Stress and organizations: shedding light on the (real!) causes beneath stress-ridden businesses

by Leonardo Paoletti – AdActa Consulting 

Every day I read in the press and in the social media (LinkedIn top first) articles and advice about the management of time and priorities (I wrote one myself “The importance of time in companies: how to manage it at its best”).

Suggestions about “How to cope with untoward terminations and colleagues”, publications about “Ten rules for setting priorities”, and the like.

While helpful and functional, the pieces of advicementioned above usually share the same weaknesses: they deal with the repercussions vs. the underlying causes of stress and overwork plaguing people who shoulder major professional responsibility.

Time seems to be the main problem confronting managers.

Let me point out that whenever it comes to management courses, time inevitably comes across as the chief problem: everything is dramatically urgent,people work an unreasonable number of hours (well beyond the limit human behavioural studies have declared detrimental for the sake of output quality), and the tendency to be “on-line” non-stop impacts night time and week-ends, let aloneholidays.

To this adds on the perception of a total lack of “quality” timeto think about and devote oneself to long-term plans, the awareness that most brilliant ideasto solve problems aregenerated during the few off-line moments and, last but not least, relentless stress about performance fueling the internal conflict and the urge “to give up everything and start a holiday farm, a wine shop, etc.”

Judging by the symptoms I have been observing, I think the level of criticality and stress we have reached is such that we need rethinking the way we work and companies’ organization modelsticking with the current one, is likely to produce more problems than results.

Likewise, I am convinced that asking ourselves what led us where we are today would be unproductive: while recession, cost reduction, globalization, unbridled competition and the search for sustained profit growth are undoubtedly some of the causes, one way or another those variables have always been before everybody’s eyes and there will always be external agents affecting the quality of work.

The new generations and the different approach to time and stress

A telltale sign for everybody: of late I have been noticing a significantchange in the attitude of the new generationsstruggling to enter the labour market.

On the other hand, I wonder whether we can still use this term considering that the labour market has become a sort of ever-present dimension which, in many cases, cannibalizes every other possible dimension.

Unlike most of my peers, whenever they have a chance, new generations assess job offers also against the quality of work-life balance (trying to shun excessive stress!).

Known for their unsustainable working pace, a few companiesare finding it difficult to hire critical resources and record a high turnover rate as early as during the first employment years.

The three main causes of time-related problems and stress

After spending years working in time management, I have learnt thatthree are the main causes underlying the problem of time:

  1. Method

Knowing a good method and using the tools that time managementoffers is helpful but not the solution.

Beyond a certain limit, time cannot be compressed and, though hard we try, our body cannot possibly function always and only at top speed.

  1. Ourselves

I have learnt that, when it comes to managing time and our need to be considered– and consider ourselves – efficient, punctual, critical and focused on the company’s most important processes, we are our own worst enemies.

The incapability to say no and contain non-stop requests and pressure for the sake of achievement and control provides interesting food for thought.

Many people tell me they feel guilty when they leave the office at 6.00pm even if no one, except for their sense of guilt, raises objections.

  1. The organization where we work

The non-stopchase after efficiency and reduction of waste, while obviouslykeeping up with speed andgrowingly ambitious goals, isa blame gamewhich I think deserves some considerations.

I don’t have any ready-made responses in this regard, but I’ve been thinking about it carefully for some time and would like to share some thoughts.

The current organization model as the main source of stress

As a coach, I’ve tried to employ some methods for rationalizing considerations about time and stress, thus avoiding getting lost in the maze of complexity

Negotiation theories (above all cross-corporate negotiation) rest on a long-standing scheme – the negotiation triad – according to which trying to get an activity done right away, withhigh quality standards without putting resources at stake cannot be defined as a negotiation, it is an imposition.

Does it ring a bell?

Personally speaking, it reminds me of the current organization model: time is compressed, high quality is demanded and the resources available are further spared instead of allocating additional ones (thus generating stress, stress and nothing more than stress!)

I believe we all need our organization to show the will and the ability to gain back a more negotiating and more humane approach (reckoning with thelevel of stress resources are exposed to) while addressing at least one of the three points discussed so far – the problem is understanding how.

3 aspects to bear in mind to control stress levels


  1. Time

We cannot possibly keep on endlessly dilating time to get things done.

While time-to-market is important, I have the impression it has grown into a myth of gigantic dimensions.

We all happen to work long hours to get a job done which inevitably sits unread on the boss’s desk for days or weeks, let alone the fact it even comes to nothing.

If we want to reduce the stress levels plaguing organizations, we need reappraising priorities and criticalities which have a serious impact on businesses and reconsider the urgency of matters which are not really such.

Banning the unbridled use of night or week-end e-mails if it can wait until Monday morning, without any tangible damage (a cause for unasked-for stress!).

Some recent studies clearly demonstrated that non-stop emergency affects creativity, Italians’ secret weapon, sacrificed in the name of speed and non-stop connection, thus contributing to the destruction of our much envied“bella vita”.

  1. Quality

I think it is the lever most unfit to be traded off, even if the studies conducted on the divide between quality offered and quality perceivedshow there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Is top-notch quality always a must have when we work?

  1. Resources

This point unleashes long-known, harsh discussions about the reallocation of economic resources, but that’s not the point I want to make.

I am referring to the more pragmatic topic concerning the resources allocated daily to managers who have to reach the goals assigned.

The resources/goals ratio should deliver a “humane” work life quality and, consequently, moderate stress levels.

Something that should be courageously negotiated by those who are expected to reach the goals.

Without any impact on the last lines of the balance sheet, it is necessary developing a vision aimed more to the company’s longevity than to its short/very short-term profitability.

Organizations and stress: are we sure we’re heading in the right direction?

While these are complicated topics ridden with unknown variables, I think it is high time to address them with couragebecause sticking to the track we are on at present is wrong.

And even if the system was not to collapse, I am afraid we will end up wasting the best, most creative resources.

Resources I see increasingly turning their attention to the world of NGOs, social or to the countries which, outperforming Italy, have already found and implemented some responses about this topic (work-life balance, stress, etc.).