Most of us spend the majority of our time at work where it can be a source of purpose and inspiration. Yet, for many work can be the place at which they are the most stressed and least happy. In fact, work is often considered a ruthless cut-throat environment with little if any compassion.

In prior posts, I have commented on the epidemic of loneliness, isolation, and depression felt by many in our modern and ever more technologically sophisticated society. The effects of this epidemic are now being felt in the business community and affecting the bottom line in a significant way. Can you imagine that it is estimated that $2-300B… yes, billions of dollars are lost as a result of this reality.

A great part of the problem is the fact that humans have not yet evolved to live in this constantly changing, technologically sophisticated world. Our DNA has not significantly changed in over 200,000 years. In contrast, cities have only existed for 5,000 years and it was only 10,000 years ago that the primary survival strategy of our species was as hunter-gatherers in groups of 10-50. What does this mean? Initially within these nuclear family units and small groups, nurture and care were absolute requirements for survival. Further, when presented with a threat, the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, responded with the flight or fight mechanism releasing hormones that were advantageous in such situations. Unfortunately in modern society due to the constant bombardment of information and the recurrence of situations that lead to uncertainty, this mechanism has been hijacked. This has resulted in individuals whose brains process these situations as threats leading to a release of hormones that are deleterious long term. In other words, the results are stress and fear. Don’t get me wrong, stress and fear are important parts of our lives and, in the right amounts, enhance our survival, function, and growth.

Stress can be good, but…
It is when normal stress (eustress) becomes negative and chronic stress (distress) that it leads to the release of hormones that have a deleterious effect on mental and physical health. Positive stress (eustress) enhances cognitive ability and performance. It is controlled, irregular, and not overwhelming. As described by Csikszentmihalyi, it can create a state of flow whereby one is completely absorbed in the present moment, leading to increased efficiency and productivity giving one a competitive edge.

Why Chronic Stress is Bad for Work
What happens when stress invades the workplace? Individuals who are chronically distressed, when surveyed, describe a sense of fear and anxiety. Distress may lead to worry or rumination on the part of the employee because of fear that they might be fired or reprimanded. Additionally, distressed employees feel that they cannot trust their managers or the company. A sense that there is no open communication. Oftentimes, chronically distressed employees state that they have no sense of control of their work, that they are overworked, and that their work is not meaningful. Not only is the amygdala hijacked, but also the area in the frontal lobe associated with what is called executive control. This area regulates decision-making, judgment, planning, and moral reasoning. As a result of its dysfunction, decision-making can become impulsive or shortsighted resulting in difficulty responding to new information and further decreased effectiveness. Such behavior can then lead to a vicious cycle of increasing anxiety, stress and resultant depression.

Stress is now pandemic in the workplace with three out of four employees stating that they have excessive stress at work. Not only is this manifested by a marked increase in absenteeism, but also in an epidemic of presenteeism, as well, which is the all-too-frequent situation where an employee comes to work but is ineffective and non-productive. In fact, in one survey, 52% of employees stated that excessive stress led them to decline a promotion, look for a new job, or leave their job. This situation leads to a huge increase in employee turnover as well as all the associated costs of replacing a worker.

Stress Undermines Work Performance and Commitment
Studies have shown that excessive stress leads to bias in decision-making affecting employees’ and managers’ abilities to respond appropriately to important tasks. Chronic stress weakens cognitive skills and performance. One study shows that employees themselves know this, with, 51% stating that when stressed they are significantly less productive. A third of employees (33%) acknowledge that stress leads to mistakes, lost focus, and a feeling of being overworked.

Stress and Job Loyalty
When one is dissatisfied in their job they have low levels of organizational commitment. Organizational commitment is strongly correlated with job performance quality. In fact, stress manifested by a decrease in job satisfaction is also strongly correlated with unethical decision-making. This makes sense; if employees feel they are chronically stressed due to their work, why would they feel loyalty toward it? Numerous examples illustrate the costs of unethical decision-making by unhappy employees, most of which are borne by the employer.

Stress Increases Company Health Care Costs
There is a 46% increase in healthcare costs associated with workplace stress. Mental health conditions include headache, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and deterioration in personal relationships, and physical disorders include increased risk for heart attack and sudden cardiac death, high blood pressure, and stroke. Less obvious are those associated with mind-body disconnects including gastro-intestinal disorders such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome in addition to back and neck pain, as well as other non-specific pain complaints. All of these factors of stress in the workplace costs corporations approximately $7,500 per employee by one estimate.

Where do we go from here?
There is a critical need to address the problem of workplace stress. But, how does one respond to the manager or CEO who feels that by creating an environment of maximal stress this leads to maximal performance? First of all, the facts speak for themselves. While many quote Darwin that it is survival of the fittest and most ruthless, numerous studies have now shown that ruthlessness may result in short term benefit but in regard to species survival long-term, it is survival of the kindest and most cooperative. We need only exam the last few years of press clipping where we see that such behavior has almost destroyed our economy and society as we know it to appreciate this reality. Clearly, unless we can address this epidemic the cost to business will only increase further jeopardizing our economy. This cost of this problem is now being embraced by the business community. In fact, the Academy of Management Review devoted its October 2012 issue to this topic. In my next blog, I will discuss solutions based on neuroscience, psychology and the latest empiric research.

On April 30, 2013, our center at Stanford University, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) will be sponsoring a conference (the first of its kind) entitled Compassion and Business to promote a dialogue around cutting-edge research and best practices that promote a compassionate workplace by bringing together leading researchers and business leaders. Stay tuned for blogs featuring our prominent speakers to see how compassion can be used to curb stress in the workplace and increase productivity. To learn more about the conference, please visit our website at ccare.stanford.edu.

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James R. Doty, MD

Director and Founder at CCARE
Dr. Doty is a CCARE Clinical Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, as well as an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. As founder of CCARE, Dr. Doty works with both the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences and a variety of scientists from a number of disciplines examining the neural bases for compassion and altruism.