America's Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted

Stress Management

Story at-a-glance -

  • Workplace policies in the US still overwhelmingly favor a “male breadwinner-homemaker” family model, even though many households have two earners or women as the primary breadwinners
  • The antiquated 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act only protects hourly workers (who must be paid overtime once they hit 40 hours a week). There is no such protection for salaried workers, who presumably can be worked until they drop
  • The US lags far beyond most other developed countries in terms of work-life balance; the European Union, for instance, limits work hours by laws, while others require paid leave when children are born, fostered, or adopted
  • Companies can help relieve employee burnout by offering flexible hours, telecommute options, and wellness options in the workplace

By Dr. Mercola

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion a year; and a Workplace Survey done by the American Psychological Association reported that many Americans suffer from chronic work-related stress.1

The effects of our increasingly 24/7 work environments have gotten so bad that 38 percent of employees in one survey said they can't stop thinking about problems related to emotional, health, financial, and job concerns.2

If you ask those around you – your co-workers, friends, neighbors, and family – what they've been up to lately, there's a good chance you'll get a chorus of "busy" responses, a rattled off list of obligations and to-dos that we all scarcely have time for.

Yet, such busyness is valued in many cultures, including in the US where workers are increasingly expected to be on call both day and night. The implications this has on family life, leisure time, and personal health is immense, a topic that was recently explored in an intriguing Atlantic interview.3

Why Are US Workers So Overwhelmed?

In an interview with the Atlantic, writer Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, explained that birth rates are actually declining in the US, as young people simply don't see how they can juggle both work and family life, with the latter being ultimately sacrificed.

Busyness and "living a fast-paced life" are increasingly being viewed as signs of status. The more e-mails you have to check in a day, the more important you are. The more meetings you attend, phone calls you receive, and lessons your child attends, the better. On the work front, especially, extreme hours are valued and overwork has become the norm.

This has a tremendous impact on your quality of life outside of work, of course, as many are unable to fully disconnect from work, unwind and pursue valuable leisure pursuits. As Schulte explained:

"…overwork has really become pervasive. I'm not talking about hard work. I'm all for hard work that we find meaning in. But overwork leaves us burned out and disengaged butts in chairs at work and fried at home without the energy to do much more than flop down in front of the boob tube.

Not quite the leisure the ancient Greek philosophers had in mind when they said pure leisure was that place where we both refreshed the soul and become most fully human.

…Against that backdrop comes technology and the ability to be connected 24/7 – which leads to a feeling of constantly being 'on call,' that you can never quite get away from work, that the boundaries that used to keep work more contained have bled and spilled over into the hours of the day that used to be for family, for self, for leisure, for sleep."

Workplace Expectations and Laws Are Stuck in the 1950s – and Earlier

Workplace policies in the US still overwhelmingly favor a "breadwinner-homemaker" family model, with the man still typically viewed as the primary earner. Working mothers, in particular, are bearing the brunt of this often-unconscious bias, as there are no national policies in place (nor many supportive workplace cultures) to help women juggle both work and home.

This isn't to say that fathers aren't overwhelmed, too. They are, particularly since many have abandoned the 1950s idea of the "absent father" and are taking on larger roles at home and in child-raising. In fact, in 40 percent of US households with children under 18, women are the single or primary breadwinners. The workforce is changing, as are the needs of modern families, but few workplaces have followed suit. According to Schulte:

"All you have to do is look at some fascinating work done by consulting companies, when they ask CEOs and top managers at companies around the world who they think the best employees are, more than three-fourths have said: the worker without any family or caregiving responsibilities. In other words, the distant father provider of the 1950s.

I say father because social science has found that married men with kids actually earn more money—what they call a 'fatherhood bonus'—because the workplace culture assumes this man will now work harder because he has a family to support.

…That same social science finds a motherhood penalty—a pay gap that can't be explained by anything other than the fact that the woman has children, another sign of the consequences of our society's ambivalence about working mothers… Even the way we pose our questions is stuck in the 1950s.

Our family lives, family structures and the workforce has changed utterly in the last half century, and yet our workplaces, the policies everyone knows look nice on the books but are the kiss of death to take, our laws, and our attitudes have yet to catch up with our reality. That's where the swirl of 'the overwhelm' begins."

The issue goes beyond juggling work and home to the antiquated 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which only protects hourly workers (who must be paid overtime once they hit 40 hours a week). There is no such protection for salaried workers, who presumably can be worked until they drop. Even the 40-hour workweek is in drastic need of a 21st century overhaul…

"…the 40-hour workweek is an artifact of the manufacturing age; it was the amount of time Henry Ford discovered he could push his manual laborers on his assembly lines before they'd get so tired they'd make costly mistakes," Schulte said.

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Bright Spots on the Horizon

Is there hope that the US culture of overwork and overwhelm will change? There are some bright spots on the horizon, according to Schulte, who pointed out that Millennials – the generation who by definition believes they're entitled to have it all – are increasingly entering the workforce, forcing some changes among old-fashioned cultures.

Baby Boomers are staying on longer in the workforce as well, but many are growing tired with 90-hour workweeks, which means "there's pressure from the top end to change as well." There are other potential changes as well that are far more human-friendly:

  • Some states, including California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, now have state-paid parental leave policies
  • Certain cities are passing tax incentives to companies that promote telework and flexible work hours
  • Other cities are exploring "right to request" flexible work laws, a program that has already been successfully implemented in the UK (it gives employees the right to put together a plan to get their work done in a flexible way that an employer must accept as long as it won't hurt the business)

It should be noted that as far as work-life balance goes, the US lags far behind most other developed countries. The European Union, for instance, limits work hours by laws, while others require paid leave when children are born, fostered, or adopted. Denmark gives "nurture days" to workers with younger children so they can take time off to go to school plays, doctor appointments, and parent-teacher conferences – events that often get missed by US workers.

Wellness in the Workplace Matters

This overwork comes at a price to US companies as workers suffer from increasing stress- and overwork-related health problems. Private companies spend close to $45 billion a year in employee-related medical expenses.4 It's a financial burden many companies can no longer bear. Chronically sick employees can be crippling to businesses, both large and small, and can even lead to layoffs, company closures, and bankruptcy. In the end, everybody suffers. Establishing flexible work hours helps, but so too does establishing company wellness programs that encourage and support healthy lifestyle choices among employees. They can help to empower employees by offering simple tools that focus on preventative health. Below is an example of the type of benefits that we offer our employees at

  1. Fitness Programs
    • Onsite gym with a variety of workout equipment and free-weights
    • Fitness classes for yoga, high intensity interval and strength training
    • Onsite trainers and class instructors to help employees customize their workouts
    • Paid off-site gym membership
    • Organized office team sports and activities: bowling, softball, group walks during breaks, bicycling, weekend hikes, etc.
    • Encourage staff to use the stairs instead of taking the elevator
    • Provide a secure site for bicycles to encourage cycling commuters
  2. Healthy Work Place Food Choices
    • Cater office lunches by local health food stores providing organic foods
    • Offer gift certificates to local organic restaurants and/or health food stores
    • Provide organic tea and coffee
    • Replace processed food and soda vending machine choices with sparkling/mineral water, nuts, dried fruits, and other healthier choices
  3. Educational Seminars and Classes (At Lunch or After Hours)
    • Offer classes by local chefs on how to prepare healthy meals, preparing proper food portions, and how to create healthy snacks
    • Offer educational courses by local experts and/or authors on specific related topics, such as:

    Comprehensive weight loss program leading to sustainable lifestyle changes How healthy foods improve hormonal balance
    How to avoid and reverse diabetes How healthy foods and natural hygiene improve dental health
    Risks of a fast food diet Foods associated with allergies and migraines
    What are the best types of dairy products? Stress management strategies
    How fluoride in water affects health Infant and child wellness, including risks vs. benefits of vaccines

  4. Mental and Emotional Tune-ups
    • Onsite health clinics offering chiropractic, physical therapy, chair massage, nutritionists, etc.
    • Discounts or free services provided by an alliance of off-site specialist
    • Employee Assistant Program providing confidential access for employees and their immediate family members to professional counseling services for short-term help in confronting such personal challenges as: alcohol and other substance abuse, marital and family difficulties, financial or legal issues, and emotional distress
    • Also provide appropriate referrals to community and private services for long-term challenges

Are You on the Verge of Burnout? 8 Stress-Busting Tips

If you feel your job has you trapped and unable to come up for air, you have a couple of options. One, consider looking for another job, or at least taking the steps necessary (ongoing classes, licenses, training, etc.) to prepare yourself for a career change. If that's not practical, consider asking for flexible hours, telecommuting, or other adaptations to make your work more manageable (even small changes, like a more ergonomic workstation, can make a difference).

As far as managing your day-to-day stress goes (and this is the kind that can quickly lead to burnout), after you've gone to work, finished your errands or household chores and gotten your kids to bed, many are simply too tired to think about stress relief, so they zone out to mindless entertainment or social media and go to bed feeling frazzled and anxious… and not surprisingly start off the next day feeling much the same. It's a vicious cycle, but one that's easily broken by turning stress management into a habit. You needn't devote hours to stress relief every day. Instead, you'll find that activities you already do can work wonders for calming your nerves, especially if you make a commitment to doing them on most days of the week. Try…

1. Exercise

Exercise affects a neurotransmitter that has an antidepressant-like effect on your brain while helping to decrease muscle tension.5 Exercise also guards against the adverse physical effects of stress. During periods of high stress, those who exercised less frequently had 37 percent more physical symptoms than those who exercised more often.6

2. Spend More Time in Nature

Going outdoors helps to relieve your stress naturally, with research showing levels of the stress hormone cortisol lower in those who live in areas with the most green space, as are their self-reported feelings of stress.7 Even five minutes in nature can help reduce stress and boost your mood.

3. Focus on Your Breathing

Learning to breathe mindfully can modify and accelerate your body's inherent self-regulating physiological and bioenergetic mechanisms. These changes are in large part due to the fact that you're oxygenating your body properly as well as correcting your internal and energetic balance, and it has a direct impact on your nervous system. Ideally, you should be breathing primarily through your nose. Learning a simple technique called Buteyko breathing can help you restore normal and beneficial breathing patterns.

4. Participate in Activities You Enjoy

Engaging in a hobby gives you crucial time to play and simply enjoy yourself. A hobby can take your mind off of stress and adds more much-needed fun to your life.

5. Eat Right

Schedule time to eat without rushing, and make sure to maintain optimal gut health by regularly consuming fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables, or taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. Plenty of scientific evidence now shows that nourishing your gut flora with the friendly bacteria within fermented foods or probiotics is extremely important for proper brain function, including psychological well-being and mood control.

6. Stay Positive

This is a learned technique that can lead to a more joyful life and likely much better health, as those who are optimistic have an easier time dealing with stress, and are more inclined to open themselves up for opportunities to have positive, regenerative experiences. Try keeping a list of all that you're grateful for and make a commitment to stop any negative self-talk.

7. Stay Connected

Loneliness can be a major source of stress, so make a point to connect with those around you – even a quick chat while in line at the grocery store. Work your way up to volunteering, attending community events, meeting acquaintances for coffee, or taking a class to meet others with like interests.

8. Take a Break or Meditate

Taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly and shut out the chaos around you can trigger your relaxation response.8 Meditating during your breaks can help you to decrease feelings of stress and anxiety even more.