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Persistent Stress: What Every Productive Worker Needs to Know

It’s one thing to be stressed out during a hectic season or a major change. But persistent stress? Work stress that’s ongoing with little or no relief in sight? That’s an entirely different thing. As the current year comes to an end and we look to what’s next, it’s a great time to consider how we might do things differently to reduce (or eliminate) persistent stress at work. 

Persistent stress can make planning, productivity, and getting through the never-ending to-do list seem especially urgent for independent workers. Today, more of us are aware of the risks of burnout and worry that how we work will lead to a crash. We use technology designed to streamline our work and remove guessing games from decision-making. Notifications—on our phones, in our inboxes, on our desktop screens—nag us with overdue tasks and urgent reminders. We’re getting more done than ever (yes, you too), but many of us still feel like it’s not enough or that we never quite have the time for the work we want to do.

I’ve lived this scenario and observed others living through it for well over a decade. And here’s what I’ve noticed: we’re not unproductive. Nor are we pathologically disorganized. So what gives?

Why do productive, talented people experience persistent stress at work? 

Why are they unsatisfied with what they accomplish or how they spend most of their time? How can they burn through to-do list after to-do list only to feel like they’ve spent little time on the things that matter most? And why, despite optimizing for efficiency, do they so often drop the ball or lose track of priorities?

A few years ago, I got curious about how I could, on the one hand, be objectively productive and, on the other, always feel disconnected from my work and behind on important things. In other words, if I was legitimately getting a ton of good stuff done every day, how was it that I still didn’t feel like I had the time or energy to focus on the important stuff? Why was I persistently stressed out about work despite confidence in what and how much I was accomplishing? 

The business owners, independent workers, and creators I talk with regularly all suffer from a similar paradox.

This paradox is a near-universal problem for humans in the 21st-century economy. While our expectations for productivity have skyrocketed, we’ve become evermore optimized machines designed to power through our to-do lists. And yet, we find ourselves unsatisfied with what we get done. We exhaust ourselves, generate mental and emotional strain, and work in stressful conditions.

I explore an aspect of this in my book—how cultural, economic, and political systems influence the goals we set and how we execute those goals. Today, I want to examine how work systems directly contribute to our stress—and what we can do about it.

Work has changed. Our story of work has not.

When we think of “work,” we still imagine the Fordist assembly line or Drucker-esque corporate drone. Employers identify necessary tasks and hire people to do those tasks. In this case, the “work” is a process, a set of specific tasks. Employers discourage deviation, and so creativity and problem-solving are unnecessary skills.

However, work today looks dramatically different. From low-wage jobs such as home healthcare workers and retail clerks to freelance gigs like design and consulting to high-paying tech jobs, our labor is knowledged-based, care-based, or creative—and often all three. Yet, the old work model still inspires our productivity and time management methods. And it’s this mismatch that’s often at the heart of our stress about work.

Confined Work

Researcher Armand Hatchuel describes this old work model as “confined.” Confined work relies on an established process, a specific outcome, and an expectation of effort required to meet the needs of the process and outcome. A confined work model is relatively easy to manage because the inputs and outputs are stable. If a machine breaks or someone calls out sick, a manager can rearrange the other inputs to arrive at the same output as before. There are transparent and objective ways to measure a worker’s performance.

Confined work has significant drawbacks for individuals and organizations. But it also provides two sources of stability missing in most contemporary work: predictable mental requirements and predictable relational systems. When workers show up to the assembly line, they know exactly the task they will perform. They learned how to do that task through a standardized training process.

Similarly, these workers know their place in the organization—who they report to, how communication with management takes place, who to ask for time off, etc. As I said, there are plenty of ways this can go wrong, but uncertainty isn’t a source of stress in confined work.

Unconfined Work

The new work model—that of knowledge, care, and creative work—is “unconfined,” according to Hatchuel. There are countless variations in the process. We can’t pre-define outcomes because often, our goal is to come up with a new and unexpected outcome (i.e., innovation), so the outcome is unknown until we create it. And the effort required to produce indeterminate results is always uncertain. The home healthcare worker doesn’t know what they’ll find when they open the door to their client’s home. The designer doesn’t know how a client will react to their concepts. The software engineer doesn’t know what lines of code might break or whether they’ll need to develop a new feature on the fly.

Or, perhaps more relevant, the creator doesn’t know whether a post will go viral. A consultant must navigate a different communication process at every company they consult. A marketer deals with unexpected trends and emerging needs every day.

What’s wild is that these circumstances make this kind of work fun, energizing, and rewarding—while also creating the conditions for persistent stress and anxiety.

Two Ways to Understand Persistent Stress At Work

Demand-Control Model

Since our newer forms of work present this paradox, we need more flexible ways to analyze the stress and frustration this type of work can cause. Luckily, organizational psychologists have been studying this for over 40 years (because the “new” work model isn’t very new).

The first model proposed to explain both the joys and the stresses of knowledge work is the demand-control model, developed by psychologist Robert Karasek in 1979. It analyzes work across two dimensions: psychological demand and autonomy. A job with high psychological demand and high autonomy fosters the most motivation and learning. A job with low autonomy and high psychological demand puts the worker at increased risk for distress.

Jobs with low autonomy and low demand are, quite literally, mind-numbing. And jobs with high autonomy and low psychological demand are easy to maintain but unfulfilling.

Example of the Demand-Control Model

If you’ve seen The Office (the US version), you already know this stress model’s dynamic. Imagine goofball Jim as the one with a high-autonomy, low-demand job. His job comes easily to him, and he’s free to joke around and play pranks on Dwight. Kevin is working a low-autonomy, low-demand job. He’s an accountant, so the rules of his profession limit the way he works. That said, his work doesn’t challenge him, either. Toby has a low-autonomy, high-demand position. As the HR rep, he works within a tightly regulated scope in a hostile environment. His persistent stress is evident throughout the series.

What about the coveted high-autonomy, high-demand job? Honestly, I don’t know that any character on The Office typifies the high-autonomy, high-demand type of job. So we’ll borrow a character from another NBC sitcom: Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec. Leslie has a fair amount of leeway in her role as deputy director; navigating bureaucracy and local politics is just another opportunity for creative problem-solving. She finds the job pleasantly challenging. Her role motivates Leslie, and she draws a great deal of purpose and identity from work.

Independent Work and the Demand-Control Model

If you’re self-employed, you might assume that your work is flexible and completely within your control. You ostensibly make your own hours, choose the projects you’ll embark on, and have the final say on who you work with. You also get to decide how much you challenge yourself. That should be a recipe for low-stress work that’s highly rewarding and motivating. And that’s certainly true for some self-employed folks.

But I’ve also noticed how much demand and lack of autonomy we can place on ourselves as self-employed people. We inadvertently put ourselves in positions where the demands are very high (e.g., trying to overdeliver on client support at the detriment of your self-care). And at the same time, the autonomy is very low (e.g., doing precisely what our project management software tells us to do). As a result, self-employment can create quite a bit of work stress. And that only adds to the stress that comes from the systemic and structural challenges of self-employment broadly.

There’s a lot to glean from the demand-control model. But it doesn’t capture another key dynamic in how we relate to work—resources, including compensation. For instance, consider a low-demand, high-autonomy job that pays well—the kind of job where you collect a nice paycheck and enjoy full benefits, but you don’t have many challenges during the workday. There’s a good chance a worker in that job would have low stress, but they might feel more existential frustration (i.e., “What’s the point?”).

But the same type of job (low demand, high autonomy) will be more stressful if the compensation is inadequate. It doesn’t matter that the job is easy and there’s plenty of time to get it done. The worker will feel financial stress and existential frustration.

Job Demand-Resource Model

The second model aims to overcome this problem. Psychologists Evangelia Demeroutil and Arnold Bakker developed the job demands-resources model in 2006.

This model examines how the availability of resources impacts job performance in relation to the demands of a job. The model demonstrates that, as job demands and resources increase, so does motivation. That motivation not only leads to higher job performance but also leads to “job crafting.” Job crafting is one method for increasing one’s autonomy or control at work. The worker actively shapes their job and its conditions to lead to higher performance.

On the other hand, work stress increases when a job demands high performance without the necessary support and resources. Then, that stress can lead to self-sabotage which effectively increases the demands of the job and adds to stress. Under those conditions, of course, job performance suffers.

So ideal working conditions, especially for knowledge, care, or creative work, are:

  • Challenging projects
  • Flexibility in how those projects are accomplished
  • Sufficient resources at work and personal resources to accomplish those projects
  • Regularly fine-tuning work to increase motivation and learning opportunities as a means of increasing performance

Then, the question becomes—is this how you work?

I want to circle back to where we started: how can a highly productive person feel so unsatisfied by what they’ve accomplished at the end of the day?

These two models for understanding work stress provide some answers to this question. If you’ve crafted work for yourself that is highly demanding but don’t allow yourself flexibility or sufficient resources to meet those demands, you’re going to be stressed out. Over time, you might burn out—including developing both physical and psychological symptoms of your distress.

How Mismatches Lead to Persistent Stress

The demand-control and job demand-resource models help us identify where our working conditions don’t match our work’s challenges. Maybe your work demands are mismatched with the lack of flexibility you have with your working hours due to responsibilities at home. Maybe your skills or compensation is mismatched with the expectations of your clients. Could inflexible work processes be mismatched with creative demands? In other words, creating a satisfying work style that’s flexible, challenging, and motivating is the product of recognizing the relationship between these different factors. And making that relationship as harmonious as possible can dramatically reduce persistent stress at work.

We want to work with people who inspire us to do our best work. We want to be paid appropriately for that work and have the time to do it well. We crave the flexibility to approach work with creative problem-solving and critical thinking. We want the space to think, learn, and become more skillful.

What’s more, these are the conditions necessary for most work in the 21st-century economy. The promise of working conditions like these is a big reason people choose to work for themselves. And yet, they’re often the conditions we deny ourselves in practice.

Reviewing the past year and planning for next

If you’re reading this close to its publication, you’re probably thinking about how this year went and what you’d like to tackle next year. I suggest including a review of the demands of your work, the autonomy you allow yourself, and the resources you have at your disposal:

  • Does your work present challenges that motivate you to learn and think creatively?
  • Are those challenges met with an appropriate level of autonomy and sufficient resources?
  • In what ways do you deny yourself flexibility in how you work?
  • How does flexibility (or lack thereof) impact how you meet the challenges of your work?
  • What resources would allow you to challenge yourself in new ways?
  • What challenges would you like to take on in the new year?

Of course, these are valuable questions to consider, no matter the time of year.

An Unexpected Source of Persistent Stress

Finally, I want to wrap things up with something that may be a bit more controversial. Or, at the least, certainly more provocative than the questions I just posed.

And that is a recommendation to take an honest accounting of the amount of bullshit in your day-to-day work. Here, I use bullshit as a technical term, or precisely bullshit jobs—a phrase coined by anthropologist David Graeber first in an essay and then in a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

Graeber defines a bullshit job this way: “jobs that are primarily or entirely made up of tasks that the person doing that job considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious.” He expands the definition later in the book to include that a person doing a bullshit job is likely to be required to pretend that their work is, in fact, not bullshit.

Graeber differentiates bullshit jobs from shit jobs. Shit jobs provide real value to society but exist under conditions that make them undesirable, at best, and intolerable, at worst. Bullshit jobs, on the other hand, are often administrative, professional, or managerial and well-paid, which only adds to the vacuousness of the work.

Please note: I’m not suggesting that your work is bullshit. Not at all.

And, according to Graeber’s definition, no one else can tell you that you have a bullshit job—only you get to decide that.

Pointless Work is a Real Source of Persistent Stress

There is a high likelihood that some of the tasks you do regularly are there for bullshit reasons. Maybe it’s work that seems pointless to you but that you believe you’re supposed to do. Perhaps it’s work that doesn’t match your values, but it appears to be a necessary concession to make your business come together. Or maybe, it’s just work that, when examined objectively, isn’t producing any actual results.

Graeber acknowledges that it seems ludicrous to suggest that a for-profit enterprise would actively employ people whose work serves no real purpose. But that is indeed what’s happened. It might seem equally ludicrous to suggest that you might be doing work that serves no real purpose, doesn’t contribute to results, or positively impacts others’ lives. But I don’t believe I’ve ever talked with a business owner or independent worker where I couldn’t eliminate a task they despise from their to-do list simply because it was pointless.

Again, every coaching client I’ve ever had, every Q&A I’ve ever done, and every workshop I’ve taught has involved my recommendation to eliminate a specific task (or many) because it was simply bullshit.

So while you’re thinking about the demands you face, the autonomy you give yourself, and the resources at your disposal, I think it’s worth considering how much bullshit you put yourself through on regularly.

In the end, make this the year you combat persistent stress by crafting satisfying, rewarding, and challenging work.


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“Impeccably well-written, thoroughly researched… this book made me want to stand up and applaud.”
— Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Parent

What Works hardcover book

By Tara McMullin

Writer, Podcaster, Producer. Founder of What Works.

Dec 8, 2022

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