Feels Like a Grind? Stress Implications of Creative Work

What’s happening to those people who have been described by Richard Florida as the “creative class” and who have been — according to the urban theorist’s global best-selling book — on the rise: Growing in number, social scale and influence on how today’s and tomorrow workplace will look like.
This was in 2003. Florida then traced the fundamental theme that for him ran through a host of seemingly unrelated changes in American society: the growing role of creativity in our economy. That sounded good, and almost like a good way out of what another academic, Stanford University Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, calls the “Toxic Workplace.” According to his research, we can observe a significant trend in today’s work environments with overwork and job stress leading to increases in smoking, alcohol abuse and high blood pressure, while layoffs contribute to depression, violence, and even lowered life expectancy.
The “disease” of the time, which is a time of dramatically accelerating change, economic pressure and increasing psychological stress, is a phenomenon called burnout. The less freedom to set our own work pace that we have, the less self-direction we have in defining what we want to do, the less choices we have, and the less autonomy we have in our work environment, the more emotional exhaustion, occupational indifference and diminished competence we can observe.
The so-called creative class, the people working in more stimulating and creative environments, in self-directed teams or on their own at their own chosen speed, therefore, should not be infected by the ubiquitous burnout virus. All wrong, as we now learn from Sociology professor Scott Schieman from the University of Toronto, who recently published his research findings in Social Sciences Research and looked at the demands and the stress implications of creative work.
Schiemann and his team measured the extent to which people engaged in creative work activities using data from a national survey of more than 1,200 American workers. They asked participants questions like How often do you have the chance to learn new things? How often do you have the chance to solve problems? How often does your job allow you to develop your skills or abilities? And, How often does your job require you to be creative? They used responses to these questions to create an index that they label “creative work activities.” In their publication, the authors describe three core sets of findings:

  • People who score higher on the creative work index are more likely to experience excessive job pressures, feel overwhelmed by their workloads, and more frequently receive work-related contact (e-mails, texts, calls) outside of normal work hours;

  • In turn, people who experience these job-related pressures engage in more frequent “work-family multi-tasking” — that is, they try to juggle job- and home-related tasks at the same time while they are at home;

  • Taken together, these job demands and work-family multi-tasking result in more conflict between work and family roles — a central cause of problems for functioning in the family/household domain

In his book from 2003, Richard Florida concluded that “It is time for the creative class to grow up — boomers and Xers, liberals and conservatives, urbanites and suburbanites — and evolve from an amorphous group of self-directed while high-achieving individuals into a responsible, more cohesive group interested in the common good.” It took just seven years for this group to evolve into one that is suffering from burnout while balancing the demands of work and life.