Job stress and finding solutions

Sound Consumer | February 2004

by Patricia Fluhrer, Pharm.D, M.D. and Carol Vecchio, Executive Director, Centerpoint Institute

Patricia Fluhrer
Patricia Fluhrer

(February 2004) — The new year is a time when many people evaluate the course of their lives, including their jobs. Does your job make you feel overwhelmed, trapped or out-of-control? Beware ... job-related stress can be a strong contributor to making us ill. Conversely, finding and doing work that regularly contributes to peace of mind creates potentially tremendous health benefits.

Work-related stress can result in behaviors that undermine our health, including overeating, smoking, drinking alcohol or participating in other unhealthy and high-risk activities. We also may sleep poorly and be distracted by constant worrying.

The body's response
Our bodies respond to stress in ways that can encourage diseases to develop. The hormones traditionally implicated in response to stress are adrenaline (and related compounds) and cortisol, a steroid. Increased levels of the adrenaline-related hormones cause elevations in heart rate, blood pressure and general alertness known as the "fight-or-flight" response. In the short-run, this can improve performance and alertness. Over the long run, however, prolonged elevations of blood pressure and heart rate can damage blood vessels and heart muscle, setting the stage for heart disease and stroke.

Increased cortisol levels in response to stress also have short-term benefits, improving memory, mobilizing sugar as fuel for the brain and muscles, and moving infection-fighting cells into position for staving off infectious assaults. But sustained high cortisol levels block the immune system, impair the body's ability to fight infection and increase the risk of cancer. High levels increase fat deposits in the stomach and hips (correlated with increased heart disease), can increase cholesterol and plaque formation in the arteries, and also can cause bones to thin.

A recent report also identified increased levels of a blood protein called Interleukin-6 (IL-6) in people under chronic stress. IL-6 is known to be a causative factor for illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis and some cancers.

Carol Vecchio
Carol Vecchio

So what can we do about job stress?
Look at what's causing the overwhelming feelings. Is it your boss? The work environment? The projects or tasks you're engaged in daily? Is your career headed down the wrong path? Pinpointing the problem can help define a solution.

Ask what you need to let go of. It's possible to remain in a job, but let go of the stress of trying to make it work.

Define what you want in place of what you're letting go of. List what you want in a work setting, a boss, responsibilities or a new career. Be clear how you want to feel on a day-to-day basis.

Explore avenues for getting what you want. Is there another department in your organization that would be a better fit? How might you shift your responsibilities and give away some tasks that drain you to someone who would thrive at those projects? If it's a bigger career change that's in the cards, get some support from a career counselor, coach or through a workshop.

Set plans in motion to end the task or relationship that is so stressful. Gather up the files connected to what you'll no longer be doing and pass them to the new person. Take your boss out for coffee and express appreciation for all that s/he has done for you. Throw a party now to celebrate the decision that you'll be leaving the job.

What can you do when you get stuck?
Find perspective. Take time to step out of the situation. See what's happening through new eyes by getting insight from someone not caught up in it all. Listen to your heart.

Set boundaries. Question assumptions and limits. Is it really essential to work through lunch? What's the real deadline on that project? Renegotiate agreements and responsibilities.

Take responsibility. Own your choices and let go of feeling like a victim. Define a short-term vision for what you want and ask for what you need.

Take smaller steps. Develop short-term plans. It's very easy to get stressed when we look too far into the future. Take steps for which you have energy.

Engage creativity. Brainstorm alternatives. Make changes that are within your resources and control.

Ask for help. Support can help you look at the stress as a source of information for what needs to change.

Work doesn't need to be hazardous to your health. It can be energizing and life-giving to yourself as well as to everyone around you.

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs," says philosopher Harold Thurman Whitman. "Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Patricia Fluhrer, Pharm.D., M.D., has spent 10 years in the pharmacy field and 20 years in the medical field.

Carol Vecchio, a career counselor with more than 22 years' experience, is the executive director and co-founder of Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire people to discover creativity, passion and renewed commitment in life and at work.

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