Do you work in a 'toxic office'?
November 22, 2005
Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota

Your desk is a mess. You have a heavy workload, tight deadlines and an unreasonable boss. You work for a company with unrealistic productivity targets or unattainable sales goals.

In short, you are stressed out and overwhelmed.

Well, you probably work in a "toxic office."

Most Americans do -- especially when compared with workers in the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, according to David Lewis, a workplace psychologist and author of "One-Minute Stress Management."

Lewis bases his conclusion on results of an online survey last summer of 2,544 office workers 18 and older in the United States and five other countries. He says long office hours and a "result-driven" working culture are causing stress, anxiety and depression at more severe levels for Americans than their foreign counterparts, increasing potential health risks for ulcers, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

The U.S. workers reported an overly heavy workload (52 percent); disorganization (43 percent); bosses who expected them to work when ill (37 percent) and to meet unrealistic expectations (32 percent); and too little time to complete tasks (31 percent).

U.S. workers were significantly more likely to report more stress than a year ago, while British, Dutch and, to a lesser degree, Belgian workers said stress decreased.

Forty-eight percent of the 504 U.S. survey respondents reported high stress. U.S. workers were most likely to be concerned with keeping the boss happy. This was the lowest priority in Italy.

After making the boss happy, meeting targets and deadlines and crossing items off a "to-do" list were of highest importance for U.S. workers. Arranging and attending meetings ranked higher in Belgium, followed by Italy and the Netherlands.

Overall, younger workers tended to let things "get to them" and were significantly more likely to mention workload, lack of organization and their boss or colleagues as top causes of stress. Research suggests younger workers may have heavier workloads due to shorter tenure. They also may be less decisive on the job due to their lack of experience.

In the six countries surveyed, at least one in three workers said they work late on a weekly basis, with late hours most common in Germany and the United States. Workers in all six countries agreed the top three short-term effects of stress were increased irritability, undermining of work performance and an increase in mistakes. Women crave "order" more than men, according to the survey.

Lewis, who completed his latest research for global office products company Esselte, says high levels of activity are not usually the cause of stress on the job. More often, he says, it is caused by a lack of control over one's working environment.

Unfortunately for workers, only one of the five major causes of stress in a "toxic" office -- disorganization -- is within the typical worker's control, he concluded.

Stress at work: A matter of facts
About 48 percent of U.S. executives admit to having a messy desk but claim to know where everything is, while 12 percent say their desks appear organized but they have no idea where to find anything. Executives waste six weeks per year searching for lost documents.

Average office space per person dropped from 410 square feet per employee in 1997 to 355 square feet in 2001 (includes common spaces like copy rooms, kitchens, lobbies).

Two to 2½ weeks of vacation is average for the U.S. worker, while Europeans receive five. Between 1969 and 1987, American workers added 163 hours -- an extra month -- to their working year.

The average organization makes 19 copies of each document, spends $20 in labor to file each document, loses one of every 20 documents and spends 25 hours re-creating each lost document.

E-mail has increased print volumes by 40 percent or more. The average worker prints out 45 sheets of paper each workday.

The average U.S. worker is interrupted about seven times an hour. The average interruption takes five minutes.

Stress-management programs, products and services were a $9.4 billion business by 1995, with an estimated 22 percent annual growth rate.

About 80 percent of medical expenditures in the United States are for stress-related health problems.

Getting organized
Want to become more organized at work? Here are some tips: [list=1][*]Acquire items and retain only paperwork you know you need to meet your goals and do your job. Get rid of everything else. As much as 80 percent of what you save "just in case" is never needed again. Clutter is often the result of indecisiveness, not of insufficient time or space. [*]Have a place for each item and return the item to its place after use. [*]Have a master "to-do" list for each day. [*]Pre-sort mail: "To File." "To Read." "To contact" (write or call). [*]Eliminate paper by entering summary information into computer files. [*]If you have a large pile of paper, reports or mail to go through, go through a portion each day until the stack is gone. [*]Make use of files, baskets and other organizers to separate projects or paperwork. [*]If you are easily distracted, empty your workspace of everything but the project you are working on. [*]When a project is finished, take a few minutes to throw away any material you no longer need, organize the paperwork and file immediately. If you know that, two months from now, you will no longer need to retain a file, place a date on the tab for throwing it away. [*]Just before leaving at the end of each day, jot down unfinished business -- i.e., calls not returned, projects incomplete, meetings to set up -- to avoid wasting time figuring out what needs to be done when you next return to your desk. [*]Beware of any tendency toward perfectionism. Most routine work doesn't require it. Ask yourself: Is my effort disproportionate to the value of the task? Will other more important work be delayed? Can I reduce the frequency or level of detail in this task? [*]Aim for effectiveness, not neatness. Neatness alone can still lead to wasted time if you put things away just to clear your desk and then lose or forget where you placed items.[/list:o]