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Self-Esteem at Work

Self-esteem is a mental muscle: "work" it out. But the modern workplace presents some formidable hazards.

One of the best defenses against depression is also one of the most elusive. A strong and positive sense of self immunizes against depression, but it is hard to build and maintain.

Research has shown that the more roles people fill, the more sources of self-esteem they have. Meaningful work has long been one of the important ways to feel good about oneself.

But where work has traditionally been a source of self-esteem, that link is now endangered. The one thing that is most likely to suffer damage in today's workplace is precisely what most of us hope to get there—self-esteem. The modern workplace presents some formidable psychological hazards.

There are many ways self-esteem now gets battered at work. The pace of work demands is so fast that no one stops to acknowledge even excellent performance. The demand for productivity has grown so significantly that no one feels they are doing enough; everyone looks at the undone workload and feels inadequate. We work an unprecedented number of hours. That encroaches on our downtime and deprives us of the most restorative of experiences—connecting with self, friends and family.

The added pressures have contributed to a genuine rise in aggression and rudeness in the workplace. Rudeness anywhere makes people feel devalued. In part rudeness is the behavioral fallout of the widespread loss of loyalty of employers to employees and vice versa that has accompanied rapidly changing market conditions. Also, many younger workers, not trained in social and communication skills, challenge authority inappropriately and assume an entitlement unfulfillable against the demands for increased productivity.

Job security is at an all-time low, compounding the fragility of self-esteem. The upshot is the workplace is no longer an arena in which people can count on fortifying their sense of self. Instead it has become a major source of stress and depression.

Maintaining self-esteem is a lifelong psychological process. Think of self-esteem as a mental muscle that must be developed and maintained through regular psychological workouts—or you will be vulnerable to depression and anxiety. It must be renegotiated at each stage of life and in each domain of experience. When we build up the self-esteem muscle deep inside us, we learn to like and respect who we are, no matter what is happening around us.

Here are four strategies for boosting self-esteem at work:

  • Even if it's just for 15 minutes, pursue one of your passions. Read a bedtime story to your child-over the phone, if you have to work late. Take a few minutes out for a "quickie" with your mate before work. Do a little gardening after work. Be proactive about seeking projects that generate passion. Learn new work skills so you can feel passionate about your work again.
  • Keep a report card on your best efforts. Note the effort you put into work-related activities and give yourself credit when you try 100%. Each day note your three best efforts; keep a list for a week. By week's end, you'll have 15 reminders why you need to like yourself. If you can't think of anything positive you've done, have a trusted co-worker do it for you.
  • Make a self-esteem bulletin board. Carve out some wall space that you come face to face with every day, several times a day. Put up a bulletin board and mount on it tangible evidence of your value: the cover sheet of a project you did a good job on, an e-mail of praise, a photo of your child's winning soccer team, a dried flower from a bouquet someone sent on your birthday. Look at the board every day and absorb what it means: that you are a good person independent of your job. Be sure to update the collection once a month.
  • Stop negative thinking; focus instead on how to solve problems. Make a red stop sign and post it on your phone, computer or office wall as a constant reminder to dispute negative thoughts about yourself. Posting the stop sign will help make you aware that you can control your thinking. Every time a negative thought pops up, look at the stop sign and say "stop!"

Then exercise your self-esteem muscle and convert the negative thought to positive solutions. "I'm so stupid" becomes "So I made a mistake. I'll learn from it." When your boss criticizes you, take a deep breath, give yourself time to regroup and move into action to correct the problem. Don't brood or avoid; those two behaviors kill self-esteem.