In his classic, “The Prophet,” Kahlil Gibran writes: “Always you have been told that work is a curse … But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born.”
Unfortunately Kahlil’s words don’t jibe with a new Australian study that found almost one in six cases of depression among working people caused by job stress, that nearly one in five (17 percent) working women suffering depression attribute their condition to job stress and more than one in eight (13 percent) working men. In the last decade, the number of American workers that say job stress is a major problem in their lives has doubled. In fact, the US Department of Health reported that 70 percent of physical and mental complaints at work are related to stress.
What do we do? Bring our Kleenex to work and hope we don’t get caught crying, or give our notice with no other job in reach? Thankfully, we have a few steps between these two extremes. Here are 12 techniques that have helped me manage the work blues.
1. Don’t quit yet.
Let me just say this first. Chances are higher that you will feel worse if you quit than if you keep on showing up to a job that you hate. Why? If you’re not working, you will have even more time to think about how much you hated your job. On top of the acute anxiety you feel when you think about how you are going to pay off your next phone, electric, and mortgage bill without the regular paycheck being deposited automatically into your bank account. And then there’s the isolation of having no one to talk to during the day, because … one small detail … everyone else is working. So just sit tight until you read through like ten of these before you gladly give your notice, okay?
2. Learn some calming techniques.
You know what’s cool about most relaxation techniques? You can do them AS you are listening to your boss give you your next assignment. Let’s say, as he is telling you that he hired a nice woman half your age that you now report to, that you suddenly feel lots of tight pressure in your shoulders–naturally, because you have the desire to slug him. You relax your shoulders in a way that relieves some of that tension and tells your body that slugging him isn’t an option (right now, anyway).
Then, as you walk back to your desk, where the kid right out of college hands you five assignments due by the end of the day, you can take ten deep breaths: counting to four as you inhale and to four million as you exhale. If you are allowed to listen to music or noise at work (or if you work from your home as I do), you might want to invest in a CD of ocean waves. Whenever I listen to mine, I take a few seconds to visualize myself on the sandy beach of Siesta Key, Florida, hunting for sea shells, a short moment to catch my sanity.
3. Turn the thing off.
I’m not talking about your sex drive, although if you’re depressed, chances are that that’s off, too. I mean your BlackBerry or iPhone, or at least the “ding” noise alerting you to every new (URGENT) e-mail that you don’t think drives you crazy but does. Trust me. When you turn it off for a day–even commit to a weekend without it!–you will see that it is responsible for a sizable chunk of your madness.
It’s ironic that very technological advances that were supposed to free us end up imprisoning us to our work, argues integrative doctor Roberta Lee in her astute book “The Superstress Solution.” In her introduction, she cites a recent survey commissioned by Support.com: 40 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds said they couldn’t cope without their cell phone, yet the same students reported less stress and had lower heart rates and blood pressure when they stopped using them for three days.
You need not join the monastery. Just try turning the thing off for a few evenings and see how you feel.
4. Make a schedule, and stick to it.
Yes, I’m a tad obsessive-compulsive, but I can feel the stress in me rise and want to explode if I don’t have a handy dandy schedule in front of me that I can follow. No one gives it to me. I make it up, and therein lies its power–I am taking control back in to my own anxious hands! So, upon getting five assignments due the same week from a supervisor, I do the panic dance for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I take out my work calendar and start nailing down my deadlines. Assignment One needs to be done by lunchtime on Tuesday. Assignment Two needs to be done by Thursday morning, so that I have two full days to complete Assignment Three before the week is over. Get it? Things don’t run that smoothly, of course, but by breaking down the goals or tasks into manageable bites, I stress less and produce more.
5. Improve your working conditions.
As a highly sensitive person, I can’t work in certain atmospheres. I need a window … and proper lighting … and an assistant who will fetch me ice-tea whenever I want, with lemon and not too much ice (kidding on that). But there are simple ways you can improve even the most sterile and miserable working conditions: putting a nice plant in your cubicle, hanging or framing personal photos (a recent study say that looking at pictures of loved ones reduces pain), using a 10,000 lux daylight balanced light (a lamp used for seasonal affective disorder, but doesn’t look any differently than an average desk light). Keeping a clean desk will also help you feel less overwhelmed. I’m not going to say anything further on that. If you’ve ever seen my desk you know why.
6. Get a life. Outside of work.
If I were to name the single most important lesson I learned inside the psych ward, it would be this: to get a life outside of work. You see, pre-psych ward, I invested all of my self-esteem into my profession. Thus, each career flop set me back a considerable chunk. If a book bombed, so too did my self-confidence. My goal leaving the inpatient psych program in 2006 was to get a life and to sustain that life.
I’m doing better today. I swim in a masters program. I joined a book group. I’m involved with a moms’ group at the kids’ school. None of these things are related to my job. I have met a whole other set of friends aside from my fellow bloggers, editors, and writers. This gives me some cushion and insurance for the days I get crappy traffic numbers and red royalty statements, as well as inviting me to join the human race on the days I can’t produce a single thing.
7. Get into the (right) zone.
No doubt you’re behind at work and feel like no matter how much you get done the day before, you always begin the next day at the foot of a mountain. You may very well have more work than is humanly possible for one person to accomplish. However, according to Elisha Goldstein, psychologist and author of the meditative CD “Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work,” identifying the four zones of your work day can help you do your job in less time, which will lower your stress.
This “Attention Zones Model” was developed by Rand Stagen of the Stagen’s Leadership Academy, who maintains that during our day, we are in one of four zones: a reactive zone, a proactive zone, a distracted zone, or a waste zone. The goal is to stay out of the distracted and waste zones: responding to unimportant calls and emails or killing time by surfing the web, etc. Explains Goldstein: “The cultivation of mindful awareness allows you to nonjudgmentally name what is happening right now, and turn your attention to your top priorities in the moment.”
8. Get some guidance.
Whenever I back myself into a professional rut, I call up my mentor, Mike Leach, and ask him what I should do. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to vent to him about all my insecurities, fears, resentments, and confusion. He helps me lay them all out, analyze them, sort them, and then put them back together in proper order. Moreover, he offers the objective view that I need in that moment. And because he knows my history and personality quirks, he can better guide me toward a decision or plan. Usually it’s to sit tight for a few days and wait for my PMS to blow over.
You need not have a mentor like I do to get guidance. You might want to blab to a good friend, a parent, a sibling, or a co-worker. Just make sure to choose someone wise who will be able to share an objective and enlightened perspective.
9. Ask yourself: Is this toxic?
There certainly are work situations you want to leave. I should have left my first “real job” sooner. After being cut down every day for nine months, my self-esteem plunged to below sea level, and it took me years to build up my self-confidence. In her book, “Toxic Work,” Barbara Bailey Reinhold writes: “The syndrome of toxic work overtakes you when what’s happening to you at work causes protracted bouts of distress, culminating in emotional suffering or physical symptoms and heightened by the perceived inability to stop the pain and move on to find or create a more rewarding situation.”
Again, this is where a mentor or advisor of some sort is very helpful. He may be able to identify some possible solutions within your toxic work situation, or he may provide you with the motivation and support you need to leave.
10. Identify burnout.
One of the ways we become more resilient in our work environments, argues psychologist Robert Wicks, is by identifying the levels of burnout in our jobs. In his book, “Bounce: Living the Resilient Life,” Wicks lists the symptoms of work burnout: frustration, apathy, helplessness, impatience, cynicism, a significant decline in one’s professional self-esteem and confidence, feeling overwhelmed, and being unable to experience pleasure.
A person who is experiencing level-one burnout may experience mild symptoms here and there. At the second level, the symptoms become more regular and acute. By the third level, the person’s symptoms are chronic and some kind of physical illness has usually developed. Wicks argues that we need to take preventative measures and identify the first two levels of burnout in our work, because once we cross the third level, recovery entails considerable time and effort.
11. Take a break.
Guess how many Americans took two weeks of vacation last year? A measly 14 percent. Huffington Post blogger Keri Henley lists some other surprising statistics in her post “Why Americans Are the Worst Vacationers”: Even though Europeans work 300 fewer hours than Americans (most get between four and six weeks of paid vacation), the level of productivity per worker is the same, or slightly higher than ours; and 137 other countries are ahead of us in guaranteeing at least some vacation time. Writes Henley: “Vacations are not just luxuries, or pithy pastimes for the rich. Statistics are showing that other countries who take regular vacations are happier, and live longer than we do.”
Vacations protect us from job burnout. Often times we emerge from a break with a new perspective that can help us navigate through the maze of impending deadlines. Whenever I shut down for a few weeks, I always come back to the page with a clearer mission and renewed passion.
12. Go with your gut.
In her book, “Listen: Trusting Your Inner Voice in Times of Crisis,” author Lynn Robinson coaches us on how to identify our intuitive voice, or gut feeling. She tells us to pay attention to body signals: Excitement, enthusiasm, and energy all say “Go for it, Girlfriend!” Boredom, anxiety, and resentment mark a dead end. In one of her exercises, Robinson instructs us to imagine ourselves having made a decision that we are deliberating on today. Once we have made the decision, how do we feel? Excited? Nauseous? Then she tells us to imagine ourselves a year from the time we made our decision. Are we glad we made that decision? Has our life improved? How are we feeling? What do our friends and family say?
Along these lines, I think anything we can do to identify and hear our gut instinct is going to help us out of our rut. We may never love our jobs or whistle at work (you know people who do that, right?), but we may increase our odds of finding some satisfaction and fulfillment in the hours we sit in front of a computer or a supervisor.