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Article | August 31, 1997
Engineers paid well to handle changes (sidebar)
Do companies increasingly push individuals' limits?
My reaction to reading the first drafts of our salary survey reports was to note a seeming incongruity: packaging people expressing contentment with most aspects of their jobs when asked about "satisfaction" yet detailing their frustrations in verbatim comments. In other words I heard them saying that the rewards even their workplace tools like decision-making abilities were satisfactory but company conditions especially the demands by superiors made doing their jobs more difficult.
About the same time I came across a review of a new book Margin: Restoring Emotional Physical Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Dr. Richard Swenson of the University of Wisconsin Medical School (Navpress). Much of this study could-and I emphasize could-have come from talking with and treating the packaging people who responded to Packaging World's salary and job satisfaction survey. It's important to understand however that the survey itself solicited specific comments about what our readers would do if they had more time as well as identifying the causes for not having the time to do them.
Dr. Swenson's thesis is that many American workers have become so overburdened with responsibilities they expend all their energies to meet them. For years he treated patients who experienced real pains that could not easily be traced. These patients complained of exhaustion anxiety and stress that he describes as "the psychic instability that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit."
Beyond prescribing drugs to ward off depression and illness he observed that "somewhere the equation has broken down. Food plus health plus warmth plus education plus affluence have not quite equaled Utopia." Prosperity and peace and new technologies are today falling short of helping these people reach the same good feelings that our parents and grandparents enjoyed. What we're no longer achieving is what he calls "the margin" in our lives.
Dr. Swenson describes that margin as "the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits" the buffer most people maintain between how much they give and how much they have in terms of emotional strength physical energy and intellectual capacity. It's best illustrated by a few minutes of downtime between appointments or the seven or eight hours of sleep needed to refresh. It's the "cushion" that today may be dissipated by a traffic jam on the way to a meeting or an unexpected machine failure or a spare part that doesn't arrive as scheduled.
Today he believes many workers regularly "spend" these reserves in responding to spontaneous crises that require instantaneous energy and attention. Too often we use up these reserves on a daily basis being pushed to our limits at work at home and in the community. Our margin he says is regularly being sacrificed on the altar of progress. He believes that each of us has a threshold of the number of details we can handle. However the spontaneous nature of our culture "inexorably adds detail to our lives: one more option one more problem one more commitment one more expectation. . . one more change one more decision." The result is that we deal with "more things per person" than at any time in history. While physical limits are easy to recognize and OSHA helps many companies keep watch performance limits are not.
Dr. Swenson believes the syndrome of "overload" is unprecedented and that history books will need to create a new vocabulary to describe why in an average lifetime an American today spends eight months opening junk mail five years waiting in lines three years in meetings and must learn how to operate 20 different devices. Right now the average person is interrupted 73 times every day.
The goal for individuals Dr. Swenson says is to restore margin the opposite of overload to our lives. He suggests that we increase our margin by adding an extra 20% to our time expectations minimizing technology that is superfluous or exacerbates stress while scheduling more breaks and striving to get less done but more of the right tasks. That last point includes helping to cultivate social supports becoming vigilant about the need for rest creating appropriate boundaries (including saying "no" when appropriate). All of these emanate from rearranging priorities in one's life.
Much of what Dr. Swenson reveals is pure common sense: Expend your energies your time your intellectual efforts at what's really important and what will make your life better. Although this may be easier to implement away from work in situations over which we have more control the mere recognition of the problem coupled with realistic attempts to solve it may give us a "margin" of success.
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