Stress at work comes in all shapes and sizes: overwork, sniping colleagues, threatened layoffs, or a boss from hell can raise your cortisol levels and make you crazy. In a study by Northwestern National Life, 40 percent of respondents found their job “very or extremely stressful” and a quarter of them called it the number one stressor in their lives.
What’s a poor worker to do? To learn the best strategies for combatting stress, we turned to psychologist Robert Leahy, PhD, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, and author of The Worry Cure.
The first question we asked is can an an old dog learn these new tricks? You bet. “If you’ve practiced a habit a long time, it becomes stronger,” Leahy says. But at midlife, you may already have the arsenal to shoot that bad habit down. Say you’re boss is obnoxious. “Ask yourself if you’ve been able to cope with other obnoxious people, like your best friend’s husband who’s a jerk. If the answer is yes, you have the skills. You just have to do the work.”
Stressor #1: Too much to do. It’s a way-too-familiar plaint in these days of downsized staffs. “A lot of jobs are set up today with more work than there is time to do,” Leahy says, pointing out that this can be a double-barrel stressor. You can’t complete all your assignments and suddenly it’s not just your boss’s expectations you’re not living up to — you’re not living up to your own beliefs about your capabilities.
Remedy: Step one is to normalize your experience, by understanding that you’re not alone: more people than ever are facing the issue of overwork. Step two is to become your own efficiency expert. “Part of your stress may be that you’re not working efficiently.” Leahy recommends making a list of on-task behaviors like placing calls, sending emails, or getting documents together, and another list of off-task behaviors like Googling things and emailing friends. “Do a realistic assessment. If you’re spending two hours a day off task, that means you’re not working 12 weeks a year.” Put a Post-It on your computer screen Stay on Task. “This doesn’t mean you never goof off. Goof-off time can help you deal with stress. So give yourself a 10-minute reward when you’ve finished a project,” Leahy suggests, likening it to dessert only after you’ve eaten your broccoli. Steps one and two may resolve the problem, but if you’re still running behind and tearing your hair out, Leahy says you may need to talk to your boss: “Manage upward in a diplomatic way to manage expectations” by setting priorities and creating a plan that maximizes productivity.