Looking again at the causes of stress at work

Are the true causes of stress internal or external? The external demands of working life? Or how you react to them internally? Getting rid of self-induced stress might make all the difference.

People love to find simple causes for things. Nowadays, just about every drought, flood, or other upset in the weather is blamed on global warming—as if extreme weather had never existed until the last 20 years.

Every gyration in the financial markets is instantly explained by reference to a single cause. “It was what so-and-so said to analysts,” the pundits cry. “The chairman of the Federal Reserve coughed and upset investors.” What sensitive little flowers all these Wall Street types must be, constantly disturbed by chance remarks and the state of the sorghum crop in Timbuktu.

When you think about it rationally, even extreme events—let alone normal, if unpleasant, workplace conditions—don’t really have as much power as we give them. Bad things happen, yet the vast majority of people survive untouched.

Perception changes reality

Imagine this scene. You go into an office where everyone is obviously extremely busy. Phones ring constantly and people are running from place to place. You ask what is going on.

“We’ve just been told we can win a huge piece of new business,” someone tells you. “The time-scales are really tight, but we’re giving it our best shot and everyone’s excited. Sorry, no time to talk right now.”

Now imagine a different conversation.

“We’re really up against it. There’s this huge piece of business up for grabs, but the time-scales are total killers and everyone’s already rushed off their feet. We’re being hounded into trying to make it and something’s going to fall apart real soon, I tell you. Can’t talk. We’re dying here, but the boss will have my hide if I don’t look busy.”

Same circumstances, but a totally different situation in terms of the amount of stress present.

Drama queens

The words people use, even to themselves, can either limit the stress from events or greatly add to it. Unfortunately, many people have picked up two distressing habits from the media: emphasizing the negatives and adding emotion to pump up the drama. Since good news doesn’t seem to get people excited enough, the news and news-type stores are almost overwhelmingly negative: full of anger, hatred, fear, murder, destruction, and miscellaneous mayhem. Even sports programs seem more interested in feuds and fights off the field than play on it.

Factual reporting is judged too dull by most newspapers and TV channels. In their search for “human interest stories,” what they produce are synthetic versions of events with added and heightened emotions, regardless of whose. Instead of simply being informed what happened, we’re bombarded with accounts of what someone felt about it. If no eye-witnesses are available, a casual passer-by or a person miles away will do, just as long as they can appear suitably excited or tragic.

This may be what viewers and readers want (it’s generally what they get, regardless of their actual wishes), but carrying the same habits of thinking into our personal lives makes little sense.

There are bad things happening in today’s workplaces. Many bosses do indeed act like jerks. But why respond like a drama queen? It will certainly raise your stress and make you feel worse, but will it change anything? I doubt it.

Responses matter

There seems to be a basic confusion between (positive) emotions as a source of people’s passion for their work and (negative) emotions as the source of a large part of the stress that people suffer.

Both sets are emotions, so that isn’t the reason for the difference. If you suppressed all emotions, you would remove the positive ones as well as the negative.

The difference lies in how each person responds to their emotions. Controlling them isn’t the same as suppressing them. The major benefit of human reason is the ability it gives us to discriminate between those emotions and responses that are beneficial and those that are not.

That’s where the confusion lies. When urged to control—even ignore—negative emotions, many people respond as if they had been told to suppress every emotion, good or bad.

If you can stay in charge of the emotions you allow to affect you fully, you can have all the joy and benefit of the positive ones, and keep the negative, drama-queen types from screwing you up.

There’s an old, pretty well known story of a teacher who explained to his students that the human mind is like a battleground between two huge beasts: one that represents all that is positive and life-affirming and its ferocious adversary that brings hatred, anger, and every kind of negative behavior. The battle seems never-ending, now swinging this way, now that.

“Who will win,” an anxious student asks.

“The beast that you feed,” the teacher replies.

When times are tough, which beast are you feeding?

(13 votes, average: 4.54 out of 5)
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