We’ve known for years that chronic stress is linked to physical and emotional problems, strained relationships, and serious mental health issues such as depression. What we know now is that stress also kills health, well-being and happiness at work. And when we are unhappy at work, we often become disengaged, cynical, and toxic to others. We do, of course, try to make things better—our survival instinct kicks in. But, too many of us try to counter the effects of stress by doing things that make it worse. Common (and unhealthy) coping mechanisms include overwork, isolation, and the ambition trap.
Overwork: When stressed and miserable we often log more hours, skip vacations and put our jobs before everything, including health and family. Even when we know overworking is hurting us, we keep doing it. We tell ourselves everyone works too much in our “always on” world. We’re scared, maybe, of looking bad or falling behind. Or we constantly focus on that magical time—the end of the project, the weekend, summer vacation—when balance will return. But it never does. Instead, we burn out.
Isolation: When the heat’s turned up, we metaphorically (and sometimes literally) shut the office door to keep demands—and people—at bay. This is a recipe for loneliness and a loss of a sense of belonging, something every human being wants and needs. And, if we happen to manage others, isolating ourselves leads to speculation (What’s she doing in there?) and gossip (There must be a layoff coming; he won’t even look at us). Before long, the team culture is toxic and everyone experiences even more stress.
Happiness traps: When stress takes its toll, some of us fall back on old patterns and habits of mind that may have served us well in the past, but don’t any more. One of these is what I call the “ambition trap”. This is when our achievement drive overheats, winning at all costs becomes a way of life, and we’re always reaching for yet another brass ring. This trap is very common at work, in part because we’ve been rewarded for short-term goal achievement from our school days onward. The problem, of course, is that life begins to feel empty and meaningless when all we do is chase victories that in the end feel hollow.
In addition, some of us fall prey to the “should” trap: we constantly do what we think we should do, rather than what we want to do. When we’re stuck like this we can find ourselves over-conforming or pretending to be someone we’re not. This is soul-destroying. It’s also hard work. It takes a lot of effort to live by “shoulds” that make no sense to us, or that push us in the wrong direction for years on end. And, lest you think that not many people do this, studies have shown that the majority of people "cover" at work. Some of us try to cover the un-coverable—our gender or race, for example. Having done this myself a time or two, I can testify to the stress this causes, the self-doubt, the sense of never being good enough. Others conceal differences in lifestyle—homosexuality, for example, is not something it is safe to share in many workplaces. Hiding something as important as our sexual orientation causes pain and stress, too. And even majority workers—white men—cover things that are not expected of them, like family strife, mental illness, and vulnerability.
None of these bad coping mechanisms work for very long, and in fact they cause more harm than good. Instead, we need to wake up to the fact that stress kills happiness and it kills effectiveness, too. Then we need to do something that will actually help us to move toward health, well-being and happiness at work.
It starts by recognizing that we’ve become “boiling frogs”—the heat has been rising so slowly that we haven’t even noticed. All of sudden, usually because something goes really wrong (a health crisis, divorce, getting fired) we realize we need to get out. Wake-up calls like this are painful; hopefully, we notice alarm bells before they are dangerously loud. Either way, though, wake-up calls can be the beginning of self-awareness. Then, it takes courage and resolve to face the unpleasant reality of our work lives and vow to do something about it. To start we can direct our attention toward maximizing life-giving aspects of our work: purpose, hope, and friendships.
Purpose. When we focus on living our values and having positive impact at work, we reconnect with what’s most important to us. Finding meaning in our work is deeply fulfilling and can help us to make the right decisions—for us and for others.
Hope. When we experience hope—optimism, a personally compelling vision of the future and the belief we can make it happen—we trigger physiological changes that actually counter the effects of stress.
Friendships. When we that believe people care about us, when we can lean in to our natural empathy and help others, and when we feel that we belong, we no longer feel alone. This, too, counters the effects of stress.
We don’t have to settle for work lives full of stress that can literally kill us. Instead, we can engage our emotional intelligence. EI, it turns out, can help us to avoid burnout. We can also deliberately shift our mindset and focus on aspects of work and life that give us joy. Here are some practical tips to help turn the tide, so you will be better able to manage your stress, focus on purpose, hope and friendships and experience more happiness at work:
Add mindfulness practices to your daily life. Research is rapidly catching up with what people have known for eons: quiet reflection and deep breathing calm us down. And we don’t need to meditate for hours or do yoga every day; just a few minutes alone, focusing on breathing and emptying our minds, shifts our nervous system from high-alert to resting and ready. There are lots of ways to do this—a walk in nature (without your phone); ten minutes of quiet time before getting up in the morning; a few minutes of conscious breathing before a meeting. Try a few mindfulness practices, find one that works for you, then try to do it every day. It will help.
Find something to care about that’s bigger than you. Having a meaningful cause makes life feel worthwhile. For many people, one cause that matters a lot is our family. If this is true for you, make it more real by deciding to spend more time “present” with your family. Put the devices away. Then, all you need to do is talk, listen and love. Love, it’s been discovered, is the single most important factor in happiness in life.
Or, there are probably causes you care about in the world—animal welfare, eradicating poverty, fair and just treatment of all human beings. Now, find a way to do something about it, regularly. And at work? Almost everyone can find something important to care about in the workplace. Maybe you are lucky enough to belong to a profession or an organization with a noble purpose. But even if you don’t, you can derive fulfillment from helping others, find joy in a job well done, and experience deep satisfaction by solving problems and fixing outdated ways of working.
Practice gratitude. Gratitude—like hope and compassion—triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. When we feel grateful for something or someone, our brain chemistry shifts and instead of breathing rapidly, we’re getting more air. Our muscles relax, our thoughts clear, and we might even smile.
A final word on stress and happiness: no one’s going to take stress out of your life and no one person is going to make you happy. True, people can help—a lot. But in the end it’s up to each one of us to turn down the heat and seek happiness at work and in life, too.
Annie McKee, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope and Friendship (Boston: Harvard Business Press, forthcoming, September 2017).
George E. Vaillant, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of The Harvard Grant Study (Cambridge, MA; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).
Annie McKee, Richard Boyatzis, and Frances Johnston, Becoming a Resonant Leader: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence, Renew Your Relationships, Sustain Your Effectiveness (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008).