Stressed at work? Take a closer look at your thinking. (FS Stock/Shutterstock)
We often think our job situation causes our stress, but it’s usually our thoughts about our job situation that are to blame
BY JEFF GARTON
August 1, 2019 Updated: August 1, 2019
A recent study by Korn Ferry found that job stress is on the rise. This is partly the result of people being misinformed about stress and its prevention.
Google the term “job stress” and you’ll see that it’s defined as an emotional reaction to the misery caused by your difficult circumstances. But don’t be fooled by this misleading definition that is missing a crucial bit of reality.
Although it’s true that job stress is an emotional reaction, it’s not simply caused by your difficult circumstances. Those are more accurately described as the trigger. They trigger your thoughts that ultimately create your emotional reactions and the resulting stress.
Stress is a mental reaction. It begins with a thought that you generate to interpret your reality and the emotions follow immediately afterward. Stress is managed by controlling the thought that’s triggered. Rather than allow a thought to cause emotional strain, you replace it with one that creates emotional ease.
Types of Stress, Symptoms, and Consequences
This deeper truth of stress is an essential bit of information given the costs and consequences of stress.
To be clear, we are not talking about good stress (eustress). This type of stress is associated with being energized by the challenge of learning new things and doing what you think is enjoyable.
That’s in contrast to bad stress (distress). This kind of stress is associated with exposure to situations you think are not enjoyable. The latter can kill you, but not before wreaking havoc with your mental and emotional health.
But what if we can change one form of stress into the other? That would be a crucial ability given the costs of stress in our society.
Studies have found that medical costs are 50 percent higher for employees with high-stress levels, which can cause sleep disturbances, difficulties concentrating, stomach issues, temper tantrums, angry outbursts, apathy, headaches, muscle fatigue, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and heart disease.
Research by Princeton University also found that during periods of prolonged stress, parts of your brain literally shrink and can weaken your ability to cope and think straight. It’s during stressful periods when you’re more likely to have accidents, engage in substance abuse, isolate yourself from fellow workers, and you may even experience discord, broken relationships, and thoughts of suicide.
The American Institute of Stress reports that the top causes of job stress are workload (48 percent), people issues (28 percent), balancing work and personal life (20 percent), and job insecurity (6 percent).
Of course, as we already discussed, the stress isn’t really caused by those things—it is caused by how people think about those things.
In all, there are two broad categories of stressors or triggers.
Physical Stressors: working alternating shifts, being immobile for long periods, lacking sufficient work breaks, highly repetitive tasks, work that is fast-paced, and even environmental issues like poor lighting, loud noise, and the temperature of your workspace.
Psychological Stressors: unresolved conflicts, false accusations, poor supervision, a lack of recognition, insufficient instruction and communication, unfriendly coworkers, office politics, bullying, harassment, discrimination, ridiculous work rules, demands, and deadlines, and many more.
Physical stressors can have physiological consequences, so we have to keep in mind that these involve both a physiological and psychological impact.
Some suggestions for how to cope with stress focus on physical activity, like breathing deeply, taking a break, meditating, getting more sleep and exercise, changing your diet, and when all else fails, changing your job or getting professional help.
Other suggestions for coping with stress encourage you to shift your mindset. They suggest you focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Don’t take things so seriously, look for what’s going right, and acknowledge that things could be worse.
These suggestions move you towards controlling your thoughts, which is a prerequisite to self-regulating your emotions, a practice the esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as self-transcendence.
You think intentionally to create helpful emotions and use these emotions to motivate yourself to rise above your stressors. More recently, psychologist Susan Farrow referred to this as “meaning-focused coping.”
Farrow’s solution is similar to Maslow’s and is considered state-of-the-art in managing stress. When a stressor occurs, you don’t allow it to trigger a habitual thought. Instead, you assign the stressor a better meaning than you normally would. Just as Maslow suggested, you think intentionally to create emotional ease rather than strain.
For example, if a co-worker asks you for urgent help, the habitual thought might be, “Why does he think he can ask me for help instead of doing it himself. I am already so busy.” The new, better thought may be, “John finds this work so much more difficult than me, it’s great that I have the skills to help my co-worker and still meet my own deadlines.”
The most helpful emotions include love, joy, optimism, excitement, enthusiasm, gratitude, courage, confidence, and contentment. Each is an option you can create by thinking intentionally in any situation, no matter how difficult it may be.
Rather than living and working in response to your stressors, which gives them power over you, choose to live and work in response to what you think about your stressors, which gives you power over them. If you do, then you are alleviating your stress rather than causing it, and saving yourself from all kinds of potential health problems.
Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training provider. He holds an MA degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is an originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Twitter: @ccgarton