Work Sucks! Escape Attempts and Coping MethodsJan 22, 2021
Only about 25% of employees ever attend wellbeing programs with any regularity. While more sleep, better nutrition and increased exercise are “obvious” wellbeing practices, far more people employ alternative coping methods and escape attempts, which range from the mainstream to the extreme.
Death (suicide, 14,000 workplace homicides in the US between 1992 and 2010)
Workplace violence (2M people per year in the USA suffer workplace assault)
Bullying (90% of US workers report witnessing bullying)
Addictions to comfort food, drugs, porn, social media to get dopamine hits to relieve the anxiety
Total psychological disengagement - withdrawal, apathy, cynicism
Obviously, suicide and murder are the most extreme escape attempts. Violence and bullying are slightly less extreme attempts to cope with ever-present, extreme stress. Fortunately, these are still reasonably rare actions. Most of us turn to addictive substances and technologies, and/or psychological disengagement to escape.
This is especially common in knowledge workers. Let’s take lawyers as an example. The New York Times reported that 28 percent of US lawyers struggle with mild or more serious depression. Another 19 percent suffer anxiety. 21 percent qualify as problem drinkers. Many have serious drug addiction issues initiated by using stimulants to help them cope with their demanding schedules.
Yes. There's more than a one in five chance your lawyer is an addict. And an almost a one in two chance he/she is depressed or anxious.
It’s not just alcohol or prescription drugs we get addicted to. For many, it’s comfort food. For others it’s social media or video games. For others it’s porn.
Why does this happen? Let’s look at food and tech in some detail, as they are pretty near inescapable.
Richard Friedman, the professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, writes:
No one will be shocked to learn that stress makes people more likely to search for solace in drugs or food (it’s called “comfort food” for a reason). Now we have a body of research that makes the connection between stress and addiction definitive.
Robert Lustig, the author of The Hacking of the American Mind, and the Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California specialising in childhood obesity, argues that many of today’s corporations aren’t just aware of these tendencies towards addiction, but are actually targeting them to sell more products.
Lustig argues that Big Food knows sugar is addictive, so saturates its products with it. As workplace stressors force cortisol through your bloodstream, even with the greatest of willpower, you succumb to that addiction and grab a candy bar, doughnut, soft drink or piece of cake. Eating it triggers your dopamine receptors, and you get a brief burst of pleasure to dull the anxiety, fear, frustration and irritation.
But, like all addictive substances, the more you take, the more you need. You begin to crave sugar. Overloading with sugar impacts your body’s systems and starts to cause metabolic problems. This slowly kills you at the same time that it impairs your cognitive capacity.
Not only do you increase your chances of dying young, but you also become less able to do your job well. This becomes a vicious cycle as the fear and anxiety associated with struggling to do your job causes you to reach for another sugary snack.
If such trends continue, a significant future challenge will be an increasing impossibility of finding and hiring people who are physically and mentally well enough to perform complex knowledge work to a sophisticated level.
Big Tech does much the same, employing attention engineers who borrow methods from Las Vegas casinos to make tech products as addictive as possible. By fragmenting your attention, they permanently reduce your capacity for focus and meaningful conversation. Instead the desire for dopamine hits drag you back to their social media sites.
We have yet to accurately capture the cost to productivity and performance of this form of addiction. But it seems to be significant, at least in behavioural terms.
The forensic cyberpsychologist, Mary Aiken, is beginning to help us understand these potential costs. In The Cyber Effect, she outlines how regular use of internet technologies can result in the escalation of problem behaviours. Noticeable outputs of escalation are “everything from super-negative exchanges via flaming emails, aggressive texts, and offensive posts to comment threads that are meant to provoke.” This results in enhanced levels of cortisol for those taking part in the exchanges.
Aiken also points to cyber-socialization, in which people with similar interests come together online to form communities or tribes. While much is benign, some outputs, especially around dimensions of human behaviour, can be problematic. Impacted by algorithms, people in such tribes end up believing in restricted and extreme interpretations of reality, treating those with different viewpoints with great incivility. Those who take more moderate or critical perspectives get expelled for not being pure enough.
The biochemical response to being in such a tribe or community is the secretion of oxytocin, also called “the love hormone”, which engenders strong feelings of camaraderie and social connection. However, it also promotes feelings of distrust and dislike towards outsiders, to the extent they can be perceived as enemies deserving of attack and contempt.
The social division this engenders in digitally transforming societies is clear, most noticeably in the enmity between Republicans and Democrats in the US, leavers and remainers in the UK, and blues and yellows in Hong Kong. The sociopolitical impact is already troubling. The question that needs to be answered is to what extent does this division and its amplified emotional and relational impacts bleed into organizational performance.
There are certainly significant concerns about the degree to which it might. HR is employing psychometrics to create teams and cultures of the same personality profiles, which supposedly minimises such conflicts and binds teams together. However, such a solution also engenders groupthink, diminishes the potential for innovation, and limits the potential for personal growth. While it might minimise conflict, this is patently a risky strategy in terms of performance. In societal terms, it might also be contributing to the very problem it is trying to solve.
Aiken illustrates how another output of contemporary technology is distraction. In 2015, Americans checked their mobile phones 8 billion times a day. The average adult checks their phone every five minutes. This fragments concentration and disables focused productivity. Attempts to avoid the phone result in withdrawal-like behaviours - irritation, anxiety, restlessness, even panic attacks - which further contribute to cortisol production in self and others.
In Udemy’s 2018 Workplace Distraction Report, 70% of workers stated they were struggling to focus due to workplace distractions. Employees are typically interrupted 56 times a day. Every interruption doubles the chance of errors being made. As will be clear by now, this results in worse performance, longer days, increased frustration, stress and tiredness, and reduced motivation and engagement.
While we don’t have any hard bottom-line numbers, we are increasingly aware that the cost of tech-related distrust and distraction is in the many billions to some trillions range.
While some bullies are sadistic individuals who take pleasure in harming others, I’d argue that the majority of bullying also manifests as coping methods and escape attempts, in which the bully experiences temporary psycho-emotional release by thrusting his or her stress, frustration, anxiety and irritation onto the head of another.
I don’t need to outline what the alcohol and prescription drug solutions do to your wellbeing. It’s not pretty.
Excessive use of porn is also a dopamine-inducing coping method that can replace the cognitively and emotionally demanding, but highly rewarding, task of developing an intimate relationship with another human being. For those constantly drained of energy by debilitating work experiences, it is a simplistic, ultimately unsatisfying replacement for love.
A final note on the impossibility of fixing problems with engagement at the level of engagement.
This article, Work is Killing Us and The Diseased Organisational Experience, have outlined how much contemporary work is impacted by chronic illnesses and diseases, distrust, distraction and disrespect, amplified by the drama of cyberspace and the drag of industrial expectations of productivity on the performance of digital knowledge workers.
Are engagement efforts really going to help?
Any employee trying to remain fully engaged with a workplace experiencing some or all of the above is greatly risking their personal wellbeing. Burn out and breakdown, accompanied by the various escape attempts detailed above, are highly likely if the employee tries to stay engaged.
The cognitively sensible solution is to choose apathy, cynicism and personal disengagement. These all protect the self, at least in the short term. In the long-term, they can result in depression, ennui, nihilism and misthanrophy - a complete loss of meaning. But they do protect, at least for a while. Perhaps long enough to find another job.
So, what to do?
You need to accept the awfulness of the current paradigm. Poor wellbeing is harming the bottom-line and the lives of employees, and, even if we are aware and actively care, nothing we currently do actually makes any meaningful difference. The majority of current wellbeing initiatives are a waste of money.
So what should you be spending your money on?
It’s time to turn to some science (which we’ll do in next week’s article).
Read Part One of this series - Work is Killing Us
Read Part Two of this series - The Diseased Organisational Experience
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