Smart Moves: Nowhere left to run

Advances in technology mean employees can be contacted day or night by their bosses - and stress levels are on the up. Philip Schofield reports
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FEW people today can escape the demands of their jobs any more. Mobile phones, pagers and other modern communication tools make us instantly accessible to our employers. They can, and do, contact us at home, while travelling, in the theatre or restaurant, in bed, or even abroad on holiday. In the name of competition they are unwilling to wait even for the answers to trivial questions.

This accessibility - combined with downsizing and new technology and methods of working - have all contributed to growing levels of employee stress.

A new study of 1,543 employees in 13 countries, mainly knowledge workers, found that 82 per cent feel stress regularly and almost a quarter feel it every day. Two-thirds said that their job has become more stressful in the past five years, a quarter describing it as "much more stressful".

The survey, by training and development company Priority Management, involved people in a wide range of industries in North America, Britain, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It says that the two most significant developments transforming the workplace in recent years have been technological advances and global competition. It points out: 'In just over a decade, we have been introduced to fax machines, modems, cellular phones, voice- mail, e-mail and the internet. Each of these developments involves a significant learning curve and introduces more change into our lives. And, each innovation has made it increasingly easy to stay in touch. Our homes and holidays, however, have now become less of a haven from work pressures.'

The report points out that our jobs are not only threatened by technology but also by competition. It says 'opportunities and threats have multiplied exponentially'.

With more employers turning to 'flexible workers', more people are working flexible hours, on contract, teleworking or are self-employed. Half of those surveyed do about one quarter or more of their work from home. As more people work from home offices, the lines between our personal and professional lives blur even further.

The way in which we are conducting work and life is described by the study as 'just in time'. This is taken from the process used in manufacturing. Raw materials and components are no longer held in stock but delivered by suppliers to the production line 'just in time' to be made into the finished product. In turn finished products are sent to customers 'just in time' for selling on.

The report says the concept has spread to our business and personal lives. 'Just in time' workers are hired for a specific job or contract. 'Just in time' training is used to meet immediate needs. And, if you can make it out of that meeting in time, you can just make it to the school play. It's called 'just in time' parenting. The result, it says, is lagging productivity which nobody can afford in today's competitive environment.

As the study observes: 'Work demands, family obligations, personal pursuits, financial pressures, social responsibilities... we might get it all done, but it's happening 'just in time'. Not a second to spare. Not an ounce of energy left over.'

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed admitted stress made them irritable. Almost as many (45 per cent) take work problems home. Two thirds of respondents admitted to feeling torn between family and work demands at least once a week.

They said that the best way their employer could help to reduce their stress would be to recognise their various roles in life (43 per cent) and train them to cope (33 per cent).