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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 21, 2003

Changing attitude helps cut job stress

By Michael Kiefer
Arizona Republic

Joyce Ballard loved her job. She was 25 years into a career in health insurance and three years into a great job as a manager when she got a new supervisor and everything went bad.

The new boss was a micromanager and would humiliate Ballard in front of co-workers and subordinates. It took a toll.

"I mentally could not function," she says. "I was numb. I loved the job, but I buckled under the style of management."

Within nine months, Ballard was on medical disability leave. She went into therapy and finally got up the gumption to quit, but for a year and a half she remained too angry to go back to work.

Now 48, she is a computer consultant for hospitals, works part time at a wellness center and loves her work again.

Job stress has been a recognized problem for a century.

"Stress these days is coming from reorganization, downsizing, and companies doing more with less people," says Dr. Naomi Swanson, a stress researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Stressed workers tend to be unhealthy workers. Even if they don't become physically ill like Ballard, they tend to miss more days of work, get less done, have lower morale, and self-medicate with alcohol and other substances.

Here are some tips to keep from being the next victim of workplace stress:

• Make changes.

Barry Linden, a psychologist in Glendale, Ariz., tells his patients to make adjustments in their work environments and attitudes.

"One is, you change something out there," he says. "You change your job, you change your boss, you change your work hours, you change your commute. The second is, you change something about your personality or your way of reacting that makes the stress higher."

If you're passive and get walked on, Linden suggests that you try to be more assertive. If you're too assertive, learn to back off. If you're a perfectionist, you may have to learn when to let go.

"These are habits that you have to change, and it takes some doing," Linden says.

• Get a life.

People who expect their jobs to fulfill too many parts of their lives are bound to be disappointed.

"Instead of finding Prince Charming at work, they find Dilbert," says Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa.

Linden adds, "Many of us put so much of our identity into work that, when that does go south, you're just an emotional basket case.

"If work is just one of several elements that gives meaning to your life, you have a better chance of weathering bad times at work."

Make new friends, take a class, plan a vacation, join a softball league or a reading discussion group, study martial arts, or volunteer for a charity or a religious group.

• Make a transition between work and home.

It's hard to leave work at work, so figure out ways to decompress before you get home. Go to a bookstore, to the gym. Go for a run or a bike ride.

"My father always stopped at the Y after work," Linden says. "He'd sit in the steam room for 20 minutes, he'd ride the exercise bike and maybe go for a swim. By the time he got home, he was human."

• Watch your diet.

Caffeine and sugar can wreak havoc on your energy levels, sending you on a roller coaster of adrenaline bursts and crashes. Need we mention alcohol? Limit yourself to a couple of cups of coffee or a couple of colas, or drink water, juice and herbal teas instead.

• Relax, have fun.

There's a difference between recreation and relaxation. And "you need both," Linden says.

Exercise is a great stress reliever, but you also need relaxation to let your body recover. "Sitting and talking to friends oftentimes can be both relaxing and recreational," Linden says.

"And so can simply sitting and listening to music without doing six other things at the same time."