The health of our relationships on the job

John. K. Miller

As adults we will spend more time with the people we work with than with any other group, including our families. In some ways, the health of our relationships on the job are as important for our physical and psychological health as the relationships that we have with our family members. In China today, most adult members of the family work outside the home.  Many of these jobs are challenging and stressful. Sometimes our jobs take us away from our family for extended periods of time, magnifying the importance of work relationships given that they are our main social connections during our time away. As a practicing family therapist I have learned to ask people about the health of their relationships on the job as a fundamental part of a patient assessment. Over the years I have learned that many problems that appear on the surface to be family problems (like couple conflict) are actually a “spill over” of stress and pressure from the job into the marriage relationship. Also, I have found that problem family relationships are often modulatedor helped by promoting a healthier work life.

Stress on the job can take a variety of forms.  Sometimes the basic challenges of getting the job done create stress that, while uncomfortable, is necessary to motivate us to do the task at hand. In short, a little bit of stress can be good. Even a little more, can be better. Yet, if the pressure and demands of the job increase to certain levels, productivity stops going up, and begins to actually diminish as the weight of the pressure begins to crush our ability to function properly. In science, this is called the “principle of diminishing returns”.  It means for any two things where one increases, it leads to an increase in the other (for instance “stress” and “productivity”).  But this relationship only holds up for so long. After a while, more stress begins to kill productivity, job satisfaction, and even employee health. Recent studies have indicated that death rates from overwork are increasing worldwide.

An old saying goes “If all you have is a hammer in your toolbox, everything begins to look like a nail.” If increasing pressure and stress on the job is the only “hammer” one has in the toolbox of attempted solutions to work demands, problems will eventually emerge. This“hammer” approach to work life will predictably have its own “diminishing returns”. When I see this happen with clients and employers I consult with I try to offer them other alternative strategies to deal with work demands. In essence, we work to increase the number of tools in their toolbox. Steven Covey, a leader in the study of the habits of highly effective people calls this type of thinking “sharpening thesaw” (instead of simply sawing harder with a dull sawblade).

The changing pace of work life has even had an impact on the age people chose to marry, with couples pushing the date back until they meet certain career-related requirements. It is common for a young couple to want to have a certain level of financial and material stability (home & car ownership) before deciding to marry. In the increasingly competitive and stressful world of work these material things are becoming harder and harder to acquire, especially among the young. It is not surprising then that these factors also coincide with lower birth rates in some areas of the world, as young couples put off having kids due to work pressures. For some of these couples once they do have kids the demands of work take them away from their hometowns, leaving their children to be raised by their grandparents.

While we may not be able to eliminate all job stressors, what can we do to prevent them, prepare for them, and intervene when they become overwhelming? What impact will this job-stress have on the Chinese family and what can we do to support these families? What can employers do to cultivate healthier work environments so that workers can enjoy efficient and meaningful work lives without sacrificing health and family? These issues are of vital importance for current and future Chinese workers. One strategy I advocate is for companies and leaders in the workforce to engage with those in the social sciences and therapy communities to strategize about how to promote the most healthy, efficient, and harmonious workplace possible. Gallup recently conducted a poll of workers in the US in which people reported the main reasons they are unhappyand eventually quit. One of the main reasons listed was conflict with the boss.Often employees conflict with the boss is matter of communication problems and misunderstandings that grow over time. Often, increasing the level of empathy and mutual understanding between the supervisors and employees can improve the situation. If they do, it will have a far-reaching positive impact on the welfare of the workers, their families, children, and future generations.