Stress at work comes in all shapes and sizes: overwork, sniping colleagues, threatened layoffs, or a boss from hell can raise your cortisol levels and make you crazy. In a study by Northwestern National Life, 40 percent of respondents found their job “very or extremely stressful” and a quarter of them called it the number one stressor in their lives.
What's a poor worker to do? To learn the best strategies for combatting stress, we turned to psychologist Robert Leahy, PhD, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, and author of The Worry Cure.
The first question we asked is can an an old dog learn these new tricks? You bet. “If you've practiced a habit a long time, it becomes stronger,” Leahy says. But at midlife, you may already have the arsenal to shoot that bad habit down. Say you're boss is obnoxious. “Ask yourself if you've been able to cope with other obnoxious people, like your best friend's husband who's a jerk. If the answer is yes, you have the skills. You just have to do the work.”
Stressor #1: Too much to do. It's a way-too-familiar plaint in these days of downsized staffs. “A lot of jobs are set up today with more work than there is time to do,” Leahy says, pointing out that this can be a double-barrel stressor. You can't complete all your assignments and suddenly it's not just your boss's expectations you're not living up to -- you're not living up to your own beliefs about your capabilities.
Remedy: Step one is to normalize your experience, by understanding that you're not alone: more people than ever are facing the issue of overwork. Step two is to become your own efficiency expert. “Part of your stress may be that you're not working efficiently.” Leahy recommends making a list of on-task behaviors like placing calls, sending emails, or getting documents together, and another list of off-task behaviors like Googling things and emailing friends. “Do a realistic assessment. If you're spending two hours a day off task, that means you're not working 12 weeks a year.” Put a Post-It on your computer screen Stay on Task. “This doesn't mean you never goof off. Goof-off time can help you deal with stress. So give yourself a 10-minute reward when you've finished a project,” Leahy suggests, likening it to dessert only after you've eaten your broccoli. Steps one and two may resolve the problem, but if you're still running behind and tearing your hair out, Leahy says you may need to talk to your boss: “Manage upward in a diplomatic way to manage expectations” by setting priorities and creating a plan that maximizes productivity.
Stressor #2: Fear of being fired. “The labor force has changed dramatically. No longer can people expect to work at the same place for 40 years. Consequently, the stress is, 'Will I become obsolete?' That's a realistic concern.” Leahy says.
Remedy: “Always think about how you can make sure people know you're adding value,” Leahy says. How? By being an innovator in your job, bringing new skills and new ideas. Acquiring skills adds confidence and reduces stress: so does expanding your network. “The wider your network, the more options you have,” Leahy says. Remember, there are two parts to this remedy, which doesn't work if you only do one. Not only must you innovate and add skills; make sure, too, that your boss sees the value you're adding.
Stressor #3: You want to be loved and cared for at work. This one may surprise you, but Leahy has found that many people have unrealistic expectations: “They think they'll get their intimacy needs met at the office,” he says, adding, “The reason they call it work is because you get paid and you probably wouldn't do it for free. The boss doesn't want to be your best friend, hear about your problems or be supportive.”
Remedy: “Remember that you're going to the office, not a friend's house to talk.” You have to develop a business-is-business approach, Leahy says, and learn not to expect deep friendships and intimacy at work. “If you get appreciated, you're lucky. If not, that doesn't mean it's terrible. Work is not therapy. Ask yourself, 'Am I in the family domain, the friends domain or the work domain?'”
Stressor #4: Work isn't fair. People get hung up over actions and decisions they feel are unfair and it stresses them out.
Remedy: Think of work as a game. Which alliances do I want to make? How can I talk to my coworkers to advance the game? What skills do I need to practice to be more effective? “I grew up in a tough working class neighborhood. My view of an unfair game is not that you can't win, you just have to learn how to play. You take hits, you bounce back. You set strategies,” Leahy says. He's found that game theory works wonders to quell work stress among his patients.
Stressor #5: Work is the be-all, end-all. Leahy finds that with some of his patients, work gets elevated to the meaning of life. What happens there overshadows everything else. “It's like going to Vegas and putting all your money on one number.”
Remedy: “You have to accept that it's only work. At the end of the day, leave it at the office. Don't spend nights and weekends ruminating about your job.” Leahy recommends setting limits: if you must be on call on weekends, check your email a couple of times a day, not incessantly. Interestingly, one of the best ways to neutralize work stress is to build a good life outside the office. “Get enough sleep, work on relationships with family and friends. Craft leisure time you enjoy. Get exercise. Reduce or eliminate drinking.”
Stressor #6: Distorted thinking. When “should” thoughts dominate, stress skyrockets. “I shouldn't have to do this.” “Things should always be fair.” “I should be doing a perfect job.” “I should never find work boring.” “I should be happy all the time.”
Remedy: Write down what you're thinking when you're upset. Then give it a blast of reality. Challenge your statements by putting them in perspective. When you think it's catastrophic that you have to work on a weekend (“I shouldn't have to”), realize that it's not the end of the world. “What's truly awful is the Holocaust, or being burned over 80% of your body,” Leahy says. Once you demote working on a weekend from catastrophe to inconvenience, you're on your way to a calmer state of mind.