Coping with Work Related Stress

By Shiv Dhawan

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Work is generally acknowledged to be one of the major sources of stress and, in our competitive society of high achievers, has perhaps assumed disproportionate significance. Most people spend more time at work during their working lives than they do at home.

Life is a paradox. Work can give stress, even absence of work can give stress. Losing a job is one of the most powerful stressors and probably second to that of coming to terms with the death of a very close family member or friend. The cycle of emotions is virtually the same, starting with numbed shock, a sense of injustice and “why me?” self-pity, disbelief, anger and then lethargy and inertia. This gradually gives way to an emotion of passive acceptance and loss of identity since the individual is torn away from the structured work regime and network of contacts outside the home. Few people will seek him or her out and the realization that the world and system is carrying on unaffected while the jobless individual is wallowing in loneliness enhances feelings of personal inadequacy and redundancy. If this stage is prolonged, it could degenerate into depression, suicidal tendencies or end up in a heart attack induced by melancholia.

What To Do If You Lose Your Job

In such a situation it is imperative to ensure that the individual does not sink into a stage of inertia and despondency. Given the materialistic tendency of the world, it is quite probable that family members may not be able to empathize adequately with the individual or given their proximity to the individual and the fact that their futures are intertwined be undergoing their own collateral stress. The individual thus has to predominantly help himself or herself to cope and ensure he or she remains grounded. This involves forcing oneself to a discipline of:

  • Planning each day carefully to avoid the sense of disorientation. Get up early, maybe at the same time as you did when you were employed, bathe and dress up formally and - even if you are not moving out of the house - designate a room as ‘home office’ where you have your laptop, printer, fax scanner and telephone. Sit here from normal working hours. It does not matter what work you do- surf the net, reconnect with acquaintances through business portals like LinkedIn, trawl job portals, write a book do anything that looks like work. Plan your tea and smoking breaks as you have done in any office scenario. This make belief world takes the mind away from brooding and enables you to focus on either what went wrong in the previous job and also concentrate on positioning yourself for a new job through exploring the employment market and preparing for interviews.
  • Basically you are in a state of burnout. You feel let down or betrayed by your organization. Use the time you are in your ‘home office’ to understand what led you to this burnout, and ensure that history does not repeat itself. Use it as a wakeup call to re-evaluate the way you want to live your life and what you want to achieve.  Talk to someone who you trust and who is experienced in similar situations. Avoid people within your old organization, as they might be biased or still be carrying emotional baggage. Discuss the situation through in detail, looking at the circumstances before your involvement, your workload, your actions and the actions of other people, and the situations that evolved. In reflecting, you will probably find that you made some mistakes. You will almost certainly see that some of the blame should be attributed externally to the situation, to people around you. In your mind, make sure you place this blame where it fairly belongs. Learn the lessons of your mistakes so that you do not repeat them.
  • Expect the best but be prepared for the worst. Make every effort to look and keep looking for a job. Even if no opportunities arise immediately for the type of work for which you are qualified, it may be wise to consider alternative types of jobs if available-perhaps on a part time basis on the premise that it is usually easier to find the right job if you are already employed.
  • Always use extra leisure time available to you constructively, instead of regarding it as a bane, think of it as an opportunity that has never risen before for developing new interests and skills ideally in the company of others to maintain social contact and give you an added string to your bow in search for work.
  • Cashflow could be a bugbear during this phase. One of the best ways of avoiding falling into the associated pit of financial stress is reach out to your accountant or financial advisor and reworking your investments and assessing which ones you could liquidate to enable you to return as close as possible to the financial liquidity status you enjoyed while you were employed.
  • The feeling of aimlessness and inertia has to be countered through exercise and channeling energy effectively. It is imperative to build in a schedule of morning walks, yoga and meditation to maintain a healthy balance in life and release the frustration. In order to reduce the sense of isolation it would be useful to engage in outdoor team games like tennis, squash, football, cricket as well as indoor team games like bridge, canasta or similar activities that involve more than one player and involve deploying the mind.
  • It is important to watch diet. Despondency could lead the individual to either go into heavy eating and drinking binges or become totally apathetic and nibble on snacks. Follow the same meal routine as before ensuring your food is healthy and varied
  • Finally, get out of the house as much as possible.


Dealing With Financial Stress

Mishandled finances are a major stressor. In today’s busy world, money has become a major stressor. The practice of having multiple credit cards and overspending is a sure formula for going into debt. In a bid to keep up with their neighbors and pressure groups some people are always wanting the newest car, latest electronics and easy credit allows them access to these. However the problem comes later as bills for indiscriminate purchases pile up. The threat of bankruptcy is one of the biggest money related stressors. Money problems lead to stress of domestic disagreements which if left unchecked could lead to complete breakdown of relationships.

Let us step back and take a look at the root cause here. Once again we realize the cause for money related stress is not the external object but our own attitude, our worldview. It is due to our propensity to buy things we cannot afford, to spend without planning that leads us into stressful situations.

This is a stressor that we can easily overcome through rational and conscious change in habits.

People who are consistently living outside of their means need to take immediate steps to change. They need to lower expenses. The first step is to stop buying things they cannot afford. Start using cash or debit instead of credit. As a starting point they should not charge anything new on existing credit cards and work on getting current credit card debt paid off by repaying more than the minimum amount. In fact they should not get taken in by the carrot of paying minimum amount instead of the entire outstanding amount. The vicious debt cycle on account of principal amount plus accumulated interest will ensure that you never escape the trap once you are caught in its jaws. Having got out of debt, make it a matter of principle that you will not buy anything on credit that you cannot pay for in full at the end of the month.

Having recovered from the debt trap, making a monthly budget to track you daily expenses is a great way to see exactly where the money goes each month. While planning expenses as far as possible cut the luxuries at first. This could be done by dividing your expenses into two categories – that of necessities and that of luxuries. Necessities need to be catered to foremost while luxuries could either be eliminated or left for a later date. Take for example, subscribing to every channel on cable TV whether or not you watch it regularly and even if you do, pause and think what value it is adding to your life, to your knowledge base, to your competencies, seeing a film at a mall over the weekend where the parking fees are double that of a normal weekday and the tickets three times more costly. Look at what you can truly do without, what does not add any tangible value to your life and then make the appropriate adjustments in your budget. In order to live within your income, before you make any major purchase ask yourself if this is a need or a want. We often fall into the trap of buying things like the latest model of the swankiest car only because a face lifted version with cosmetic changes has been introduced, and similar objects which we have no real use for and cannot really afford but bought because they are provided on credit in bite sized installments forgetting that all this is someday going to snowball into a large unaffordable figure.

In order to make this budgeting exercise more palatable why don’t we rechristen the budget as the “happiness balance sheet”? The governing principal of this balance sheet is “Income one dollar, expense fifty cents, life is happiness, income one dollar, expense two dollars, life is stress and strife.”

Why don’t we do a small experiment to create the happiness balance sheet. This will indicate that after meeting all expenses related to necessities how much you have left for so called indulgences or luxuries.

Pull out or revisit the following documents:

  • Payslips for last 3 months
  • Last year’s income tax returns
  • Last three months credit card statements and cheque book stubs

Put down your gross monthly income. This is income before taxes and deductions for savings etc.). This could be in the form of salary for the employed, income after deducting business expenses for the self-employed and pension for those who are superannuated. Add to this any other interest and dividend income from investments.

  • From this amount deduct about 30 % for income tax and other levies
  • From the remaining amount deduct another 20% that will be earmarked for savings and investments.
  • The balance that remains is the net income available for living expenses

Now refer to the cheque book stubs and credit card statements and list item by item the amount spent monthly on essentials. This could comprise things like mortgage or house rent, property tax, utilities ( gas, electricity, water, telephone, cell phone, internet, cable TV), groceries, essential clothing , essential personal care items, insurances, loan installments, auto gas maintenance and repairs, other transportation costs and child care expenses             
Subtract the total of all the expenses in Point 5 from the figure obtained in point 4. The resultant figure is what you would have left for indulgences.

It is not enough to simply create a happiness budget, it is imperative to track actual expenses against such a balance sheet to ensure that you are not going overboard.

At the end of this exercise you may well discover that you cannot afford everything you want and may feel dejected. But there is no need to feel cheated or frustrated. This is where you need to exercise your creativity and explore options of how you can get your indulgences or luxuries less expensively or for free. For example, there is no gold medal being awarded to you for seeing an Oscar winning movie on the first day that it is released at a multiplex. You could wait for its DVD to be released and rent that at a much cheaper rate than what you would pay for parking and a movie ticket. Alternatively you could wait for the movie to be shown on some TV channel to which you anyway subscribe.

Action Steps You Can Take

Given the fact that the job market is very volatile and there is really no such thing as assured stability it is always wise to keep at-least three to six months’ worth of living expense in a fixed deposit account. If you are lucky enough not to have to draw on it, it will go on earning interest and increasing in size quietly. If in the unfortunate situation of your either losing a job, either due to conditions beyond your control or because you no longer can tolerate the work environment, you will be able to live while you look for a new job without the stress of wondering how you will meet the essential expenses during the period. This in a way gives independence and self-confidence which in itself is a great de-stressor.

It always helps in life to have more than one steady source of income. In case you have a talent like singing, acting, carpentry or painting, try and acquire that level of proficiency in it so that you could convert your hobby or passion into a part time business which supplements your income, helps you take your mind away from other work related stressors and provide a potential alternative profession. The awareness of the possibility of your being able to hold out for three to six months if you are out of job coupled with the realization that even if nobody were to offer you regular work in the field you just left, you have a competency that enables you to earn your livelihood doing something that gives you joy, stability and ensures prosperity. That in itself is a great de-stressor.

In a nutshell, by simplifying life, rationally planning expenditure and only permitting oneself those indulgences that one can legitimately afford one can solve all money stress problems and live an anxiety free life.   

If the readers of this article wants to obtain deeper insights into managing work related stress  they should read my  e-book entitled "Finding a Panacea for Stress-Move from Distress to De-Stress". This has been published by Bookboon Publishing Denmark which is the first book publishing company in the world to focus 100 percent on free eBooks and publishes education related books for business professionals and students.

This book defines stress as the outcome of interactions between a person and a set of external stimuli which are neither good nor bad, neither inducing joy nor creating stress. Joy and stress are caused through the attitude of each person and the manner in which he or she relates to the specific stimulus. The panacea for stress-moving from distress to de-stress, lies in working on the cause for stress. It illustrates how people irrespective of colour, creed, nationality and gender can control emotions, attitudes, thoughts and lifestyle to overcome stress, by understanding its causes, and changes needed in order to acquire the appropriate personality traits. All of these are practical, free and can be carried out as part of life-as-usual.

This can be downloaded completely free via the following link:

Image Credit: Helga Weber



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