We all experience stress in our lives, but “there is no definition of stress that everyone agrees on, what is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have little effect on others” (The American Institute of Stress) . While stress is highly subjective, all experimental and clinical research confirms that the sense of having little or no control is always stressful. Stress becomes dangerous when it “interferes with your ability to live a normal life over an extended period” (American Psychological Association). It can cause you become tired, unable to concentrate, irritable, and can damage your physical health.
We all know that losing a job is stressful. These days, having a job can be just as stressful. Besides the worry about layoffs, there’s the added pressure of doing the work of others who have been let go. Specific stressors can include lack of control (particularly problematic), time pressure, deadlines, lack of communication, excessive travel, fear of layoffs, and so on. These stressors can cause psychological (depression, anxiety) emotional (dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension), or mental (concentration and memory problems) symptoms. Stressors are highly personal. What is stressful for one person may not be for another, and what is stressful one day may not be stressful the next.
According to The Leader’s Guide to Managing Workplace Stress, available from Profiles International, 62% of Americans say work has a significant impact on their stress levels, and 61% list heavy workloads a significant impact factor.
As chemists, we are always concerned with health and safety, but how often do you think about the effect of stress on your health? And do you know how to reduce it?
First of all, learn stress management skills before things get too bad. Build up your network of trusted peers, from whom you can get ideas and feedback on possible solutions. Take control, by taking breaks, saying “no” to unreasonable demands, prioritizing, and stepping back for an objective look. Recognize that when you are in the middle of a crisis, you may not be thinking at your best. You can push yourself to work beyond capacity for a short period of time, but you cannot maintain that pace for long.
Next, admit that there are things that stress you. Identify them, and eliminate as many as possible. Easier said than done, right? Perhaps your current major source of stress is a big project with a looming deadline. It may be that your stress comes from one piece of the project that is outside your skill set, that you could trade that section to a colleague who has the needed skills. Perhaps the deadline has some wiggle room, and some parts can be completed later. Maybe other projects are preventing you from working on the big project, and you can either delegate them elsewhere, or prioritize them all and decide (with your supervisor) what is not going to get done.
And speaking of your supervisor, part of being manager is being responsible for assisting employees to be maximally productive, and part of that is reducing their stress. Ideally, the employee will let their supervisor know when they are having problems, and will provide several constructive solutions to the problem.
If you are the manager, listen to your employees, and be open and supportive. If there are non-work issues, you can’t solve them but can be sympathetic. If there are work-related issues, identify positive changes that will reduce the undesirable stressors – sometimes as simple as giving the employee more control over their schedule, or prioritizing projects. If you have to make major changes to a project or department, explain when and where changes are going to occur, and the reasons for them.
Everyone has stress, in both their personal and professional life. It’s unavoidable, but also a good reason to have a variety of interests – a have a job you love, and also to have friends, family, volunteer work, and hobbies. That way if you feel stressed in one aspect of your life, you can turn your attention to something completely different, that is going well. Just seeing that there are things you can control, and realizing your world is bigger than the current problem, can be a great stress reliever in its own right.
See also APA Stress Tip Sheet
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).