MORE THAN A THIRD OF American workers complain that their jobs are harming their physical or emotional health, according to a 2001 poll conducted for a marketing company. Research also links work stress to a laundry list of disorders, including back pain, headaches, insomnia, stomachaches, impaired immunity, and even obesity.
But it’s not always practical or wise to walk away from a job, even a stressful one. Finding a new position can be tough. And there’s no guarantee that you won’t end up in a similarly difficult situation. “There’s no such thing as a workplace nirvana, except insofar as you create it yourself,” says B.J. Gallagher Hateley, a seminar leader in Los Angeles and co-author of What Would Buddha Do at Work? (Seastone, 2001).
We’ve identified six of the most frustrating work stressors and asked experts for tips to resolve them, so you can go from loathing your job to loving it.
Stressor #1: You Have Too Much to Do
“The truth is, everyone has too much to do,” says Julie Morgenstern, a consultant in New York City and author of Time Management from the Inside Out (Owl Books, 2000). But heavy demands can help you learn a valuable life skill: how to let go of unimportant things. Manage your workload with these suggestions.
PRIORITIZE. According to one of the essential laws of economics, written more than 100 years ago by economist Vilfredo Pareto, 80 percent of the results come from 26 percent of the effort. In other words, it’s not that you don’t have time to do your work, but rather you may be putting too much effort–and time–into nonessential tasks. Find your lowest-priority work and do it quickly or if possible give it to someone else to do, says Alex Hiam, an Amherst, Mass.-based business consultant and author of Making Horses Drink (Amacom, 2002). If you’re not sure how to rank your duties, ask your boss to help you prioritize.
GET ORGANIZED. Create routines to handle your least important tasks quickly, and you’ll gain more time for important matters. For example, adopt a rule that says you’ll touch an incoming piece of paper only if you make progress: File it, toss it, or act on it, rather than moving it among the piles and in-boxes on your desk. Check your email on a schedule (like every other hour). “Routines also save you a lot of aggravation as well as time because you’re not worrying about what to do next,” says Morgenstern.
PINPOINT YOUR ENERGY PEAKS. “The best time for managers to do their most critical work is when their energy is at its peak,” says Morgenstern. Some people work better in the morning; if you fit into this group, schedule your toughest tasks accordingly. When you have a particularly large workload, consider coming in before your coworkers. That way you can get work done before other people’s agendas distract you. If your energy is highest in the afternoon, do the lightweight stuff in the morning. If you’re still overwhelmed, tell your boss. Morgenstern points out that bosses often aren’t aware that they’ve overburdened employees because the bosses themselves are overwhelmed.
Stressor #2: You Are Burned-Out
When the joy or meaning is gone from your work and it’s an effort to get out of bed in the morning, you’re suffering from burnout. Revitalize with these tips.
RETHINK YOUR WORK. Brainstorm ways to get excited about your job again, recommends Hope Dlugozima, an Atlanta-based career and sabbatical consultant and author of Six Months Off (Henry Holt, 1996). For example, could you create a newsletter, help recruit clients, or mentor an intern? Ask your boss what’s appropriate. If one of your goals is to advance in your company, be aware that taking on more responsibility can help open opportunities, adds Dlugozima.
TREAT YOURSELF RIGHT. People who are burned-out often neglect their personal needs, says Sue Frederick, founder of BrilliantWork, a career-counseling business in Boulder, Colo. For example, you may in a rush grab processed or sugary snacks and drink lots of coffee, which can lower your immunity and sap your energy. Or you may skip exercise. While taking better care of yourself certainly won’t change aspects of your job, it will make you feel more invigorated and better prepared for work. Cut back on unhealthy snacks and coffee, and increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which bolster your immunity and vigor. Exercise during the workday, because it lifts mood and energy levels. Walk briskly for 15 minutes in one direction and then back, or take a gym class during your lunch hour or immediately after work. If company policy permits it, pursue your favorite hobby during your lunch hour. It will break up the monotony of work and keep you upbeat throughout the day.
MIX UP YOUR ROUTINE. Sometimes small changes in your work habits can invigorate you. For example, if you usually start your day with paperwork, make important phone calls or answer important emails instead, suggests Morgenstern.
Stressor #3: You Feel Unappreciated
If you don’t get enough positive feedback at work, you’re not alone, reports Hiam. Managers are often under a lot of stress, so they forget to give praise or never get around to it, he says. Here’s how to gently remind them.
ASK FOR COMMENTS. Politely let your boss know you’d appreciate hearing how you’re doing. For example, request five minutes of time with her and inquire about a recent project that you aced, asking, “Was the report good?” or “Did our team solve the problem satisfactorily?” Expect some criticism, because a manager’s job is to help you improve, says Hiam. Also, it may take your boss some time to get back to you; she may need to digest your question and research an answer before responding.
SET AN EXAMPLE. Give your boss or co-workers the kind of kudos you desire. “I’ve always loved Gandhi’s quote, ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world,'” says Hateley. For example, you might tell your boss: “I really appreciate how you took a moment to praise so-and-so. It made her feel a lot better.”
PRAISE YOURSELF. Make a list of five recent accomplishments. Reflect on the list often and allow yourself to feel good about them. If you can’t think of any accomplishments, jot down three potential tasks that you’d excel at and propose them to your boss. Or make plans with a colleague to acknowledge each other’s work. Set goals over a lunch, regularly discuss your progress, and congratulate each other when you reach a goal.
Stressor #4: Your Boss Is a Terror
Bad bosses come in many varieties, from tyrants to wimps, micromanagers to absentee managers. If your boss is normally reasonable but acting poorly of late (whether due to personal or professional reasons), you can modify her behavior, says Marilyn Puder-York, Ph.D., an executive coach in New York City who specializes in workplace stress. But if your boss is chronically hostile, you may be the one who has to adapt.
TEACH YOUR BOSS. Sometimes you can diplomatically suggest alternative ways of managing to your supervisor, says Frederick. For example, let’s say your micromanaging boss insists on seeing daily progress reports. Suggest an alternative suited to your style, like turning in just two reports a week: a goal-setting one on Mondays and a summary on Fridays. Other times you may just have to spell things out to your boss, says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego and author of Motivational Management (Amacom, 2002). For instance, explain, “This is hard for me to discuss with you, but I’m not happy with the way I’m being treated.”
COMMUNICATE. If broader issues, like personality or behavior, are causing clashes with your boss, talk about how you’re feeling. But rather than criticize your boss, focus on how your needs are not being met, says Epstein. For instance, say, “I’m here to do good work, but I need to be talked to in a certain way to perform at my best.” If it’s too hard for you to approach your boss, ask for a pep talk from a colleague or advice from your human resources department. Some people even get assertiveness training from a psychologist. (For a referral to a psychologist, call the American Psychological Association at 800-964-2000.)
RESOLVE TO ADAPT. If all the above measures fail, take heart. “[In some cases] you can learn more from a bad boss than a good one,” says Hateley. You may, for example, learn how to become more self-reliant, develop a thicker skin, or find other colleagues who can meet your needs. One way of coping is to simply wait out the bad behavior (see “How One Woman Bettered Her Job,” page 96). However, if your hostile boss doesn’t mellow out or leave the company and your misery is affecting your health, consider speaking to human resources or even seeking out another position.
Stressor #5: Your Company’s Changing
Change is one of the most threatening conditions in business, says Frederick, but it can also be an opportunity to improve your job.
REACT THE RIGHT WAY. Although you can’t control change, you can decide how you’ll handle it. “Tell yourself, ‘Isn’t it exciting?’ instead of ‘Isn’t it horrible?'” says Franz Metcalf, who teaches comparative religion at California State University in Los Angeles and is the co-author of What Would Buddha Do at Work? When Hateley did the hiring for her department at the Los Angeles Times and a top trainer quit, she was momentarily discouraged. Then, Hateley says, she realized, “Oh good! Now I can hire a career development person like I wanted all along.” To focus on the positive amidst fear or confusion, try this trick: Close your eyes and focus on your breathing for 10 minutes; aim to let all other thoughts go. “By keeping yourself calm and centered, you can give yourself the space to see a stressful situation as an opportunity for positive change,” says Metcalf.
SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY. Ask yourself how you can spin change to your advantage. For example, maybe you’ll click better with your new boss, or this boss will be open to your playing a larger role in the company. Even if you don’t want more responsibilities, you could request a new project, team, or office location.
Stressor #6: You Have a Difficult Co-Worker
Colleagues can be your best allies–or they can ruin your workday. Whether you’re dealing with a negative, chatty, or lazy co-worker, there’s plenty you can do.
MINIMIZE CONTACT. If you can, move your desk, change your hours, get on a new team–do whatever it takes to insulate yourself as much as possible from the source of the annoyance. It’s impossible to underestimate the effect negative co-workers can have on your work, says Hiam. “You need to protect your [positive] attitude,” he says.
EXPRESS YOURSELF. Speak up politely but directly. For example, tell a distracting colleague: “I need peace and quiet when I work and it would help me if you would stop coming by my desk.” Ask a pessimist to suggest a solution whenever he complains about something. If a lazy co-worker is dragging down your team, focus on what that person does well and encourage her, says Frederick. Say, “You are a creative person who inspires good ideas. How can we work together?”
GET SUPPORT. When all else fails, privately bring up the problem with the coworker’s supervisor, says Hiam. Give at least three examples of poor behavior. Don’t say, “Joe is lazy.” Say, “Joe didn’t come to any of the project meetings so the rest of us did his work.” Then ask the supervisor to take corrective action. But be patient, because legal issues may be involved. Often a boss must document examples of poor performance as well as attempts to correct them. If the employee refuses to improve her behavior or doesn’t quit, it can take three to six months to fire her, says Hiam. In the meantime, focus on the aspects of your job that you can control.
How One Woman Bettered Her Job
Ali Fullman, 38 Cheyenne, Wyo.
Six months into Fullman’s job as a marketing manager at a state agency, her work life became a nightmare. Her boss began questioning her business practices based on something a co-worker had claimed. Thinking she would have to quit her job, Fullman (name changed upon request) started looking for a new one and even considered moving because of limited local options in her field.
In the meantime, Fullman was able to minimize contact with her office by taking some out-of-town assignments. (If she hadn’t been able to do this, she would have gone on vacation, she says.) Away from her job, she was able to evaluate her situation. She still liked her position, so she resolved to not take things personally. “I knew everything being said was totally unfounded and believed that the truth would prevail,” she says.
She pampered herself during her free time away from home. “I got a massage, got my hair done, did all the things that I was starting to neglect,” she says. “I came back to work looking like a million bucks and [feeling] ready to conquer anything.”
Fullman next formed a network of trusted co-workers and friends, and began to focus only on business matters and ignore matters related to others’ personalities. Although her co-worker never recanted his accusations, she felt empowered enough not to dwell on them. As Fullman puts it, she now feels “on top of the world instead of under it.”
Suzanne Gerber is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer and editor.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Weider Publications
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