Huh? Survey finds workplace is getting happier

Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Section: Business

April 15, 2007

Repps Hudson

How many times have you heard that highly stressed workers are tethered to their jobs around the clock because of cell phones, BlackBerrys and laptops? Or you've heard how "desk rage" eats away at them, threatening to cause them to erupt, throw down a phone and yell - or worse?

That may be true, said Rachelle Canter, an expert on how workers react to their situations under different degrees of stress. However, we're focusing on the wrong "facts" as gleaned from surveys of people who report some kind of anger at work, she said.

What caught Canter's eye is the number of American workers reporting that some level of workplace-induced stress has fallen by an unprecedented 15 percentage points since 2000.

The survey by Opinion Research Corp., conducted last month, posed questions identical to those of seven years ago.

"Think about how much easier life in the workplace is," she said, speaking generally about most U.S. workers. "It's counterintuitive, with all the electronic equipment we have, but we see there's been a 23 percent improvement in workplace satisfaction since 2000."

Canter rejects the overly simplified portrayal in some news accounts that things are either good or bad, black or white, for most workers. Most, she said, operate in a gray zone, and find things are much better than a decade or more ago.

She ticks off several reasons many workers are, if not happier, at least not as tense and pressured as they were a few years ago.

Among them: More family-friendly policies, such as flextime, on-premises child care and a willingness of supervisors to allow employees to leave work to be with their children on special occasions.

"There was a time when a woman didn't want to ask for time off to go to her child's play or soccer game," said Canter, author of "Making the Right Career Move" and head of RJC Associates Inc., a consulting firm in San Francisco.

"Now, in many places, it's respected for parents to ask for time off to be with their children."

She also noted that the economy today is more stable, certainly better than in 2000, when the dot-com bubble burst and job insecurity permeated many quarters.

And those telecom tools that many of us carry around on our belts do make life more manageable. Stuck in traffic and need to call day care? Not a problem. Return a stack of phone calls? Again, no problem with a cell phone and a little free time.

Computers enable us to keep up to date, and the Internet lets most of us work smarter by making volumes of information available with a few key strokes. The downside is that we're now responsible for knowing - or at least being aware of - everything on the World Wide Web that's relevant to our jobs.

When asked if higher worker satisfaction these days was surprising, given all the negative hype, Jerome Katz, professor of entrepreneurship at St. Louis University's Cook School of Business, laughed and said it made perfect sense to him. Members of his (and my) graying baby boom generation have mellowed, after in most cases attaining a good income and accepting our station in life.

At the other end of the age spectrum, young people such as his students are comfortable with telecom technology and "asynchronous" communication - leaving voice mails and sending e-mails and continually keeping in touch over long distances - akin to tacking a note to a tree.

"The kids coming on today are focused on maintaining a balance in their lives between work and their own time," Katz said. "They want to protect it now and for when they have their families."

They also have strong social networks - friends they reach out to frequently - who help them cope with stressful situations.

Whether we realize it or not, many, though certainly not all of us, have never had it so good at work.

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