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3. Believing That You Are a Victim

Viewing yourself as a helpless victim buffeted by the winds of change only maximizes your stress, allows you to feel awful, and guarantees failure. Victims maintain that life is unfair and there is nothing they can do about it. Victims revel in throwing a big pity party for themselves, focusing only on what they have lost and what sacrifices must be made. There is also the hope that others will feel sorry for them and perhaps come to the rescue. If you are a victim, you need to be saved.

Perceiving yourself as a victim totally disempowers you. Although you may do so to defend or soothe yourself, the reality is that you are only damaging yourself further. You are setting yourself up for even more victimization because victims do not make attractive employees. Acting like a victim will threaten your future.

This self-induced stress perpetuates itself and can end up in a vicious cycle that only you can break. Remember that the Chinese character for crisis, when translated, actually means “dangerous opportunity.” Within every change or crisis there is opportunity. Look for these opportunities. Learn to view them as challenges. Remember the stress hardiness characteristics. Refuse to yield to the seductive pull of self-pity. Remaining productive and developing resilience will pave the way out of your doldrums. Accept the situation, pick up the pieces, and learn to make lemonade from lemons. You are a victim only if you decide to be one.

4. Thinking That If What You Are Doing Isn't Working, You Should Just Try Harder

If what you are currently doing in your job is not working, then what makes you think that trying harder will work any better? The key may not be to try harder, but rather to do something different. You cannot play a new game by the old rules. This “more of the same” strategy is destined to fail in a changing environment. On the other hand, if your current strategies are working, then by all means stick with them. If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

Struggling to do your job with methods that are not working can significantly increase your level of stress. Study your work situation to determine exactly what has changed and exactly what is not working, and then experiment with new ways of doing tasks. You must be willing to alter your old techniques and routines if you are to remain viable. Choose to view this as a creative challenge rather than a chore. If you are clueless as to what to do differently, ask a colleague or a co-worker who is highly competent about what he or she has tried that has proven fruitful.

5. Assuming That You Will Always Benefit from a Low-Stress Work Environment

Whether you search for a job with minimal pressure or work behind the scenes at your current job to lower stress (by slowing the rate of change, for example), you may only be hurting yourself in the long run. Beware of the trap of believing that there is such a thing as a low-stress organization that is on track to survive. All available evidence points to the conclusion that slow changing organizations are headed for trouble. If you opt to slow down change today, you can temporarily lower your stress, but you are sacrificing your future.

Clearly, working in an environment of rapid change is stressful. But you may be headed for greater problems and stress down the road if your outfit fails to change or responds too slowly to changes in the external environment. Remember that the stress of accelerating change is here to stay. The key to stress mastery is often less about avoiding environmental stressors and more about how you respond to the inevitable stresses you will face. You will actually serve your own best interests by getting involved with an organization with the courage to move ahead in a changing world. Concentrate on lowering workplace stress in ways that do not involve minimizing change. Refer to the tips in faulty assumption #2 for ways you can reduce workplace stress in a manner that is in your best interests.

Another way to lower your level of job stress is to lighten your workload by abandoning tasks that may be expendable. Many times workplace stress builds because employees are expected to produce a heavier volume of work, improve quality standards, and work faster, all at the same time. In this era of downsizing, more work keeps falling on fewer shoulders. Has this happened to you? If not, do not be surprised if it does in the future. Customers are expecting better services. Competition is rising in almost all sectors. Workloads naturally rise as a result. But we all have limits to the amount of work we can carry.

If you keep taking on new duties without giving some up, you will eventually become overloaded. If you overview your work and then reorder your priorities, you may discover that certain tasks or procedures are expendable, some can be streamlined, and still others can be delegated to other workers. But this is easier said than done. There is a tendency to hang on to old habits and familiar ways of doing things, even if they are inefficient. This is particularly true if it involves tasks you are good at and reluctant to part with, even if they have minimal importance for your job. Does any of this apply to you? If you eliminate that which is expendable, it will create valuable time for you to devote to projects and tasks that really count. Not only will it help relieve the pressure on you, and therefore lower your stress level, but it will also allow you to devote more time to the important work that higher management will use to evaluate your performance.

So creating a low-stress work environment often involves re-engineering your job by (1) getting rid of busywork, (2) ditching unnecessary steps or procedures, and (3) abandoning tasks that are not necessary to achieve the current goals of your company. This may even mean unloading duties that don't count much, even though you do them incredibly well. If you are feeling overloaded in your work situation, we invite you to do this overview and determine what you can reasonably delete. Of course, you do need to also assess what your organization and/or boss will allow you to discard.

6. Believing That It Is Usually Unwise to Take Risks

Many people adopt the strategy of “when in doubt, do nothing.” Change often requires that decisions be made. Many people wait indefinitely until all the facts are in to move in a chosen direction. But the reality is that all decisions are made on the basis of insufficient information, for none of us are soothsayers who can accurately predict what the future will bring. Doing nothing is merely a decision not to decide. This does not mean that you should make impulsive decisions without carefully weighing alternatives, but if you wait around until all the data are in, it may be too late!

We are reminded of the story of a friend who worked in a professional capacity for a large mental health care practice. The owners decided to sell the practice to an interested buyer. Clearly, the shift in management was going to result in massive internal changes in the organization. Our friend was given an opportunity to buy into the practice and become one of the owner/partners, and he was offered a financial arrangement that was well within his means. Taking advantage of this opportunity would have greatly increased his authority, status, and earning potential, but would also have increased his responsibilities and therefore his level of stress. Fearful of taking on new duties, he balked. He decided to wait and “play it safe” to see how things shook out with the new owners. Within six months the new owners fired him, viewing him as “too cautious” to be a viable part of their organization. The irony here is that by playing it safe, he lost in a big way. He ended up without a job or an equity position. Had he bought into the business, he could have at least sold his shares later on, had he found out that he did not want to work with the new owners.

7. Expecting That You Can Control Everything If You Try Hard Enough

Many people make the mistake of expending lots of energy and effort trying to control that which is uncontrollable. They resist the inevitable and try to undo that which cannot be undone. This leads to frustration and chronic stress because they are fighting a battle that can never be won. This is more likely to occur in rapidly changing environments, where people fear uncertainty and loss of control and try to take charge to maintain equilibrium. They forget that sometimes you can gain control by going with the flow rather than resisting it.

When white-water rafting, one of the dangers is that you could fall out of the raft and be carried downstream past large boulders and swirling rapids. Clearly, if this should occur, it would be frightening (that is, stressful) and potentially dangerous. How does one cope if this should happen? Conventional wisdom would have you swim with all your might against the current, toward the raft. Actually, what is recommended is to allow yourself to go with the current and not fight it. Go feet first, arms at your sides, and allow the current to carry you to the shallows. Surrender to the current, which, if you do not fight, will navigate you safely through the rapids into calm water, where your fellow rafters can then retrieve you.

So assess whether a struggle makes any sense or will it just be a waste of time. Some people maximize their stress level by picking the wrong battles and waging war on too many fronts. Often these individuals oppose almost every change their organization makes, sometimes even fighting for things that would not be in their best interests even if they got their way. This strategy is bound to fail and put them at odds with their boss, supervisor, or colleagues. The result is that they often alienate others whom they need as allies. Picking the wrong battles can eventually lead to burnout.

Remember the advice of Jonathon Kozol: “Pick battles big enough to matter but small enough to win.” Likewise, avoid the trap of pursuing issues that are a lost cause. Recognize what decisions are irreversible and learn to accept that which cannot be changed. Channel your energies toward issues where you have a chance of making a real dent. Acceptance of the inevitable will greatly lower your stress.

8. Believing That It Is Okay to Psychologically Unplug from Your Job If It Gets Too Stressful

It can be difficult to maintain a high level of commitment to your job in the face of high-velocity change. If you are concerned with job security, or just feeling overworked from long hours or underappreciated from not enough pay or recognition for your work, it is easy to get fed up with the situation. You may be tempted to emotionally disconnect from your work as a way of coping.

A common method of unplugging is to avoid new assignments or unfamiliar duties. The assumption here is that it will be less stressful to stick with what you already know. When motivation is low and you adopt an “I don't care” attitude, it is easy to shy away from new demands. But that is a very shortsighted strategy for managing your stress. You are buying comfort today at the expense of tomorrow. Avoidance and delay tactics may end up making you a target for dismissal at worst, or guarantee that you are overlooked for promotion at best. Your confidence and self-esteem will certainly be a casualty of this approach.

We would like to encourage you to be wary of the desire to unplug. Recognize that a bad case of the blahs is a common side effect of workplace stress. It is easy to understand how you might fall prey to becoming disconnected, but recognize that this will only do further harm to your emotional well-being. When you lose passion for your work, when your commitment wanes, part of your life loses meaning. As a result, job pressures weigh heavier and your vulnerability to workplace stress increases. You cannot afford to stop caring, no matter how attractive that might seem.

High job commitment is an excellent antidote to stress; there is something magical about commitment that gives us emotional strength. Remember the three C's. When we are committed we are happier, more resilient, and more satisfied and secure, even about our jobs. And commitment shows. It is like a light that glows from within that your colleagues and boss cannot help but perceive. Sometimes a high level of commitment can end up saving your job. In times of downsizing, employers are often faced with tough choices about whom to keep and whom to let go. How they perceive your level of commitment may very well determine whether you get the ax.

We advise you to plunge in and accept new or tough assignments as a way of broadening your experience base and heightening your commitment. This may temporarily increase your stress at the outset, but over time it is likely to improve your job skills, making you more valuable to your employer or on the job market. You are stretching yourself today in order to be in better shape tomorrow. One of the best stress-prevention techniques is to keep updating your skills. Over time, this will make your current job easier to handle and guarantee that you will be highly employable if your job does not work out. Also, do not assume that it will be less stressful to ease in to a new situation. Instead of taking time to build up your nerve before tackling something new, build your nerve by doing it. Once you plunge in, you will often discover that your fears were unsubstantiated. The sooner you face your fears and go through them, the sooner your level of stress will diminish.

Find a way to fall back in love with your job. Don't let the stress of change drive a wedge between you and your work. It is true that your employer will benefit from your commitment, but you will reap far greater rewards.

9. Assuming That “Caring Management” Should Always Strive to Keep You Comfortable

In our so-called enlightened age where we have done away with sweatshops and other forms of employee oppression, we consider it an inalienable right that our employers “treat us well.” We believe we are entitled to “caring management.” But over and above that, we believe that caring for us is in the best interest of the employees and the business itself. But what does that really mean? You need to be careful about what evidence you look at in determining to what extent your organization cares about its workers.

You may make the mistake of assuming that “caring” always means keeping employees comfortable—that management would always put employees first and strive to make things easier for workers. Therefore “caring management” would be about lowering workplace stress and not about making things harder. This would amount to greater job security (no downsizing), ample pay raises, improved work conditions, and a slower rate of change. In an ideal world this scenario would be possible and highly desirable. But the business world of today is hardly a utopian environment. While minimizing job stress might sound like a caring move on the part of management, in this day and age it could be a cruel option. Why? Because first and foremost, management can show it cares for you by making sure the business stays in business, by doing what works so the company does not go under. Remember that management also must care about customers and even stockholders. Employees are not the only people the organization must cater to if it is to succeed. Your employers must ask you and your colleagues to do what needs to be done in order to survive in this age of instability. And that usually means hard work and stress.

Thus, the best definition of caring management in the business world of today needs to be defined by the end result. The organization must do what works so that it can meet its payroll and provide you with your job. What good would it do you if your company treated you like royalty, kowtowing to your every whim and need, but then inevitably went under, leaving you jobless and hopelessly spoiled?

A stressful work environment and steady work demands are often the best proof that your company is on the right track and will remain viable. Management definitely has your best interests in mind when it is concerned with keeping your job secure and your paycheck intact. Without that, what good are all the frills? If management always bent over backward to keep you comfortable, it could be the most heartless thing they could possibly do, for then you could easily end up on the unemployment line. So if you find yourself bemoaning the fact that your company is not making life easier for you, use this viewpoint as a helpful reframe for conceptualizing the situation. Once again, how you view the situation will determine in great part how you feel and how you respond.

Many larger businesses or corporations do attempt to provide support for employees, not necessarily by lowering stress levels or workloads, but by offering employee assistance programs (EAPs), which can offer short-term counseling, referral services, alcohol and drug intervention programs, and so on. If you are experiencing difficulties and your company offers EAP benefits, it may be worth taking advantage of those services.

10. Believing That the Future Is to Be Feared

Worries about the future have reached epidemic proportions. The acceleration in the rate of change has led to marked uncertainty and job instability. You might be worried about how you will be affected by changes in your field or in your workplace. Do you ever find yourself obsessing about whether you will be downsized, or if self-employed, whether your business will survive? If you have a high tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty, then perhaps you are not concerned. But if you have difficulty coping with change and confusion, then you probably wish you could bring some order and certainty to your situation. You might find, however, that attempts to eliminate uncertainty and instability might backfire.

An environment of rapid change is by nature unstable and uncertain. Stability by definition implies that things stay the same. In contrast, today's world is very fluid and transitional. The ability to improvise, to roll with the punches, has become an essential skill. Instead of futilely working to stabilize the situation, learn how to exploit instability and take advantage of the opportunities inherent in a changing atmosphere. So if you attempt to settle things you might be setting yourself up to fail. In our rapidly changing business world, rigidity sounds the death knell for you and your career. Therefore, although it may appear that you would experience less stress if you could stabilize the situation, the reality is that you could not succeed in doing so and therefore would only end up heightening your stress.

It is in your best interest to increase your tolerance for constant change and midcourse corrections. Begin to welcome confusion into your life and allow yourself at times to “wing it.” Learn to flex to the demands of the immediate situation rather than always trying to make your job conform to your preset expectations.

Learning to live with uncertainty will help quell your fears of the future. Expending large amounts of energy catastrophizing about the future depletes the energy left to invest in your work. Instead of worrying about all the things that might go wrong, put your energies into creating the kind of future that you want. To quote Price Pritchett, “The best insurance policy for tomorrow is to make the most productive use of today.”

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