Coping with Stress in the Workplace

There are a number of contributors to todays workplace stress. Since the recession, workers have been expected to increase their workload. Technology has made some processes more efficient, but has ushered in the era of multiple passwords, compulsive email checking, and the expectation that workers should be connected 24/7. The presence of multiple generations in the workplace (Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials) means that workplace norms, expectations, and values vary widely. Many good workers are promoted to management without the necessary training and skills they need to successfully supervise and project manage. Implicit or unconscious bias against women and people of color continues to taint our workplaces, depriving workplaces of talent and limiting workers opportunities. All of these contributors lead to a blend of 21st century workplace stressors.

When workers are expected to carry a heavy workload, its important to keep the lines of communication open with supervisors, as workers sometimes mistakenly assume their supervisor knows their workload. Take the opportunity during meetings or check-ins to convey this by making a list of projects and updates on progress. Even if your manager does not invite check-ins, email your status update each week or month. When overwhelmed, let your manager know and ask for help. Also, ask which items are top priorities and then let your manager know that you are spending the majority of your time on those projects and that means that others will get little to no time.

Many of us compulsively check our email throughout the day. Interrupting our workflow, switching tasks, and being distracted by new stimuli are all counterproductive. If you want a break or a distraction from your current task, its better to take a walk, stretch, or take some deep breaths or meditate. This gives your brain time to rest. Checking email should be a regular and scheduled part of the day. Perhaps check it at
8:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m. You can even notify others that this is when you check and advise them to contact you directly if the matter is more urgent. If you are confident no one is expecting an immediate response, you can train yourself to check email less frequently.

For some, there is an expectation that they are connected and available all of the time. This can be exhausting and lead to chronic stress. Its important to have a clear boundary between work and the rest of your life. Otherwise, it will feel like there is nothing else in your life but work.

An all-encompassing work environment is self-perpetuating. Workers model constant availability for one another and this becomes the workplace norm. Except for matters of life and death, no one should feel compelled to be available all the time. Everyone, including healthcare workers, needs designated times each week when they have protected time away from workplace demands. If it seems like your workplace does not allow for this, try setting some limits, talking to your manager or human resources, or asking your friends and family about their workplace culture. Its easy to lose perspective when you are entrenched in this kind of environment and can be helpful to be reminded that this is not normal or okay.

Although there is likely more heterogeneity within groups than across them, workers of different generations may notice some cultural differences across groups. Workplace etiquette, electronics usage, and ways of conveying respect may vary. Wherever we come together, its best to communicate our expectations clearly, not make assumptions and interpret others behaviors in the best possible light. Acclimating new workers means informing them of workplace norms and values, modeling good workplace behavior, and setting a high bar for behavior and performance.

Everyone has strengths and areas for growth. Offering training in such topics as assertive communication, balancing work and family, and electronic etiquette may draw more from one generation or another, but offers nice opportunities for everyone. More importantly, structuring the workplace to accommodate the different work-life stages of workers (for example, early, mid, and late career) with flexibility of schedules, measuring actual performance instead of face time, and creating time and space for transfer of knowledge from more-experienced workers to newer ones is critical.

From the hiring process to promotion, people of color and women encounter barriers. Often, no one is aware that anything is even happening. For example, identical resumes with only the name of the applicant changed lead to many more interviews when the name is perceived as Caucasian than when the name is perceived as African-American. Additionally, women are less likely to be seen as leadership material and less likely to be promoted. American businesses are slow to offer maternity and family-care leave, with little in place to allow for women being away from the workplace to have children and return to their careers.

Women and people of color continue to encounter workplaces where their ideas are literally not heard until repeated by a white man, who then receives credit for the idea. There needs to be a minimum of three women in a boardroom for their input to be noticed. In order for this to change, everyone needs to be aware of these problems and work toward change. Unconscious bias is something we all experience and, therefore, does not need to be a basis for feelings of shame or a topic to avoid. The more we can acknowledge it, the more opportunity we all have for change and growth.

How do we deal with the stress of implicit bias in the workplace? First, acknowledge it exists. Workers and management should work to make their implicit biases known to themselves and others, accept these biases as a part of living and working in our society today, and try to not be ashamed. Leaders should model working on their own process to notice and acknowledge their own biases. We should move away from occasional diversity trainings and move toward incorporating an awareness and questioning of our own assumptions as a regular part of our experience at work.

Managers should be encouraged to assess and leverage their strengths, and notice and get help for areas where they have room to grow. Supervision and project management are a completely different job than manufacturing, nursing, or financial planning, for example. Management requires some different (and sometimes overlapping) skill sets, including people skills, empathy, ability to delegate and set expectations, follow through, organization, planning, nondefensiveness, and confident decision-making. None of us naturally has all of these skills. We would do well to acknowledge this and work to develop some more skills in managers or staff teams with people who possess complementary skills.

Todays workplace is a fast-paced, technology-infused, quickly evolving setting. It is imperative that we acknowledge and address these contemporary work stressors in order to maximize productivity and, more importantly, individual and workplace well-being and satisfaction.

Photo by Maison Meredith Photography

Elizabeth H. Winston, PhD , is a Madison psychologist who provides psychotherapy, psychological assessment, and consultation to businesses and organizations. Find her at elizabethwinston.com and consultingcollaborative.org .