Stress-Proofing Your Work Life

For a few lucky people, jobs are sources of rejuvenation, personal satisfaction, and stress relief. For many others, even though work is sometimes or often rewarding, it is also a major source of stress. The more people work and the longer the workday becomes, the more we dream of being able to retire early. Who doesn't waste just a little time thinking about what we would do if we won millions in the lottery? Would we finally tell off our bosses? Quit with a flourish? Never work again?

Actually, research that has followed up on the life satisfaction of lottery winners reveals that very few were happier and that many were less happy after quitting their jobs (winning the lottery brings about its own kind of stress). Although any job can be stressful and sometimes monotonous, our work lives often bring us more than a paycheck. We gain self-esteem, purpose, and a sense of worth from our jobs. We benefit from the social contact, the structure, and the responsibility.

But maybe your job isn't giving you these benefits. Perhaps you should consider a change. Nowadays, people are more likely to change careers more often than ever before, voluntarily or not. Is a job change in order for you? Examine the following list. How many items apply to you?

  • I dread going to work on most days.

  • I come home from work too exhausted to do anything but watch television or go to bed.

  • I am not treated with respect at my job.

  • I'm not paid what I'm worth.

  • I'm embarrassed to tell people what I do for a living.

  • I don't feel good about my job.

  • My job doesn't allow me to fulfill my potential.

  • My job is far from being my dream job.

  • I would quit in a second if I could afford it.

  • My job is keeping me from enjoying my life.

  • If two or more items on this list apply to you, you might want to consider a job change. If you aren't qualified to do what you want to do, you need a plan. Find out what would be involved in getting trained in a field that holds more interest for you. Work on saving up some money so that you can start your own business. If you aren't sure what you would like, visit a career counselor who can help you discover what kind of work might be more fulfilling for you.

    According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, job stress is “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”

    If you like your job but certain aspects of your work are more stressful than you can comfortably handle, you can take steps to get your job stress under control. Remember, some stress can be good. It can get you motivated and boost your performance. You just don't want to exceed your stress tolerance level — at least not too often.

    First, identify what areas of your work life are causing you the most stress. Maybe the work itself is fine but the coworkers are difficult. Or, maybe it's the other way around. Think about each of the following areas of your work life and write a few lines about how you feel when you think about these aspects of your job. Writing about each area may help you to understand more clearly where your stress lies.

    Write your answers here or in your stress journal.

    1. This is how I feel about the people I work with:

    2. This is how I feel about my supervisor:

    3. This is how I feel about the environment in which I work:

    4. This is how I feel about the values and purpose behind my place of employment:

    Is your work environment ergonomic? If you are uncomfortable in your workstation, don't risk a lifetime of pain from a repetitive motion injury. Talk to your employer about making ergonomic changes — getting new furniture or equipment, or shifting tasks more often.

    5. This is how I feel about the actual, day-to-day work I do:

    6. This is how I feel about the importance of the work I do:

    7. My favorite thing about work is:

    8. My least favorite thing about work is:

    9. My work utilizes my skills in the following areas:

    10. My work fails to utilize my skills in the following areas:

    11. My needs unmet by work are or aren't being met elsewhere (explain):

    12. I wish my job could change in these ways:

    After answering these questions, it may have become more clear where your dissatisfactions with your job lie, and where things are fine. Now, make a list of the things about your job that cause you stress. After each item, circle O if you think you can live with this stressor, and X if you think you can't live with this stressor:

    1. O X

    2. O X

    3. O X

    4. O X

    5. O X

    6. O X

    7. O X

    8. O X

    9. O X

    10. O X

    Look at the items for which you circled X. There aren't any? You're in pretty good shape. If there are one or more, these are the areas you need to manage.

    A noisy work environment could be stressing you out, even if you aren't aware of it! A recent study out of Cornell University showed that people whose work area was open and allowed them to hear the noises of other workers showed higher levels of epinephrine (adrenaline) in the blood than workers whose work area was quiet, even though members of the “noise” group didn't necessarily report feeling more stressed.

    Of course, how you manage the stressors at your job depends on what those stressors are. You can take a few different approaches:

  • Avoid the stressor (such as a stressful coworker).

  • Eliminate the stressor (delegate or share a hated chore).

  • Confront the stressor (talk to your supervisor if he or she is doing something that makes your job more difficult).

  • Manage the stressor (add something enjoyable to the task, give yourself a reward after completion).

  • Balance the stressor (put up with the stress but practice stress-relieving techniques to balance out the effects).

  • Work is a big part of your life. If you can do something to avoid, eliminate, confront, manage, or balance the stress that comes from your work life, your entire life will be more balanced and less stressful. The key is to deal with the stressor in some way rather than ignoring it and letting the negative effects from work stress build until you are so stressed that you begin to miss work or find yourself putting your job in jeopardy, even though you know it really is a good job.

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