Week of Work Stress: "Working online has blurred the lines between work and private life"

Published: 15th November 2023 Last updated: 16th November 2023

It’s the Week of Work Stress. As part of this week, we spoke to Marianne van Woerkom, full professor of positive organization psychology. She researches how organizations can improve the wellbeing and development of employees. We asked her to give us tips to prevent work stress and tell us how academic research contributes to psychological wellbeing on the work floor.

“People tend to pay a lot of attention to workplace problems, such as stress, lack of safety and burnout. Within the chair of Positive Psychological Perspective on Human Resource Studies, not only do we look at how we can solve these problems, but we also try to keep an eye on the balance between moments we’re not functioning great and moments we’re doing well. Whatever you pay attention to will grow: this applies to problems on the work floor but also − and particularly − to things that are going well. So it’s important to look at those things, or at moments we’re feeling well, even if they’re small or don’t last very long. And then ask yourself: what circumstances are in place when things are going well? When you analyze those positive circumstances in a structural manner, this can contribute to solving problems.” 

How does positive psychology contribute to wellbeing on the work floor? 

“In general, people have a  ‘negativity bias’. This means that negativity receives more attention than positive things. That’s just how we’re wired. In prehistoric times, this was definitely functional, as it allowed you to anticipate danger: ‘Is there anything out there that’s a potential threat?’ Positive experiences are less urgent and don’t require immediate action. As a result, they often stay below our radar, and that’s why it’s good to deliberately focus on them. Of course you shouldn’t deny problems, but when it comes to something like a burnout it can really help to think about what someone’s strong suits are, what gives them energy and what can their employer do to provide more space in this respect? This may be key in solving the problem.”

Marianne van Woerkom

Other things that play a role are labor market shortages and social media: comparing yourself to someone else’s LinkedIn profile generally doesn’t make you happy

How has research on workplace wellbeing changed over the years?

“I’ve been conducting research for about twenty years now, the last decade of which I focused on workplace wellbeing. Research in the field of Positive Psychology emerged around the year 2000, so it’s a fairly young discipline. And it’s still developing. One of the things we’re currently researching is how people with autism, Asperger’s or ADHD experience working in an organization. They tend to concentrate exclusively on the negative differences compared to the average employee, because the environment puts a label on them that highlights their shortcomings and ignores the positive differences and strongpoints, such as their incredible focus and eye for detail.” 

Fact or fiction: “Work stress in our society is higher than ever.”  

“I agree there’s been a very high level of work stress in recent years. Research by TNO shows that in 2021, almost 1.3 million employees in the Netherlands were experiencing burnout-like symptoms. Work has always caused people stress of course, but there has been an increase due to several factors. There used to be more of a nine-to-five working ethic, but the boundaries between people’s work and private lives have become blurry due to the possibilities of working online. Other things that play a role are labor market shortages and social media: comparing yourself to someone else’s LinkedIn profile generally doesn’t make you happy. 

Think about what kind of work – and working environment – truly suits you and your qualities

TiU students are the next generation of employees. What can they do now to limit their work stress later on?

Get to know yourself really well. As you get older, you grow more aware of what you’re good at and what your weaknesses are. Many young people aren’t really prepared to accept those weaknesses. They want to keep their options open and perform across a wide spectrum, which is very stressful. Think about what kind of work – and working environment – truly suits you and your qualities. That way, you can avoid ending up in the wrong job. Choose in which areas you want to develop and ignore the rest. 

TiU aspires to everyone having the opportunity to use digital technologies and interventions to work on their wellbeing (psychological and otherwise) by 2030. Are we on the right path? 

I think so. And I also think young people are more aware of topics such as self-care. Psychological wellbeing has become a more accepted topic. Under pressure from the new generation and the labor market shortages, many employers have also taken an interest in their employees’ wellbeing. But all developments in the area of digitalization are a big challenge to this generation. 

Number one tip to prevent work stress

For employees
Write an instruction manual on yourself

Think about: what’s sure to give you stress? What do you like? What shouldn’t people say to you under any circumstances? And what do you want them to consult you about? If all employees within a department wrote such an instruction manual and then discussed it together, they would know how to treat each other and have an easier time meeting each other in the middle. 

For employers
Throw out the mold: look at everyone individually

Everyone’s different. Some deal with their roles differently than others. People are never a perfect fit for a mold (e.g. a vacancy text). Look at the person, and don’t keep harping on what’s not going well. Adapt the job to the person, not the other way around.