To Be Resilient, Resist the Hype About Stress

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - March 2001

I feel distressed about all the articles being published about "workplace stress." During the last several months here are some that I've seen:

  • "Stress Takes a Hefty Toll On Employees, the Economy," New York Times News Service, February, 25, 2001.

  • "The Return of the Crummy Job" cover story, Business 2.0, February, 6, 2001. p. 75. (October 2013: Article is no longer online. Look for it at your local public library.)

  • "Can Workplace Stress Get Worse?" Wall Street Journal, Marketplace section. January 16, 2001.

  • "The Skill of Thriving Under Pressure: Stress can destroy lives or be a prime motivator at work, depending on how it is handled." Financial Times, January 9, 2001, p. 13.

  • "When Stress Won't Go Away: Trying to reduce stress is fine, experts say, but some stress is just part of the job. How can you prepare employees for inevitable stresses that just won't change?" Human Resources Magazine, December, 2000, pp. 105-110. http://www.shrm.org/publications/hrmagazine/editorialcontent/1200/pages/1200atkinson.aspx (October 2013: A great article, though, now only available to subscribers. Look for it at your local public library.)

These articles are well crafted, but conceptually flawed. If the purpose of the writers and the editors is to help people cope better, their efforts are counter-productive. How so? Research shows that the least resilient workers are those who experience their jobs as full of stress. This means that people who read the articles become less resilient if they allow themselves to become convinced that their jobs have high levels of stress.

The emphasis on "workplace stress" encourages people to feel like helpless victims. It has people identifying the source of the extreme pressures they experience as in their jobs. This is wrong. It lacks awareness that in pressure filled jobs, people can choose to cope well or react like victims. It isn't the situation, it is how we how we react to it that determines whether or not we feel like victims.

None of the writers of the articles listed above did enough research. If they had, they would have discovered that when Dr. Hans Selye, the physician who created the concept "biological stress" retired, he apologized for making a serious mistake. He explained that "stress" was not the term he should have used to describe his research findings. He said when he came from Europe he did not understand the English language or physics terms very well. He said he should have named his research findings the "strain syndrome." (The Stress of My Life: A Scientist's Memoirs, 2nd edition, by Hans Selye. p. 70.)

The problem is that many people, including these article writers, blame the stimulus for their reaction to it. In physics a stressor is an external force attempting to deform an object. The effect on an object is measured as strain.

How much unpleasant strain you experience in your work is your subjective reaction. Your perception of what is happening depends on your competence and consciously owning your reaction. When struggling with extreme pressures and disruptive changes in the workplace, your attitudes and habits create either barriers or bridges to a better future.

Here is an excerpt from a letter to the editor of Business 2.0 that makes this point:

"Regarding your article 'Return of the 'Crummy Job,' every job I have held has had its good and its bad sides...I have put in 50 and 60 hour weeks during my career because I believed in what I was doing....When I felt I was either no longer receiving the reward I needed either financially or professionally, I changed....A job is what you make it."
--- Vincent O. Paragone

The workplace today does seem bewildering and disorienting to many workers who were trained by their parents and teachers to act, dress, talk, feel, and think as told. The old way of raising children conditioned them to be obedient employees in large organizations that changed very slowly.

In the past, the more desirable employee was like an obedient child who cooperated with being controlled by parental authorities. Now, however, the desirable employee is self-motivated, resilient, has an attitude of professionalism, and can work without a job description.

Employers now want people who know how to make themselves useful without waiting to being told what to do. Employers want people who are constantly learning, adapt quickly, work well with others, and find ways to be successful in new and ambiguous situations.

Research conducted by psychologist Mary Steinhardt at a division of Motorola Corporation, found that employees who perceived their jobs as full of stress were the least resilient employees. Employees who use problem-focused coping in their constantly changing work environment were the most resilient. The findings showed the following correlations with resilience: (Plus numbers indicate the strength of a positive relationship, minus numbers indicate a negative realtionship.)

problem-focused coping +.48
social support+.39
coworker cohesion+.32
supervisor support+.24
symptoms of illness-.40
emotion-focused coping-.50
perceived job stress-.56

(Ref: The Journal of Quality and Participation, Jan/Feb, 1999, pp. 54-57.)

The Motorola research confirms what psychologist Richard Lazarus and others have been finding for over 40 years. People who become emotionally upset about difficulties, blame others for their feelings, and dwell on their unhappy feelings are the least resilient and have more illnesses.

The message here is to resist the temptation to believe all the hype about workplace stress. Such articles pander to the inclination in many people to feel like helpless victims who believe that relief from the "stress" they experience is the responsibility of their employer. There is an advantage here, however. By understanding how to be highly resilient, you can be far more successful during a time like this than during times when people are not feeling as much workplace strain. Resiliency gives you a competitive advantage while sustaining your health and happiness

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