Rising levels of stress and depression

Lab Rats by Dan Lyons

The business bestseller lists are full of books about how to embrace change. Silicon Valley companies are lauded for disrupting traditional business models. “A game-changer” is about the most complimentary thing you can say about an idea.

But what if you’re an employee in a company that’s in a state of constant change, or an industry that’s being disrupted? According to a recent survey by Korn Ferry, workplace stress has risen by nearly 20% over the last three decades. Among the top reasons given for the increased stress were worry about losing a job to technology and the pressure to learn new skills just to keep your job.

The ‘Unpredictable Chronic Mild Stress Protocol’

In a recent and very entertaining talk/rant for the RSA about the corrosive effect of Silicon Valley work practices, author Dan Lyons mentioned in passing that in order to test new antidepressants on lab rats, researchers have to depress them in the first place.

They do this using something called “unpredictable chronic mild stress (UCMS) protocol”. This was new information to me. Apparently it involves subjecting the rats to constant, low-level change, such as dampening their bedding, transferring them to a cage recently vacated by another rat, tilting the cage, messing with the day-night cycle, and exposing them to smells of predators.

This academic article describing the protocol states that the UCMS model is “validated for use in psychological and behavioral studies as a translationally relevant rodent model for chronic stress, human depression and depressive symptoms, as it does an excellent job at reproducing clinical symptoms of human depression, including anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and learned helplessness.”

Nearly all self-help books about stress management include a passage along the lines of “the human stress response doesn’t distinguish between a genuinely life-threatening event and being told off by an angry boss”, the idea being to exercise some rational detachment to get your adrenaline production in non life-threatening workplace incidents under control.

That’s usually doable for an ‘acute’ isolated incident – but what about the effects on employees of constant low-level change, and uncertainty about future developments?

Most employees don’t have much say in changes in the workplace. Change is experienced as something that’s done to them, rather than something they initiate. The UCMS article goes on to say that “the degree of control an animal has over stress exposure and the predictability of the stressor have been demonstrated to be important to the outcomes of the UCMS model, as greater unpredictability can reduce the probability of adaptive processes occurring upon repeated stress exposure and promote the appearance of stress effects on physiological and behavioral functions.”

What can be done?

Change in the workplace is inevitable, and political instability and the pace of technological disruption doesn’t look like it’s going to calm down any time soon. So how can organisations introduce change without stressing and depressing their people?

  1. Treat human beings as human, not as lab rats. Because we are human ourselves, we don’t really need scientific studies to tell us what humans find stressful. We know that forcing people to work long hours, paying them less than they need to live, and not allowing them toilet breaks (as is reported to happen in Amazon warehouses) are bad for people.
  2. Keep people informed. Uncertainty about changes is a cause of stress, and in the absence of reliable information, all kinds of damaging rumours spring up.
  3. Involve people in how change is implemented. Devolve decision-making as far down the chain of command as you can, and encourage them to think and share ideas about how to improve things. If you genuinely listen to your employees, they will feel more agency and hence less stressed. Also, the changes will be more realistic and robust. It’s the people on the front line, and their immediate supervisors, who have the most relevant knowledge of how changes will work in practice.

Further reading: Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable by Dan Lyons (order in UK | US | Canada | Australia | India)

If you want a practical methodology for engaging all your people with change and unlocking the full power of their creativity to solve problems, check out the small-group and interactive Practical Appreciative Inquiry online course that starts on 14 July 2019.

The Human Cost Of Change, And How To Reduce It
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