Stress at Work

We all feel stress at work from time to time, including you – I'm guessing that's why you're here. This page gives you pointers to:

  • Some of the real reasons you feel stressed at work, and why it can feel so bad
  • Some challenges to your current beliefs
  • Thoughts about how the balance of pressures, resources and autonomy affects how much stress you feel in the workplace
  • Thoughts about what you can do to reduce your work-related stress longer term
  • How to increase the meaning and purpose you find in your work and a better work-life balance.
  • Links to additional information

Why stress at work can feel so bad.

We all need to make a living. Ideally, we'll do this by undertaking fulfilling work that enables to express our creativity, values and purpose in life. Hopefully it will bring us some pleasure and enjoyment too, at least some of the time. But the reality is pretty different for most of us, most of the time – we can't all be...

...Warren Beatty,
who said...

In reality, you might have a much more mixed experience with your work. Perhaps you hate your boss and/or your job, and trudge in resentfully every day, spend your time there muttering under your breath, working flat out and running on adrenaline and caffeine.

Or, maybe you love your job but it has lots of pressures that you don't like. Perhaps you work for yourself, or for someone else at home and your stress at work is more about motivating yourself to get on with it.

But think about it; if you never have fun or enjoyment at work, what's up with that? How many hours a week do you spend there – and you say you are having no fun or pleasure? You need to rethink what you're doing.

Office politics can have an enormous impact on our wellbeing and general job satisfaction and hence our levels of stress at work, and dealing with organizational change can be a challenge if it's not handled well.

If you are very unfortunate you may even be subjected to workplace bullying, an evil that brings the supposedly "character building" traditions of school life into adult hood.

The point is though, that for all we may moan about stress in the workplace, when it comes down to it a huge part of why we put up with it is because we need to earn a living. And sometimes - maybe most of the time - it seems as though your current job or employer is the only way you can do that. But this is a matter of belief, and beliefs can be changed.

Don't agree with that? Well then the first belief you need to work on changing is the belief “beliefs can't be changed”.

Or maybe the one that says “it's not a belief, it's just the way things are”.

This perceived lack of choice is very debilitating, and you need to start to turn that thinking around, to increase your choices and reduce your stress at work.

Look around you, at the people who clearly feel differently about their work, whether they are singing happily through their shift at MacDonalds every day, or creating the business of their dreams out of nothing. Neither of these people is really that different from you. The real difference is that their beliefs are different to yours.

What's that?

You really
don't have
any choice?

You trained for
a gazillion years
and spent a
shed-load of money
training to do
this very job
and you can't just
give it up?

Hm. Well, you have my sympathy - up to a point.

I personally still spend up to 16 hours a week doing work for an organisation in which I have (at best) wavering faith and respect, and where I sometimes struggle to find meaning in the work I do.

However (and this is a big however) I am changing that. Not dramatically or suddenly, but slowly and steadily changing it - actively, currently, and profoundly. I am doing something different.

Some of this change can be seen by others, i.e. this website which I'm building, and some cannot, i.e. the fact that I am changing my beliefs - about myself, and about work.

And you can too.

Pressures, resources and autonomy

Much of the stress we feel (in any situation, not just work) is about the imbalance between the pressures on us on the one hand, and the resources and autonomy we have to meet those demands on the other.

For example if you are a nurse working flat out in A&E on a Friday night when all the rowdy drunks are in (pressures), but there's not enough of you on duty and no sign of the promised security guard (lack of resources) and you know the consultant won't be happy if you make certain decisions yourself (reduced autonomy), then you're pretty much a dead cert for work-related stress.

If you are that nurse, you really have been dealt a poor hand. Had the security guard been there, managing difficult patients, had there been more colleagues with whom you could not only share the workload, but also more support; had you by some miracle got the consultant to sit down with you and discuss which decisions and procedures you could make, in an open-minded and enabling way

... well, common sense tells you that your level of stress at work would be very different indeed.

Of course, all of this can be modified – to a greater or lesser extent, and for better or worse – by your own internal models (how you see things) plus your other resources, such as your level of optimism, your interpersonal and influencing skills, things like that; also cultivating stress-reducing habits such as mindfulness. These things make a real difference.

Some people will sail through that set of circumstances I just described, because of the way they see the world and they way they handle it. For them it comes naturally, while for the rest of it's a case of learning the attitudes and skills that will improve your life – and to keep working on them, consistently.

Without that, it's just the unholy trinity of too much pressure, lack of resources, and lack of autonomy – otherwise known as the Shift From Hell.

Meaning and Purpose

Finding meaning in your work is important to your sense of pride, and your sense that what you do matters, and that you are making a contribution to the world (if you are not interested in making a contribution to the world, you're probably on the wrong website – thanks for your time, and no hard feelings).

How disheartening then, if you have chosen a profession like nursing where you feel you should be able to make a real difference in people's lives, only to find that the working environment actually works against you doing that as well as you'd like.

I'm not saying this is applies to all nurses in all situations – but having worked as a carer myself (in both good and less good set-ups), and having also been the one checking that the boxes have been ticked, believe me I know of what I speak - and it is not ticking all the boxes that makes care and support services work well.

Rather, it is good people and organisations who bring meaning and a sense of purpose to their work that make genuinely caring services.

But you knew that already, didn't you?

When chasing the targets and tick boxes has taken over your sense of actually making a difference in people's live, your sense of purpose can be seriously eroded and it becomes harder to find that meaning again.

Work without meaning is just a physical or mental activity, without a clear guide – and that is stressful. As human beings we are wired for meaning, and to find that meaning (or to re-find it) in your working life will be all the easier, and your stress will be reduced, if you have a clear sense of purpose. Many people stumble blindly through life without a very clear sense of their purpose, but believe me getting clear on this will make a huge difference to how you feel about work.

Work-life balance

Work-life balance is a real buzz-phrase, but what does it actually mean? Generally, it seems to be about having enough time when you are not working so that you are able to enjoy your actual, real life. But isn't this a bit of a mean, ungenerous way to think about life and work? It's based on the assumption that work is not-life, not-fun, not-involving, not pleasurable, not enriching, while everything that is not-work is all of those things, or at least could/should be.

What if it were possible for your work to be so enjoyable, so fulfilling, that you didn't need such a sharp distinction between life and work? What if your work actually improved your relationships with others such as your family and friends? Naïve maybe; we are a long, long way from a world where all of us, or even a majority of us, are in this lucky place. But it may be more achievable than you think to quit your job and shift into something that makes you happier and that allows you to be more yourself.

Stress Management Techniques

To some extent we are fated to feel stressed, because our bodies and physiology are all geared up for a far more dangerous world than the one we live in, while at the same time our psyches are annoyingly good at making us believe that lots of stuff that we experience on a day-to-day basis actually is life-threatening.

This combination means that many of us are chronically over-stressed, and feeling the effects. So if nothing else, you definitely need some strategies for dealing with stress when it arises, whether you are at work or elsewhere. The best of these focus on bringing together the physical and the emotional, the energetic and the psychological.

If nothing else, develop some daily stress reduction practices, for the good of your health. Yoga, sports, creative pursuits, mindful mediation, all these things will help reduce your stress. But better than that, get to grips with your life purpose, the meaning work holds for you (or that you want it hold for you), and get some control over your responses in stressful situations, and you're a lot further down the road to a lower stress working life.

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