Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Stress on the Job

Stress on the job depends on the worker.

Very often, someone comes to me complaining that his/her job is particularly stressful. Lawyers complain about the pressure of having to meet deadlines. Nurses tell me about the stress of knowing patients’ lives depend on their doing their job properly. A secretary may describe a work situation where she has two bosses, each of whom expects her to do his work first. There are demanding bosses, dangerous jobs and jobs working for important people. All of these bring with them their own pressures. Some employees complain to me bitterly of the stresses of their particular job; yet, almost always, there is someone alongside them doing the same job without feeling stressed! The fact is, certain people feel stressed at any job, and others seem immune to those stresses. President Reagan seemed to enjoy his job—and was said to be good at it—and was still so relaxed that he nodded off during cabinet meetings.

There is one situation, increasingly common, unfortunately, where everyone feels stress. If there is legitimate reason for a person to think he/she may be fired suddenly, without recourse, without another job opportunity immediately at hand, and perhaps with no other source of income in the family, it would be unnatural  and, frankly, undesirable for that person to feel comfortable. Someone in that position should be feeling urgently the pressure to write up a resume, call other potential employers and network as soon as possible. Stress, in that situation, serves its proper purpose–to motivate the individual to do whatever can be done to avoid a potential danger.

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Very often, however, people know very well they are in no danger of being fired, yet feel stress on the job anyway, often on a daily basis. It turns out that for most of them there are two underlying fears not immediately apparent that make them susceptible to stress under ordinary circumstances and that would affect them no matter what kind of work they would do:

1. The fear of making a mistake.

2. The fear of being criticized, or yelled at.

They start off feeling some sense of inadequacy, usually for reasons having to do with the way they were treated growing up. This can be a subtle process and not just an outgrowth of parents telling them they were no good. On the job they are anxious not to make any mistakes which would make obvious that inadequacy. But everyone makes mistakes. Even if someone else’s life depends on it, everyone still makes mistakes from time to time. I know of an individual who made a mistake costing his company literally hundreds of millions of dollars without losing his job! Since there is always an opportunity to make a mistake, these worried individuals are always under stress.   Similarly, if someone has an irascible boss, perhaps only one out of a number of bosses, sooner or later that employee will get scolded, for good reasons and bad reasons. Other people can shrug off working under such a boss, if they have reason to think their job is secure, but these anxious people cannot.

A young secretary was approached urgently by her boss late one Friday afternoon.

“I’m afraid you will have to stay late this evening,” he told her, “You have to copy these documents.”

“I can’t,” she responded. “I have an important social appointment.”

“You will have to miss it. If you don’t copy these papers, no one in England will be paid!”

The secretary, who was bothered by the fact that she had made a couple of minor clerical mistakes the previous week, decided to work that night. After a weekend of anguish and resentment, she quit her job promptly that Monday. She told me she could not stand the pressure. This was the worst way of handling her situation. She should have realized that her mistakes the previous week did not make her more vulnerable. She should have known that no secretary would have been fired for not staying late at a moment’s notice on a weekend evening. Perhaps a junior executive would have had to stay, but not a secretary. And if she did decide to leave, she should have waited until she got another job. But she imagined that her job was hanging by a thread, anyway.

It is important for an anxious worker to learn just how vulnerable she really is. There are ways by which she can discover how her performance compares to other workers, She has to learn to measure herself by them, and not by her failure to be perfect. She also needs to know what it means when a boss scolds her. If he yells at everyone equally he is not likely to be registering any real dissatisfaction with her. If he congratulated her on some aspect of her performance a few days ago, his complaint about her now is less likely to be important.

Some people go from job to job trying to find the least stressful. Unfortunately, those jobs are likely also to be the least challenging and the least rewarding. And the stress these people feel is likely, anyway, to depend on them and not on the circumstances of a particular job. They need to learn to value themselves by their abilities and not be put off  by being imperfect—since everyone makes mistakes They need to know they are worthwhile even if a boss criticizes them on occasion. Everyone gets criticized from time to time. (c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneuman.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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