3 Ways to Increase Your Stress @ Work



Culture is the fishbowl in which your company swims: it’s invisible, but impacts everything.

Company culture is a combination of beliefs and behaviors, and is best defined as “how we do things around here”.

As an external leadership consultant, I get invited to come and swim in different fishbowls every week.

Sometimes the swim is fun. I think “I’d like to come back here.”Sometimes, the swim feels weird.  I think “I’m glad I don’t have to swim here every day.”

Last week I had one of those weird swims.

I spent two days with a group of senior leaders from a global manufacturer.  (Let’s call it XYZ company.)

What made my experience with XYZ so uncomfortable?


The stress of the people I worked with.  It was in the air.  I could see it on their faces and in their bodies.  They live in a constant state of being overloaded, distracted, and overwhelmed.It’s not fun to be them.  Spending two days with them gave me a peek into some of their company norms that contribute to their stress.  Here are 3 top factors:

  1. Meeting Madness

  2. Multitasking Madness

  3. Meal Madness

1. Meeting Madness

XYZ’s norm is to hold meetings.  About anything and everything.If your calendar shows you not already in a meeting at any time, anyone can invite you to attend a meeting, and you are expected to show up.This belief has led to the behavior of non-stop meetings every day.  From 8 am – 7 pm (or longer), the meeting train keeps rolling.

This back-to back timing works…on paper.  On a good day, the 8 am meeting ends at 9 am, and the 9 am meeting starts.

What works on paper doesn’t work in reality.

But most days are not good days.  There’s no human buffer built in.Like most trips to the doctor’s office, the schedule quickly breaks down.  People arrive (or dial-in) late. This has created a  “hurry-up and wait” culture.Like mice on a treadmill, they keep running faster and faster.  Too exhausted to fight it, they seem to have accepted their fate.  No one seems to feel they have the authority to address the larger issue of meeting madness.  The result?  People are overloaded and stressed out.

2. Multitasking Madness 

Multitasking. The rationale for it at XYZ seems to make sense.  After all,  if you’re in meetings all day long, when do you get your “other work” done?  In those meetings.

The problem with multi-tasking?  There’s no such thing.  It’s a myth.  What you’re really doing is task-shifting.

Shifting back and forth between multiple tasks adds significantly more time to completion than it would if you just did them one at a time.  In addition, quality suffers.

XYZ leaders are not only distracted, they’re disconnected.  They don’t fully listen to or value what each other have to say.  They live in a state of what writer Linda Stone calls, “Continuous Partial Attention”.  At the start of Day 1 of our seminar together, we co-created group norms, including “Be Present”.  This included the agreement that if something ‘urgent’ needed attention, a participant would step out of the room to deal with it. (Rather than multitask in the room.)

Perpetual urgency is an easy way to increase the levels of the stress hormones in your body.

How did this work out?  At the start of the day, I had 20 participants.  At the end of the day, only 9 were left.There’s a lot of ‘urgent’ at XYZ.   Perpetual urgency is an easy way to increase the levels of the stress hormones in your body.

3. Meal Madness

On the first day, I told the group we would take a 45 minute lunch break (short by my usual standard, I usually prefer an hour).

You would think I had 6 heads with the look I got back.

45 minutes!?  That much!?  We never take 45 minutes for lunch.  We usually 10 minutes to run to the cafeteria and bring something back to keep working.Working through lunch.   It’s the meal equivalent of multitasking.

A genuine lunch break is one of the most fundamental ways workers stay human.

On paper it makes sense:  grab and go.  Replenish the calories lost.

But a lunch break does more than refuel your glucose levels.  It gives your whole body (including your brain) a chance to renew.

Humans are not robots.  We’re not designed to work 24/7 and never suffer a dip in performance.   We need breaks.A genuine lunch break is one of the most fundamental ways workers stay human.

Deny this basic need, and our bodies start to rebel.  We lose our focus, become irritable, and get antsy: all of which contribute to stress.Three simple ways to increase stress:

  1. Meeting Madness

  2. Multitasking Madness

  3. Meal Madness

What’s it like swimming in your fishbowl?

What other cultural norms contribute to stress at work? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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