WORK-LIFE BALANCE / AUG. 25, 2014
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Did The Recession Make Stress Normal?

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Recessions are generally speaking not very good for us.  The challenging economic times cause a great deal of job insecurity, which in turn creates a good deal of stress amongst employees worried about facing the chop, which in turn often leads to health worries and so on.

We’re currently emerging from one of the biggest recessions of the past 100 years, so what impact did it have on our general health and wellbeing?  A new study suggests that the news is rather mixed.

On the one hand, it transpires that our health didn’t appear to suffer a great deal during and after the recession.  The reason behind that however is not altogether positive.  Lets explore.

Is stress now normal?

The study, published by researchers from the University of Akron, suggests that the real reason behind the relative stability of our health is that stress has become the new norm.

It reveals that the fateful combination of an increase in our workload together with altogether less enjoyable and satisfying work has become all the current workforce have ever known.  Throw into the mix the stressful byproduct of restructuring after restructuring and many of the current workforce don’t know what a good workplace looks like.

Those who were fortunate enough to remain employed throughout the recession became so used to dealing with this stressful environment, even though it presented a significant threat to their health.

A very modern style of recession

The findings emerged from data that was collected via the biennial General Social Survey, which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.  The findings present a marked contrast to previous studies of this ilk, such as that conducted during the recession of 1974-1975.

That recession, forty years ago, saw companies seeking to improve efficiencies not only by making a lot of employees redundant, but also by significantly restructuring those left behind.  It was a very regimented time, with employees forced to put in more hours, with much less say over the work they undertook.

The modern recession represents a significantly different challenge.  Globalization has created the kind of work environment whereby stress is almost a constant.  Therefore, the researchers suggest, there is much less difference now between recessionary periods and normal periods.

The demographics of recession

The researchers also suggest that the recent recession did not impact all of the workforce in equal measure.  Employees that were young and less well educated were especially affected, with significant numbers made redundant.

This group was also found to have suffered the biggest knock-on effect on their health due to this unemployment.

"We argue that that’s probably an indicator of the growing inequality in society," the researchers say.

What’s more, the profile of the remaining workforce changed during and after the recession.  As employers looked to make themselves more efficient and nimble, they increasingly turned to part-time and flexible workforces that could respond to demand quickly and efficiently.

Whilst this undoubtedly benefited those organizations, it did contribute to greater workplace stress, with employees giving less control and input into their work schedules, and also contributing to lower levels of job security, all of which contribute to health concerns.

Alas it seems, for many of us at least, this is now very much the norm, with all of the health implications that come with that.

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