Creativity, stress, and health

When Disney acquired Pixar, in January 2006, Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, agreed to an explicit list of guidelines for protecting Pixar's creative culture. For instance, Pixar employees were able to keep their relatively plentiful health benefits and were not forced to sign employment contracts. He even stipulated that the sign on Pixar's front gate would remain unchanged.

Two years after the acquisition some analysts were surprised that it was working successfully:

How Disney and Pixar are making the integration work holds lessons for other executives faced with the delicate task of uniting two cultures. Tactics that have served the companies well include the obvious, like communicating changes to employees effectively. Other decisions, including drawing up an explicit map of what elements of Pixar would not change, have been more unusual.

Many organizations want to either keep the creative culture that they have or create one if they don't have one as creativity is seen as an organizational asset. But are there downsides? A summary of some recently published research suggests there are:

The demands associated with creative work activities pose key challenges for workers, according to new research out of the University of Toronto that describes the stress associated with some aspects of work and its impact on the boundaries between work and family life.

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 (emails, texts, calls) outside of normal work hours;
• In turn, people who experience these job-related pressures engage in more frequent "work-family multitasking" — 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 multitasking result in more conflict between work and family roles – a central cause of problems for functioning in the family/household domain.

According to Schieman (the lead researcher), "these stressful elements of creative work detract from what most people generally see as the positive sides of creative job conditions. And, these processes reveal the unexpected ways that the work life can cause stress in our lives -stress that is typically associated with higher status job conditions and can sometimes blur the boundaries between work and non-work life."

Other researchers' findings, however, find that creative activity helps people stay healthy,

… "said lead author John Mirowsky, a sociology professor with the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. "Creative activity is non-routine, enjoyable and provides opportunity for learning and for solving problems. People who do that kind of work, whether paid or not, feel healthier and have fewer physical problems."

So maybe creativity is emotionally stressful but physically beneficial? It's difficult to tell. Thinking about this I turned to Gerd Gigerenzer's book Reckoning with Risk. He discusses three situations which research reports like the above throw up: the illusion of certainty, risk communication, and drawing conclusions from numbers.

Since I don't know enough about the specifics of the two pieces of research it's tempting to take the summaries at face value – but would it be 'a good thing' to, say, design creative work environments which aimed to maintain stress within tolerable levels (whatever these might be) and maximize physical health. Reading Gigerenzer's books suggests that healthy skepticism and a clear understanding of the limitations and generalizability of research are useful tools to have to hand when doing organization design work.