What is Job Stress?

Having a stressful job and experience job stress are two entirely separate things. A job which is stressful may mean that it is high intensity (such as an air traffic controller), that critical decisions have to be made (like a caseworker for social services), that long hours are involved (the 24-hour shifts of firefighters), or that quotas are set for output (a worker on a factory production line). But a well-trained worker, supported and praised by her superiors, and especially one who has a say in her own working conditions, may thoroughly enjoy her job and never feel that she is suffering from job stress.

Job stress only occurs when working conditions are such that a worker becomes overwhelmed, discouraged because she is made to feel incompetent or worthless. Or when she has little say about her working conditions feels constantly threatened with criticism or even job loss.

Job stress is more likely to occur in those who have other stressors in their lives-marital difficulties, deaths in the family, problems with children, and health issues. Although, for some, quite the reverse is true. For them, the work setting provides a marvelous escape from problems at home and a rare chance to be treated with respect and gratitude.

What Happens When We Are Stressed on the Job?

The first thing we notice when dealing with job stress notice is that we are more irritable and even very angry. At first we may try harder to please, but when those efforts are met with further disparagement, we begin to give up or slack off, drawing more negative attention to ourselves. We find ourselves complaining to co-workers and with each complaint our own attitude becomes more and more negative. We feel powerless to change our situation. Financial pressures and family obligations keep us in intolerable job situations. Instead of becoming problem solvers, we become problem seekers-always looking for another example of maltreatment, often documenting the offenses late into the night.

The top sources of stress are personality conflicts with a supervisor or coworker, an unreasonable job load, sexual harassment or racial discrimination, lack of flexibility in work hours, and having no say over working conditions.

What Are the Three A\’s in Dealing with Job Stress?

There are only three choices when you are experiencing job stress. We call them the three A\’s:

Abandonment. You can make a decision to leave the job.

The wisest choice, financially and emotionally, is to try leaving on a temporary basis, to give yourself time to re-evaluate your options or to seek other employment. A vacation leave can be used to seriously job hunt or simply restore oneself and gain a different perspective. A temporary disability leave can be taken on the advice of your doctor or counselor. But everyone should understand that job stress leave is not an automatic option you can just ask for and receive. You have to be suffering from a medical or mental condition that warrants disability in the eyes of your doctor or counselor. And being compliant with treatment recommendations is usually a part of continuing to qualify for that leave. There are protections with medical leave such as FMLA that protects your job for up to 12 weeks per year (with certain qualifications). But FMLA does not pay your salary. That can only happen if you have disability benefits from your employer or the state you live in or qualify for Workers Compensation benefits (you should know that nearly 100% of stress claims get turned down).

The downside of a leave is that many times solutions are not found by just being off work, and you can become fearful about returning to work. In my own clinical practice, I\’ve found that keeping patients off work for as little as three weeks, makes it nearly impossible for many of them to ever work again at any occupation (they seem to develop a disabled mind set).

If possible, getting supportive counseling or medical help while still employed is far preferable than taking off work.

Actions. There are actions one can take to address difficult job situations.

If you are covered by union contract and you feel that contract is being violated and causing you stress, you can file a grievance with your steward. If you feel your stressful job situation is caused by discrimination (race, sex, or age) or that a hostile environment has been created, you can file with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment or through your own company\’s EEOC office. Some situations are best handled by going to the Department of Labor (for example, breaks not being provided per state labor law).

Adjustments. This is when we learn skills about handling difficult people, practice relaxation techniques, become more assertive, or become experts in detachment.

You can speak up for yourself, go above your immediate supervisor, become more assertive about how much you can accomplish in a day. A very effective technique is to keep a list visibly posted in your work area of your assigned tasks for the day and how much time each will take (discuss this aspect with your supervisor). When asked to do more, ask the supervisor to decide which tasks will be set aside to accomplish the new task.

My all-time favorite detachment skill (learning to not let someone else\’s bad behavior affect our emotional state) is to mentally dress the offender in a little pink tutu. And as they rant and rave at you, imagine that tutu fluttering about. You can\’t help but laugh inside (if not out loud!). I once taught this skill to a young woman working in a typing pool. She taught it to her co-workers. When the office bully, who had been terrorizing them for years, came into their work area, they all mentally dressed him in the pink tutu, exchanging sly glances across the room as they did so. They felt great! He was so nonplussed by the change in their attitudes (no more cowering) that he never walked into the room again. Now that\’s success!

So if you are facing job stress, sit down and make a list of two to three things you can do differently using the three A\’s as a guide. And consider getting some professional counseling on how to handle job stress or look on my website (www.doctorflamingo-online.com) for recommended reading.

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If you feel you have a psychiatric emergency, go directly to a family member, a friend, your physician, your pastor, or the nearest hospital emergency room and TELL THEM YOU NEED ARE IN CRISIS AND IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE HELP.


Call 911 or one of these numbers:

Suicide is a permanent and tragic solution to a temporary problem. GET HELP.

Next Month:

Compulsive Spending and Gambling-How To Tell When It\’s Gone Too Far.