Ethics of Stress

Alarm clocks are barbaric. It's disturbing, to think of business people waking every morning to the sound of an alarm, because it's a symbol of how we lead our professional lives: in a state of alarm, fright, anxiety, and stress."Alarm" is from the French, meaning "to the arms." The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "A warning of danger, especially one given in such a way as to startle or arouse the unwary ... A state of surprise with terror ... To excite suspicion, to put on the alert." In its obsolete meaning, "alarm" meant an actual attack.So it is we begin our days: startled, suspicious, fearful, expecting attack. The alarm clock signals what the professional world will continue to signal throughout the day: danger, be alert.It comes with the territory of business. Few business people move through their days with contentment and ease, working with a spirit of relaxed pleasure. Most people I know live half their professional lives in a state or worry or rush. It's true not only of individuals, but of business at large. If Wall Street is the financial heart of business, it's a heart that is chronically stressed. If one were to take the collective pulse on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on any given day, I expect the results would be alarming.We do it to ourselves. There was a study by Cornell University a decade ago (I hope things have changed since) that found two out of three men wear collars too small for their necks. Judging by how many women I see on the streets, wearing sneakers with their suits, women's footwear is as bad as men's neckwear. And then there are the mountainous workloads. A 1995 study by Dale Carnegie Training found that, in a typical workday, 85 percent of people didn't finish everything they wanted to. Every day we feel pinched. And at night we go home guilty Why are we so hard on ourselves -- and each other?The question is more than academic, for as psychologist M. Scott Peck has pointed out, people under chronic stress tend to become less ethical. He uses the example of My Lai, the 1968 Vietnam incident when American troops gunned down an entire village of unarmed civilians herding them into groups and slaughtering them. Many factors were at work, Peck theorizes, but a key one was stress. After "a month of poor food, poor sleep, of seeing comrades killed or maimed," Peck wrote in People of the Lie, "the average soldier was more psychologically immature, primitive, and brutish than he might otherwise have been."Stress damages our moral selves. I see it in myself, when anxiety makes my anger explosive, or my judgments overly critical. When I'm anxious, the world seems cruel and I become more cruel. When we're harsh taskmasters to ourselves, we're harsh to others.I see it in companies, where financial stress can damage ethical judgment: like the time Beechnut was caught selling flavored sugar water as natural apple juice for infants. The company didn't do it deliberately. It simply bought from a vendor whose prices were miraculously low declining to inquire why.If we're searching for the source of poor ethics in business, we might begin by examining the chronic stress business people suffer. An equally important step is to begin believing we can live otherwise.I'm not alone in asking myself lately: Do I really want more and more money, or do I want a contented life? Do I want to work endlessly hard, or can I give myself permission to play more? I'd like to build my business by designing it from the inside out, the way Frank Lloyd Wright designed a building: considering first how the human beings inside will feel best, and letting the external structure evolve from that. Business exists for human beings, not vice versa. How did we get fooled into believing otherwise?In our fierce race toward financial success, maybe we're racing past what really matters. Our lives. The people we love. That delicious feeling of being calm, and focused, really enjoying the day's work. If I had one wish for business people -- including myself -- I'd wish we could all live more calmly, contentedly, playfully. I'd wish that we would wake each morning to look forward to a day without alarm.

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