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 are caused by job stress, that nearly one in five (17 percent) of working women suffering from depression attribute their condition to job stress and more than one in eight (13 percent) of working men do the same. 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 U.S. 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 aren’t caught crying, or give our notice with no other job in reach? Thankfully, we have a few steps between these two extremes.
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’ll 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’re going to pay 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 you know is probably working. So just sit tight until you read through, say, ten of these tips 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 while you’re listening to your boss give you your next assignment. Let’s say, as he’s 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 again as you exhale. If you’re allowed to listen to music or white 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 seashells; it’s a short moment that allows me to catch my sanity.
3. Turn Your Things 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!”) email that you don’t think drives you crazy but does. Trust me. When you turn it off for an afternoon, a day—or even commit to a weekend without it!—you’ll see that it’s 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: forty percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-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 don’t need to join the monastery. Just try turning things 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 threaten explosion 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 into my own anxious hands! So, upon getting five assignments due the same week from a supervisor, I do the panic dance for fifteen or twenty 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 typically 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 iced-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 different from an average desk light). Keeping a clean desk will also help you feel less overwhelmed.
6. Get a Life Outside of Work
If I were to name the single most important lesson I learned when I was in a psych ward, it would be this: get a life outside of work. You see, pre-psych ward, I had invested all my self-esteem into my profession. Thus, each career flop set me back a considerable chunk. If a book bombed, so did my self-confidence. My goal when I left my in-patient psych program in 2006 was to get a life and to sustain that life.
I’m doing better today. I swim in a master’s program. I joined a book group. I’m involved with a moms’ group at the kids’ school. None of these things is related to my job. I’ve met a whole other set of friends aside from my fellow bloggers, editors, and writers.
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 workday can help you do your job in less time, which will lower your stress.
This Attention Zones Model was developed by Rand Stagen of 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 non-judgmentally name what is happening right now, and turn your attention to your top priorities in the moment.”
8. 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 [show] 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.
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 had 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 [is] heightened by the perceived inability to stop the pain and move on to find or create a more rewarding situation.”
This is where a mentor or advisor of some sort is very helpful. He or she may be able to identify some possible solutions within your toxic work situation, or provide you with the motivation and support you need to leave.
10. 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 instincts is going to help us out of any workplace—or life—rut. We may never love our jobs or whistle at work (you know people who do that, right?), but tuning into our instincts may help us increase our odds of finding some satisfaction and fulfillment in the hours we sit in front of a computer or a supervisor.
Originally published on Beliefnet