'Superjobs' leaving us super-stressed

Too few workers left to do too much work is taking a toll on us

May 16, 2011|Susan Reimer

A recent magazine article about how the human worker behaves under stress was accompanied by an illustration of a baseball player waiting for the pitch to arrive while teammates crowded around him, shouting and hooting, taking cell phone pictures and giving him raspberries.

That's exactly what I have been telling people lately, using a sports analogy to explain how the many tasks now required of me at work have driven their request to the bottom of the list.

"I can only pay attention to the fastballs coming at my head," I say.

The Wall Street Journal calls it the "superjob," and in a recent article described how the pastry chef is also laying tile in the restaurant kitchen as employers do more with less. Or rather, fewer.

Not only are we taking on extra tasks that have little to do with our primary job description, but we are handling the work of the employees who used to sit next to us and were either downsized out the door or never replaced when they left voluntarily.

The Journal tried to characterize this as the need for flexibility in a fast-changing world, but I think that's putting a shine on the apple with the rotten core. Employers have figured out that workers will make two sandwiches out of one slice of bread as long as they fear losing their jobs, so why not keep asking for those two sandwiches?

Did you ever think that a furlough would look good to you? It does if the alternative is no job at all.

The recession caused many companies to shrink their workforce, and the slow recovery has made them skittish about making the expensive investment in new employees. Corporate profits are rising, while employment is not.

But the shrunken workforce is a reason for that increase in profits. Why not continue to squeeze the workers you have until demand forces you to hire?

Employees are reluctant to push back or complain. They know well enough that there is someone outside the plant gate ready to take the job they have if they are not willing to do it.

And, to be fair, the plates of supervisors are just as full, leaving them little room or time to make the changes necessary to fix somebody else's problem.

The downside of this for any employer is that, at some point, multitasking workers become confused or exhausted — and, therefore, less productive.

Talk to most of your neighbors about their jobs, and they will tell you that by Friday night they are so fried, they can no longer hold a thought in their heads or speak in complete sentences.

"We eat peanut butter crackers for dinner and are in bed by 9," said my neighbor, speaking for himself and his wife, both of whom work as lawyers for the disenfranchised.

For some workers, especially those who are young and eager, this piling on can be a welcome expansion of skills and responsibility. But some of us older workers, who have been told that we should not — or cannot — retire, are starting to see the toll this takes on our sleep, our blood pressure or, simply, on our outlook on life.

The article I described at the beginning of this column, with the illustration of the baseball player, was about leaders in high-stakes jobs and how they performed in the global financial crisis. But pressure on the job is no longer the province of the high and mighty.

For example, next time I find myself in the hospital, I would like for there to be enough nurses on the floor for one of them to answer my bell. And life would be easier if I could find somebody to help me at the hardware store or if there were a couple more cashiers at the grocery store.

"I can only pay attention to the fastballs coming at my head." I say it quite often these days. And, sports fans or not, everyone seems to understand exactly what I mean.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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