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.”
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