April 4, 2023

Stress at Work

The real reason for quiet quitting and the great resignation.

We see more and more people leaving their jobs and even their professions. Some argue it is due to poor compensation, high workloads, no work-life balance, lack of growth opportunities, bad company cultures, etc. I would 100% agree that all of those play a factor but would argue that the bigger underlying culprit is stress. Poor compensation creates stress. Heavy workloads create stress. Lack of work-life balance creates stress. You get the picture, but what’s more frightening is the impact stress, specifically work-related stress, has on our bodies.

“The American Institute of Stress reports 120,000 people die every year as a direct result of work-related stress. Additionally, healthcare costs resulting from work-related stress total an average of $190 billion a year.” (source: slma.cc) In addition, “Medical research estimates as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related.” (source: nasdonline.org)

This is not new information, organizations and researchers have been documenting the impact of stress on our health for decades. But our culture has continued to glorify working long hours, encouraged us to turn fun hobbies into stressful side-gigs, discouraged us from taking vacations, or made it impossible to. Maybe it was the pandemic that forced people to take a pause and re-evaluate what they want in their lives, or maybe it was just time for a reset. Just like how a tree spontaneously combusts, starting a forest fire and allowing for new growth, it’s time for us to re-grow how we approach work. Ironically (or not) it’s increased stress in the trunk that causes a tree to spontaneously combust. Maybe we should pay more attention to what nature can teach us.

Stress is literally killing us, and maybe people have just reached their threshold. I know I have.

Just like with pain, we all have different stress thresholds. Why some people hang in longer at a company than others is for a variety of reasons, misplaced loyalty being one of them, but when it comes to stress it could be that their tolerance (mentally and physically) is lower or higher than others. There are many articles out there that draw generalizations about how different generations function at work. However, when it comes to managing stress, from my experience, it is not generational, it depends on the individual.

For example, my wife and I are both GenX, but our stress tolerances are vastly different. Our children (now 19 and 21) are from GenZ and their stress tolerances are also vastly different. In addition, I can see differences within my team, which has individuals in their 20s thru 60s, and each person reacts to stress differently.

We need to stop pitting generations against each other, and simply respect that we are all individuals, with our own levels of resiliency. But the commonality we share is when we’ve had enough, we are done.

Regardless of what makes one person’s stress threshold higher or lower than another’s — when it comes to the “great resignation” or “quiet quitting” — the amount of stress the person encounters with their work is a driving factor in why they leave. Whether they realize it or not. Managing stress is a key element of work-life balance. This doesn’t mean people want to work less, it just means people want to work more efficiently and freely and mitigate the amount of stress they must deal with at work. Because if you can’t change the situation, your only option remaining is to remove yourself from it.

While people are resetting their career paths, companies need to do the same. Holding on to old work cultures and incompetent leaders will lead to the demise of the business.

To limit the attrition of top performers and attract more great talent, companies need to eliminate unnecessary constraints like being bound to an 8–5 schedule, being tied to an office, setting unrealistic workloads, office politics, and having to deal with incompetent leaders and disruptive employees, etc. They need to focus on providing fair compensation, inclusive growth opportunities, reasonable workloads, flexibility in how/when/where people work and provide mentally and physically safe work environments.

This means companies need to improve their cultures.

They need to be open to new ways of working, they need to start treating their employees like humans and not resources, and they need to listen to their employees and build a culture that allows the business and employees to thrive.

Believe it or not, it is possible to have healthy margins and take care of your employees. But if one side gets greedy, the system fails. This means companies and employees need to be realistic with their expectations. But keep in mind that employees did not create this mass attrition problem, and the bleeding of top talent and shrinking revenue will continue until companies get to work on fixing their cultures.

Talk is cheap, and employees have hit their thresholds.