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Taking Care of Business: Reducing Workplace Stress

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, BCC

Why We Work
Most people work – at least in part – to earn a living. They need to support their lifestyles and their families. Some people chose their work on the basis of salary alone, and that, while understandable in today’s uncertain financial climate, can be stressful in and of itself. Other people work in order to lend structure, interest, and meaning to their lives as well as to make money. Some people derive great ego satisfaction and a sense of identity from their work.

Whatever the reasons for our work, many of my Clients have issues with work stress, and I would like to make some suggestions that might eliminate some of them before they even begin. Almost one quarter of our week – or more – is spent working, and that much time in an unhappy work situation is obviously not desirable.

Before becoming a therapist, I worked in several academic environments, a bank, two computer consulting firms, and for our federal government and two other governments as well. I tell you this so that you will understand that my ideas about workplace stress are not simply theoretical. They have a strong basis in reality.

Suggestion #1: Find the Right Job
Some people work at a job that they find fascinating. Other people might find the same job boring or intimidating. Working at the wrong job may be necessary at some point in your life, but that does not mean that you should not keep trying to find the “right” job. It is as stressful to be continually bored as it is to be consistently over-challenged.

During my first job in computing, a young colleague of mine cracked under the strain of coding deadlines and code review. He was admitted to a local psychiatric unit. He wrote us long letters about his desire to return to his job. Medical personnel advised him not to. This was probably not the correct job for him.

What is the right job for you – the job that you will most enjoy and in which you will excel? If you have no ideas about this, there are literally hundreds of books about finding the perfect job. There are also Career Counselors who can help you. Each of the jobs that I have held has been appropriate to the person that I was at a given time. I left each of them to move forward in the direction dictated by my personal and Spiritual development.

Suggestion #2: Be Open to Change
Imagine a lifetime of getting up in the morning, going to a job that does not interest you, and staying there until late in the afternoon. Unless you are making a fortune doing this or you have a hobby (or avocation) that keeps your passion alive, you should probably start a search for something more meaningful. If you don’t like your job, you may not be doing your best work. It would be sad for you not to know your talents and what you are capable of. It would be like not discovering a part of yourself.

Don’t quit your job. Just start a new job search. Create a great résumé (there are models you can use on the Internet), and put it on monster.com or give it to a recruiting agent.

By the way, did you know that people nowadays will hold up to eight jobs during their lifetime? This is a far cry from our grandparents’ generation when some people took a job after high school or college and held that job until they retired at 65.

Did you know that a lot of people do not want to retire? I am one of them. I have always loved work.

Suggestion #3: Respect the Culture of the Workplace
If you work at home, this does not apply directly to you, although you have probably noticed that the rhythms of a household do affect your work process.

Like countries, each workplace has a culture that must be respected if you choose to work in that place. The older the company, agency, or enterprise, the more established the culture. It is especially important for newcomers to know this. Without this vital understanding, they might not make it through their probationary period.

Once on a computer contract with a major airline, a young colleague of mine was almost removed from the contract because of what airline computer personnel saw as his air of arrogant superiority. He made no attempt to disguise his contempt for their outdated computer systems and their “primitive” means of maintaining them. His condescending attitude was insulting to the people that he was supposed to help, and they asked that he be dismissed from the contract. If it were not for the Contract Manager’s intervention, he would have been fired. During that contract, he learned a great deal about interpersonal skills and respect for the culture of the workplace.

While working in government settings, we had to keep low profiles and try gently to gather support for any change that we wanted to make in the computer environment. It was not unusual for an entire Systems Development project to be put on hold because a senior Administrative Assistant in a department we had never even heard of said, “That’s not the way we do it.”

Be patient and polite. Respect the culture. If you attempt to go into some Italian cathedrals wearing shorts and a t-shirt, they will stop you. They will think you are being disrespectful to beliefs and traditions that are hundreds of years old. Similarly, if you go into an established business culture without respect and good manners, you may lose your job before you get a chance to show what you can do.

Suggestion #4: Get Along with Supervisors and Colleagues
From a certain perspective, we are usually not allowed to choose our supervisors and colleagues. They come with a given job. You may like them. You may dislike them. Whatever your personal feelings about them, you must be polite and helpful to them. It is part of your job.

Once, while taking a management course in The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (Steven Covey’s excellent book about the interpersonal skills and practices that lead to success), we were asked to say whom we considered our “customers” to be. After hearing our answers, the trainer asked us to consider that our supervisor and our colleagues were among our customers. In other words, being helpful colleagues and employees was an important part of the overall success of our work and therefore of the mission of the whole organization.

In my experience, it is rarely, if ever, a good idea to establish close friendships or intimate relationships at the office. It can interfere with work and place careers in jeopardy. Consider this situation: you and another employee have become “best friends”. One of you gets a promotion, and the other does not. What could be the repercussions? Could your private life be exposed to workplace gossip if a friendship is threatened by a promotion?

Supervisors are another matter. It is important to understand that Supervisors are not parents. They are not there to applaud us, to encourage us, to hear our complaints about other employees, to defend us, or to advise us personally. They are there doing a job which includes structuring the work flow of a department or enterprise. Be polite, be respectful, obey the rules, do the work you are assigned to do, and you will most likely have a good relationship with your Supervisor.

Suggestion #5: Be Calm and Detached
I once had a supervisor who appeared unstable. It was widely rumored that he was addicted to cocaine. I was calm and worked hard. I avoided unnecessary interaction with him. If he was polite and helpful, I was polite and helpful. If he was abrupt, rude, and volatile, I was polite and helpful. I did not base my behavior on his behavior. I did not want to get into a competition based on who could behave the most childishly. I rarely had problems with this supervisor. If I had, I would have started a new job search.

Suggestion #6: If you hate a job, make plans to get out.
You cannot imagine how many unhappy employees I see in my practice who have not updated their résumé and who have made no attempt to investigate the current job market. Unhappiness is a mandate for change.

Indeed, if you find that the job or the people at your workplace are causing you undue stress, you should think of circulating your résumé. Don’t stop looking until you are happily employed. Trying to change a workplace or the people who work there is an exercise in futility.

Suggestion #7: “Get a Life!”
Don’t let the workplace become your life. If it is too important to you personally, if you attach too much personal energy to it, if it occupies all of your time, you might find that some precious moments of your life are being wasted on people and activities that are either unimportant or of only secondary importance to you. Also, if you give great personal attention to a professional arena, you may make yourself and your colleagues miserable.

Yes, your job is important. Take your motivation, hard work, and good will to the office with you… BUT take a big step back from work emotionally, and consider these questions: What do you live for? What makes you get up in the morning? What ignites your passion? What do you value personally? What brings you joy?

Here are some activities that my Clients use to help them stay centered in themselves and to thrive:

  • Practicing and teaching Yoga
  • Martial Arts
  • An exercise or health program
  • Meditation and other Spiritual Practices
  • Preparing to run a marathon
  • Hiking and camping with the Sierra Club
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Painting
  • Crafts
  • Photography
  • Volunteering
  • Writing
  • Adult Education Courses

Sometimes, a hobby in which we are passionately interested can become our next career. At that point, a career becomes a vocation, or a “calling”.

If you think that your work situation needs improvement, please come and see us. Did you know that Professional Counselors are required to take a course in Career?

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