Does Work Make You Crazy?

Kenneth Nowack,  Ph.D.,

Perceptions of stress at work are quite high with several recent studies by Envisia Learning Inc. suggesting that 40% to 65% of all executives and employees rate their jobs as being very or extremely stressful with significant impact on work/family balance and overall health((Nowack, K. (2006). Optimising Employee Resilience: Coaching to Help Individuals Modify Lifestyle. Stress News, International Journal of Stress Management, Volume 18, 9-12).

News alert (in case you might have not known already) — Work-related stress can be a direct cause of clinical depression and anxiety among employees.

A recent finding in Psychological Medicine comes from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has followed a group of 1000 children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, New Zealand throughout their lives. The study subjects have been assessed at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 26, and most recently at the age of 32, in 2004-05.

The study included 406 women and 485 men. All were asked at age 32 about their perceptions of work stress. In general, men reported higher psychological job demands, lower social support, and higher physical job demands than women.

High psychological job demands, such as long hours, heavy workload, or poor relations with one’s boss, were found to be associated with clinical depression, anxiety, or both in both women and men.

It was found that women who reported high psychological job demands (using a standard approach to measuring work load and decisional control over things on the job), such as working long hours, working under pressure or without clear direction, were 75 per cent more likely to suffer from clinical depression or general anxiety disorder than women who reported the lowest level of psychological job demands.

Men with high psychological job demands were 80 per cent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than men with lower demands. Men with low levels of social support at work were also found to be at increased risk of depression, anxiety or both.

This study shows that high levels of workplace stress may be an important contributor to common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. These disorders certainly contribute directly to employer costs for medical claims, absenteeism, presenteeism and disability.

It’s seems so easy to just begin to suggest individually based remedies to help employees cope more effectively with stress on the job. However, my research review of stress management interventions suggests that individually based approaches, without targeting the organization, are unlikely to have sustain impact over time (Nowack, K. (2000). Occupational stress management: Effective or not?. In P. Schnall, K. Belkie, P. Landensbergis, & D. Baker (Eds.), Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, Hanley and Belfus, Inc., Philadelphia, PA., Vol 15, No. 1, pp. 231-233). So, without addressing things like work load, decisional control, team support and leadership practices these individual approaches to stress management will have limited effects on organizational outcomes like absenteeism, health and productivity.

In his book Primal Leadership, Dan Goleman states “Roughly 50 to 70 percent of how employees perceive their organizational climate can be traced to the actions of one person: the leader. More than anyone else, the boss, creates the conditions that determine people’s ability to work well.” Additionally, research by Robert Hogan and his colleagues have suggested that at least a dozen studies tend to suggest the base rate for leadership incompetence is about 50 percent. Our own research and others suggests that the leadership practices and perceived fairness of management might alone prevent talent from getting sick and going crazy at work (Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference, HR Trends 17, 40-42).

If that doesn’t work, there is always the Serenity Prayer….Be well….


Gender, Personality and Careers

Kenenth Nowack, Ph.D.

For over 40 years, one robust theory of career choice has been based on the idea that choice of vocation is really an expression of personality (Holland, 1973). A person can be described as having interests associated with each of six personlity types in a descending order of preference (a person might have a mix of many of these). The six personality and work environment types described by Holland are generally described as follows (RIASEC):

  • Realistic – practical, physical, hands-on, tool-oriented
  • Investigative– analytical, intellectual, scientific, explorative
  • Artistic – creative, original, independent, chaotic
  • Social – cooperative, supporting, helping, healing/nurturing
  • Enterprising – competitive environments, leadership, persuading
  • Conventional– detail-oriented, organizing, clerical

A recent meta-analysis of over a half a million participants examined gender differences in vocational interests and found surprising differences by gender (Su, R. et al. (2009). Men and things, women and people: A meta-analysis of sex interests in interests. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 859-884). Men showed significantly stronger preferences for occupations that are referred to as “Realistic” (jobs requiring physical activities involving tools, machines or animals) and “Investigative” (jobs that involve thinking, analysis and organizing prevalent in such occupations as science and medicine) than women although the authors did not speculate as to why these differences emerged.

There seems to be quite an established literature showing consistent relationships between personality traits and occupational environments (Judge et al. (2009). The big five personality traits, general mental ability and career success. Personnel Psychology, 52, 621-652).

For example, significant negative correlations have been found between the “Big Five” personality factors of Openness to Experience and “Conventional” occupations requiring work with data, filing records and other rule regulated behavior (r = -.31), between Extraversion and “Investigative” occupations (r = -.16), and positive correlations between Conscientiousness and “Investigative” occupations such as scientists (r = .33) and between Emotional Stability and “Realistic” careers such as fitness trainers, opticians, policemen, and fire Fighters (r =.18). So, it’s not surprising that “risk taking” entrepreneurs might find jobs with low complexity, high structure and lots of rules and procedures less stimulating.

New research exploring predictions of adult occupational environments from childhood personality traits rated by teachers found (Woods, S. & Hampson, S. (2010). Predicting adult occupational environments from gender and childhood personality traits. Journal of Applied Psychology, 6, 1045-1057) the following:

  1. Only two personality traits, Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness, were significantly associated with adult occupational environments.
  2. Openness to Experience was most strongly associated with “Investigative” and “Artistic” occupations (i.e., those that are scientific and artistically oriented, respectively).
  3. Conscientiousness was associated with all of the major occupations (i.e., those who are achievement oriented, dependable and diligent are correlated to some extent with all vocations although recent research suggests that for low complexity jobs having too much conscientiousness might actually hinder job performance).

My own research work suggests that men in leadership roles aren’t always seen as effective as their women counterparts despite an equal interest to pursue (but not always obtain) managerial and leadership positions ((Nowack, K. (2006). Gender Differences in Leadership Practices. Unpublished manuscript)). In fact, in our own 360-feedback studies, men report being significantly stronger in such competencies as listening, conflict and problem solving (no, this isn’t my attempt at humor). In our studies and others, women appear to be rated significantly higher in overall leadership and communication competence and effectiveness by both internal and external customers (e.g., direct reports and peers).

A new theoretical model of how we respond to stress might actually provide a clue about why women and men might differ in their approach to leading individuals and teams — particularly in times of crisis, challenge, and conflict. It might also explain why women have genetic predispositions to prefer conventional (e.g., accounting), social (e.g., nursing, teaching) and artistic occupations relative to their male counterparts.

The model, called “tend-and-befriend” by UCLA health psychologist Shelley Taylor and her colleagues, won’t replace the classic “fight or flight” stress response (Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Female Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psychol Rev, 107, 41-429).

In particular, Taylor proposes that women respond to challenging and stressful situations at work and home by protecting themselves and their young through nurturing behaviors — the “tend” part of the model and expressing emotions and socializing, particularly among women — the “befriend” part of the model. Males, in contrast, show less of a tendency toward tending and befriending, and emphasize the classic “fight-or-flight” response, they suggest.

Indeed, women under stress may have a biological predisposition (mediated by pro-social peptides such as oxytocin) to become more affiliative, caring, nurturing and emotionally expressive compared to men.

Taylor’s theory and current research seems to support the idea that women are likely to express more participative, collaborative and transformational displays of communication and leadership particularly under stress relative to their male counterparts. Like every individual factor, not all of us will find this biological disposition equally distributed.

The “tend and befriend” effect might help to explain an interesting finding about gender differences in leaders as well as providing some biological clues about how our personality and interests impact our ultimate career decisions for men and women…..Be well…