2009 Workplaces Were Fearful, Unhealthy, and Irritating

November 4, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Maybe it happens all year every year, but it seems, at least, that workplace environments and dynamics were studied more than ever in 2009.

Perhaps it can be attributed to the cliff diving of the economy in 2008, as survey after survey covered how workers were affected by the downturn’s pressures. A news release in March from employee assistance plan provider ComPsych said 16% of survey respondents described their workplace as “panicky” over the economy (see Poll Finds High Workplace Stress over Economy ), while 39% of respondents described their workplace atmosphere as “somewhat worried.”

More reports of fear followed. One in every three employees of companies in the United States and the United Kingdom reported being fearful of losing his or her job, according to a survey in April by change management consulting firm Stromberg Consulting and conducted by Braun Research (see The Thing to Fear? … Fear Itself ). The survey suggests that fear in the workplace could hinder economic recovery as it impacts risk taking, decisionmaking, and customer service. One-quarter of employees of U.S. companies said fear was delaying critical business decisions.

Many fears were realized as workplaces experienced layoffs. Forty percent of workers surveyed by the Workplace Institute at Kronos Incorporated at organizations that suffered layoffs said their company’s workplace productivity was hurt as a result (see Layoffs Hurt Corporate Productivity ). Sixty-six percent said morale suffered and people were less motivated; 64% said there was too much work and not enough people to do it; 37% said the wrong people or departments were laid off, leaving inefficient systems and workflows; and 36% said they were concerned that as the economy picks up, they won’t have the right resources to meet demand.

Meanwhile, laid off workers reported taking drastic measures to find new employment. A CareerBuilder survey found that more than a quarter (28%) of workers who were laid off said they changed their appearance to make themselves more attractive to potential employers (see Laid Off Workers Change Looks to Attract Jobs ). Fourteen percent said they lost weight, 8% changed their hair color or hairstyle, and 5% were dressing to appear younger. Teeth whitening, enhanced makeup, and cosmetic procedures were also cited.

At least one survey found some were getting benefits from the recession. An Accountemps survey found 77% of employees enjoyed at least one positive impact on their work lives (see Downturn a Workplace Silver Lining? ). Those recognizing a workplace silver lining to the economic downturn said they had taken on new projects (53%); gained more responsibility (52%), taken on more challenging work (52%), had more interactions with management (44%), had more interactions with clients or customers (38%), and even been promoted (12%).

Not all 2009 research on workplaces focused on the effects of the economy. While health reform was on the forefront of Americans' minds, researchers focused on the bad health of employees and how their workplaces caused it.

The "2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce " released in September 2009 by Families and Work Institute authors Kerstin Aumann and Ellen Galinsky found the percentage of employees rating their overall health as excellent was 28% in 2008, down from 34% in 2002.  The percentage of people reporting that they never experience minor health problems such as headaches or upset stomachs was 36% in 2002 and 29% in the 2008 poll (see Workplaces Are Sick Too ). In addition, the authors noted that a large proportion of the workforce shows signs of clinical depression, sleep problems are pervasive, and stress levels are rising.

The authors also pointed out that a quarter of all employees smoke, most don't exercise regularly, and 62% are overweight or obese. They contended that six criteria could help judge the health of a workplace, including climate of respect; supervisor task support; job challenge and learning; autonomy; economic security; and work-life fit.

The climate of respect was the focus of another study that found a link between being a victim of workplace bullying and sleep problems. T he study of French workers, Workplace Bullying and Sleep Disturbances, published in the journal SLEEP, found that about one in 10 workers in the sample experienced "hostile behavior" at work at least once a week, and bullying victims were twice as likely to report sleep problems than workers who didn't experience hostility at work (see Workplace Rudeness Can be a Nightmare ). In addition, about one in three people studied reported that they had seen a co-worker bullied in the previous 12 months, and those who witnessed bullying in the workplace also were twice as likely to report sleep problems.

Another study found a link between workplaces and weight gain. More than four in ten workers (43%) responding to a CareerBuilder survey said they have gained weight in their current jobs (see Working - Bad for the Waistline? ). One quarter of employees reported they gained more than ten pounds and 12% said they gained more than 20 pounds while in their present positions.

The survey indicated that eating habits were the likely culprit in workplace weight gain. Nearly two-in-five (39%) respondents reported they eat out for lunch twice or more per week, and 12% bought their lunch out of a vending machine at least once a week. More than two-thirds of employees reported snacking at least once a day, and nearly a quarter said they snack twice a day.

As always though, workers don't necessarily need to have health problems to skip work. Nearly a third of employers surveyed by CareerBuilder said they weren't surprised by the continuing trend of workplace "hooky" this year , due to the stepped-up stress and burnout caused by the recession (see Flu Season Brings Out Workplace Hooky Players ).

Some unusual excuses employees gave for missing work cited by employers included:

  • I got sunburned at a nude beach and can't wear clothes;
  • I woke up in Canada;
  • I got caught selling an alligator;
  • My buddies locked me in the trunk of an abandoned car after a weekend of drinking;
  • My mom said I was not allowed to go to work today; and
  • I'm just not into it today.

If the workplace did not make workers unhealthy, it did make some annoyed. A survey by Accountemps suggests workplace communication needs to improve as common clichés, buzzwords, and industry jargon are just plain tired (see Buzz 'Off': Some Workplace Jargon is Annoying ).

Some of the most annoying or overused phrases or buzzwords in the workplace cited by respondents included:

  • Leverage: As in, "We intend to leverage our investment in IT infrastructure across multiple business units to drive profits."
  • Reach out: "Remember to reach out to customers impacted by the change."
  • It is what it is: "The server is down today, and clients are irate. It is what it is."
  • Viral: "Our video has gone viral."
  • Game-changer: "Transitioning from products to solutions was a game-changer for our company."
  • Disconnect: "There is a disconnect between what the consumer wants and what the product provides."

Other irritating words or phrases cited were definitely recession related.

While having personal items stolen by coworkers can be infuriating, there's another type of workplace theft that's annoying. More than one in four (29%) employees interviewed by OfficeTeam said that a coworker has taken credit for their idea, and sadly, many who steal the limelight from their more deserving colleagues are getting away with it, as more than half (51%) of those who have had their ideas stolen by coworkers revealed they did nothing in response (see Hey, That Was My Idea! ).