The Work Week Obstacle Course: Juggling, Interruptions & Stress

Mark Sagor

cat in the hatStress is a modern plague responsible for 75% to 90% of all doctor’s office visits. OSHA has declared it a workplace hazard costing American business $300 billion annually.

Conventional wisdom blames work, and its toxic stew of constant deadlines, excessive workloads, 24/7 connectivity and globalization, as the primary stressor in contemporary life.

However, new research, recently published in the Journal of Science and Medicine is challenging the idea that work is the main culprit in the problem of stress.

The new study indicates, in a stunning “man bites dog” reversal, that both women and men (but especially women) are more stressed out at home than at work.

These surprising results were based not only on self-reports (the researchers regularly paged participants and asked them to report on their mood) but also on measurements of the stress hormone, cortisol, which were taken by saliva swipes five times a day. Cortisol is implicated in a variety of stress related health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

For many of us in the EAP field, these counter-intuitive results reflect what see in some of our counseling sessions with employees: managers who find it less stressful to lead a willing staff at work than to deal with a defiant adolescent at home or individual contributors who feel like work is the better environment for being able to focus and experience feelings of accomplishment.

Nor would these results surpise Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the concept of “flow” to explain why most of us are happier at moments of engagement at work than we are in many of our leisure activities at home.

So  does this research imply that  we are becoming a society of ambitious strivers with declining interest in the joys of family life?

Definitely not.

The more nuanced takeaway is that it’s the juggling itself, the attempt to do everything all at once in the same day, that makes home feel like such a stressful place during the work week.

The weekends are a different story.

Both men and women are much less stressed on the weekend, at home, than on the weekdays with all its multitasking, schedule conflicts and competing priorities.

Sarah Damaske, a sociologist at Penn State and one of the report’s authors put it this way: “I don’t think home is stressful. When you’re home on Saturday, you’re not working. You go to the park, catch up on laundry. The day goes at a slower pace. I think it’s the combination of the two, work and home, that makes home feel so stressful to people during the work week.”

This research has me thinking about the value of protected time at work and at home.

The best antidote for stress may be the islands of time that we manage to carve out for uninterrupted activity, where we can truly focus our attention on either problem-solving at work or connecting with our families at home. These are the psychological “watering holes” that allow us to refresh ourselves and recover from the debilitating pressures and conflicts of trying to  respond to too many demands at the same time.

At home, families need to be vigilant in protecting their weekend time together. There is more than “fun” and leisure at stake here. Weekend time is a recurring opportunity to refresh family cohesion and morale.

The effective maintenance of family ties requires fairness in the allocation of household tasks. Couples need to organize themselves in  a way that spares their families from the distraction of senseless and repetitive disputes about task sharing.

At work, we need to be vigilant and determined about reducing interruptions. There is more than efficiency at stake here. Being mindful about protecting individuals from distraction nurtures a culture of respect for creative effort and achievement.

Our attention is a powerful asset and must be both protected and managed carefully.

Minimizing the insidious and cumulative effects of too many interrupted moments is one way to reduce the stress of navigating the work week obstacle course