Saturday, November 24, 2007

Occupational Stress 8: Your mind, your body and job stress.

Occupational Stress 8 Your mind, your body and job stress.

A few years ago I was asked to give a lecture at Princeton University. The students wanted to know what stressors to expect from their initial experiences in the working world and how these stressors would affect them. Although this was an academic presentation, I was surprised to see that their questions and concerns were similar to the ones I see at all level of the business world and from all degrees of experience.

How is stress going to affect me? This is an easy question but a difficult one to address because the effects of stress are idiosyncratic. That is, it affects everyone differently. Stress is modulated by our temperament, body, and our genetic predisposition to its effects. Thus, we all react to the same stressors in physically and mentally different ways. Stressor is the technical word denoting something from the environment (work) that causes a stress response. You can see the individual differences with this little quiz. Which would you rather do with your colleagues, go skydiving or to the opera? Either one would be stressful to some and not to others. So, we can’t say opera is categorically stressful any more than we can say that office politics or meetings are categorically stressful. Yet, both politics and meetings are stressful to some people most of the time and to others some of the time. Adding yet another layer of complexity to the issue is that it’s primarily the perception of a stressor that gets the body’s stress response working. For example, you might think an evening at the opera will be stressful. Indeed, you may be upset and irritable the week before. However, when the big night arrives, you might find yourself actually enjoying yourself. In other words, the perception was stressful but the actual situation was not. Let's be honest here, how many of us have stressed out all week before an important meeting or other event only to have it be a positive, uplifting, and even affirming career experience? Show of hands, please. So, as we know from our political candidates as well as from a variety of other sources, reality and the perception of reality can be two completely different animals. Is it just me, or does this principle become magnified at the workplace?

The way you perceive possible stressors such as job demands, physical demands, power conflicts, and time constraints will determine your amount of stress. Again, the above items are objective, but each of us feels them subjectively. I was always amazed by my good friend and associate Chuck. No matter how many task demands we had, he was able to figure out how to do more and have it be a fun and challenging experience. When life gave Chuck lemons, he made lemonade. The way people like Chuck avoid job stress is to find some personal meaning in what they are required to do. He perceived the tasks as a challenge, a way to use his creativity, time management skills, and people skills to achieve his professional goals-goals he chose to set for himself. He was almost having fun overachieving in everything he did while I got stressed. Why? Because I did not find personal meaning in the job task. I viewed most tasks as merely an imposition from the outside. Chuck had it right. Whether he knew it or not at the time, these work tasks (challenges) allowed him to find personal meaning in work. He expanded and honed his talents and skills which he went on to use all his very successful working life.

Here’s what all this means to you. We all have leadership skills, advanced training, analytic training, talents, organizational skills, sales skills, etc. Psychologists do have techniques, tests, and instruments to qualify and quantify these attributes (techniques, tests and instruments that we are very proud of, I might add), but in most cases, we only have a fair inkling of our own talents and skills. Recognize your strengths and skills, then shape and organize the job demand to fit that skill as much as possible. Remember what Mad Eye Moody told Harry Potter during the big wizard completion: “Play to your strength”. Therefore, it is you giving meaning to the job, not the job defining a meaning for you-big difference. The stress research is quite clear here. Those who emphasize even a little control over their situation have less stress. This basic rule of physiology applies to mice, monkeys, and people. Discovering personal meaning is equal to gaining control. It’s a different way of thinking (or as psychologists like to say, a cognitive schemata reframing) and one you can control. Harry went on the slay the dragon and so can you.

Just remember the old saying, “ You work the job or the job will work you”.

Ian

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