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Feeling Tense? You're Probably Doing Your Job : Stress: As competition grows, so do workplace tensions. From boardroom to shop floor, everyone frets.

April 29, 1990|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Working harder? Working faster? Feeling tense? Does your job seem less like the livelihood you once enjoyed and more like the sure-fire formula for a stomach ulcer?

You're not alone.

A broad spectrum of the U.S. work force--from blue-collar workers to corporate chairmen, hospital nurses to flight attendants--struggles today with work that is faster, more tension-packed and, overall, more exhausting than it used to be.

"There are new pressures in the workplace, and they take a human cost," declares Harley Shaiken, a professor of work and technology at UC San Diego.

Work and pressure have always kept close company. But lately, certain realities have been pounding the lone employee harder than ever.

Foreign competition is an abstract concept--until the threat of a shutdown hovers over your factory. Even for highly paid executives, job security has eroded sharply in an era of merger mania. At all levels of the job ladder, millions of people struggle with the migraine-inducing balance between work and child-rearing.

Not surprisingly, job-related stress claims have skyrocketed. And if anything, the varied pressures facing workers will increase in the coming years.

"I don't think there's any question that this is going on, and it will continue, and it's going to accelerate," said Eric G. Flamholtz, a professor of management at UCLA.

Many U.S. manufacturers, for instance, now race faster than ever to be first out with new products, a key to surviving in the increasingly global economy. At home, decontrol of airlines and other industries has meant that flight attendants now must cater to more passengers per flight and pilots spend more hours maneuvering through crowded skies.

"It's a job that I don't know if I could start today," said Shirley Barber, an Irvine resident who has worked as a United Airlines flight attendant for 19 years.

The 1980s' vogue of carving bloated companies into lean-and-mean corporate machines has left a trail of confused, emaciated labor forces in its wake. At the top levels, executives struggle as hard as ever for profit gains but with less job security than ever before.

And everywhere, it seems, workers scramble to keep up with technology, such as computers and facsimile machines, that enables them to finish work and deliver it to impatient customers more quickly than ever.

Certainly, such pressures aren't all bad. "American industry doggone-right better start working harder if it's going to keep up with the rest of the world," said James McN. Stancill, a USC professor of finance.

Competition often results in lower prices and faster service. Higher living standards depend on productivity gains. And progress needn't always take a human toll: Experts agree that the biggest improvements in personal performance are attained when people work \o7 smarter \f7 and not just \o7 harder\f7 .

Feverish Pace

Only, the ideal of working smart isn't always met. The pressures to produce have transformed the climate of work in many places, creating "a feverish pace that seems to have emerged in the last three to five years," said Edward Sanford, chairman of Pepperdine University's economics, marketing and quantitative methods department. The stress level in business, he added, "is making life very obnoxious."

At Cache Computers in the San Francisco Bay Area, the key to survival is rushing high-tech products to market faster than rivals in Asia and the United States. For employees, that often means 12-hour days as well as strict deadlines imposed on subcontractors: The performance of suppliers can make a crucial difference in a product's profit.

Keeping up in the fast-paced world "is a little like trying to shoot ducks--and they're coming off the pond quicker, one after the other," observed Bill Fenley, vice president of sales and marketing at the Fremont firm.

Not that he's complaining. "We're all working harder, but at the same time, there's the thrill of victory when you know you've done a good job," Fenley said.

Unbridled competition is not all caused by the global economy. For many industries, operating inside the United States has gotten tougher. The deregulation movement, for instance, has subjected such once-stable industries as airlines, trucking, buses and telephone service to the jolt of new competition.

Employees feel it: For long-haul truckers, keeping to schedule has taken on new urgency. And airline employees--once the beneficiaries of predictable, secure employment--have gradually been squeezed harder by employers.

Consider flight attendants. At the time of 1978 airline deregulation, United Airlines' DC-10s were equipped with 242 seats and employed up to 10 flight attendants per flight. Since then, United and its rivals have packed more and more seats into their jetliners.

Today, it's not unusual for eight flight attendants to handle a United DC-10 with 287 seats. And that adds up to more bending, reaching, walking, stowing suitcases and other chores for a typical flight.

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