressure to prove their value to employers these days. Because of the massive layoffs of the past couple of years, there is a surplus of talent, and employers are expecting various forms of "give-backs," in the form of longer hours, fewer perks, and greater employee participation in paying for their benefits, especially health care insurance. Through all of this, employees are expected to keep smiling, maintain a positive attitude, and be "team players."

There are many stressors related to work these days, which comes as no surprise to you, I'm sure. Besides the day to day pressures of actually getting the job done, many people face the risk of losing their jobs. It doesn't matter how good a job you do; if your employer gets tired of you, or if business goes sour, your job is on the line.

Keeping your job is almost an integral part of doing the job, and in some situations, much of the time spent between arriving and leaving is designed to make sure the job is there tomorrow.

Job security is probably at an all time low. People these days will do almost anything to keep their jobs, including being relocated, accepting a pay cut, traveling to an excessive degree, allowing supervisors or bosses to be abusive, or working in an environment with inadequate safety measures. Each of these items represents a source of stress to workers and their families.

Relocating, for instance, becomes more and more difficult the more often it takes place, especially as children get older and develop their own social lives. Constant moving around creates difficulty in maintaining close relationships, and causes people to develop only superficial friendships that never provide the emotional satisfaction that close relationships can offer. Some children appear to display a kind of chronic grief that gets worse with every move.

These days, it's not at all uncommon for employers to demand that their employees accept pay cuts or fewer benefits in order to save their jobs. Some companies threaten to go into bankruptcy, which enables them to abrogate any union contracts if employees refuse to make financial concessions. Most of us have grown up in an environment that took for granted a steadily increasing wage scale and accompanying standard of living. Those days are over. Employees having to take pay cuts often find themselves deeply in debt, with little in the way of reserves to carry them through to the next period of relative prosperity.

A common method of saving a company money is for employers to hire fewer people, and have their remaining employees take on more work. This is commonplace as we come out of the worst of a recession, and is one of the reasons why employment is a lagging indicator of the economy's health. Employees are often forced to work overtime or travel more frequently. Even with time and a half for overtime, it's still cheaper for the employer than hiring another worker and having to pay salary and benefits. Traveling and putting in excessive overtime cause longer separations from families, which can lead to problems in family relations and behavior problems in children.

Remember how technology was supposed to make our lives easier? The fact is that cell phones, Blackberries, laptops, and other technological marvels make us accessible even when we're technically off work, and add to the length of the work day. You can put yourself on a no-call list to avoid calls from salespeople, but there is no employer no-call list.

If you're a baby boomer, you might remember a popular song of the 60s - "Take This Job and Shove It." It was quite popular when jobs were plentiful, but these days you don't hear it at all. People are much more willing to put up with authoritarian or downright abusive bosses in order to keep their jobs. Sometimes this creates chronic anger in the employees that they have nowhere else to take but home. This results in more frequent conflicts over both major and minor issues, with family members often wondering what they're really arguing about.

Employees who fear for their jobs are often willing to work in less safe environments, or are willing to ignore safety rules to make sure the job gets done. OSHA and other regulatory agencies are supposed to keep an eye on these things, but are often understaffed themselves, so abuses continue for long periods of time. Those who refuse to break the rules may be labeled by employers as "not a team player," and risk their jobs.

Job related stressors are serious threats to health. In a 2000 survey, 65% of employed individuals said that stress had caused difficulties on the job. About one out of five people have quit a previous job because of job stress. More than one out of three report difficulties in sleeping due to stress.

Employees working under conditions described here need to keep a close eye on their stress levels, and do whatever they can to make the necessary adjustments in their lives that these stressors require. If you have an employer sponsored EAP, this might be a good time to pay them a visit. In the absence of a professional counselor, perhaps a close friend might lend an ear for you to bend for a while. At the very least, you need to be open with your family, and deal with issues as they arise, not bury them where they'll just fester and get worse.

Somebody smarter than I once said, "The future ain't what it used to be." Wish I'd said that.