Don't let workplace stress kill you!

I know… it's easier said than done - Issue #10

I recently read an article by an author who had open-heart surgery two years ago. He had none of the usual risk factors. He wasn’t overweight, didn’t smoke, ate reasonably well, etc. But, he did explain that he had a lot of workplace stress.

According to a study of 412,000 U.S. workers published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, mistrust is the toxic workplace issue most correlated with heart disease

Julie Ray of the global analytics and advice firm Gallup explains the study's conclusion:

"After the authors adjusted for demographic factors and whether respondents had health insurance, they found that trust was associated with seven CVD risk factors among both women and men in the sample. Workers who do not work in an open, trusting environment had greater odds of having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes."

This shouldn’t be surprising for anyone. We’ve now seen decades of research that show how stress is a killer. However, not all stress is bad. Things that challenge you and help you become better at what you will necessarily generate stress. Some stress is required for growth.

While some amount of stress is part of life, continuous stress that you can’t escape can be damaging. For example, 8 hours of stress in a toxic workplace for 5 days/week, every month, and every year. Not good.

“Acute stress responses in young, healthy individuals may be adaptive and typically do not impose a health burden. However, if the threat is unremitting, particularly in older or unhealthy individuals, the long-term effects of stressors can damage health.” Source: Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants

Google researched their high-performing teams over a 2-year period and discovered five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams. One key issue rose to the top and was by far the most important factor, which I think is highly correlated with stress. It’s also the basis for the other four: Psychological Safety.

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?

  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

If you don’t feel safe at work, you will experience stress. This can take many forms. You are going to feel stressed when you know that your manager will yell at you and potentially punish you for mistakes (great leaders are rare). Ironically, when things are too quiet, you may feel stress as well. Fearing that you will lose your job when the company has a policy of laying off the bottom 10% every quarter is stressful.

Worrying about looking stupid is stressful when you need to ask clarifying questions (e.g., Does everyone else already know what is going on? Why am I not in the loop?). You’re going to experience extreme stress when you feel that you can’t trust colleagues in a hyper-competitive environment where everyone is contending for limited promotions (e.g., if they can look good while making you look bad, they get ahead).

Let’s admit that some level of stress is inevitable. It is naive to pretend that a workplace, project processes, and team dynamics could ever be structured to eliminate stress completely. But, it is the intensity and duration of bad stress that should be concerning. An environment of relentless, inescapable stress is terrible.

As human beings, we thrive on a sense of agency. We want to feel like we are in control of our lives and can make changes. Even if we are faced with stress, we want to know that we can do something about it. For example, we should feel safe pushing back on a manager that is demanding too much and not fear being fired. We can stop a boss’ verbal abuse in its tracks and let him or her know that speaking to us that way isn’t acceptable. We should also feel safe having an honest discussion with toxic coworkers to put issues on the table and resolve them.

It’s when you have no agency that your health and wellbeing are at risk. My coworkers and I used to refer to it as “working in a meat grinder.” The pace never slowed. We never got enough sleep. The stress never lessened. We always felt like we were under attack and never got a break. One evening, a coworker was so fatigued from our insane schedule that she fell asleep driving home and crashed her car. That kind of crap is unacceptable!

That lifestyle is simply not sustainable, and you have to make a change ASAP. Your health and life depend on it!

You either need to make changes at work (or it may be time to find a new job). If the workload is your biggest stressor, have an honest conversation with your manager about prioritization. Sometimes they just don’t know that you’re feeling overwhelmed. You may be worried about revealing that. I know that I used to be. But, a good boss wants to help you succeed and will find ways to prioritize things and rebalance projects on the team.

If the stress is coming from interactions with coworkers, I wrote an entire article on how to handle that. I won’t copy it here. Sometimes you need to boost your self-confidence so that you can be more assertive at work, both with coworkers and your manager. I wrote an article about that too.

If your manager is the problem, you can start with an honest conversation with him or her. If the choice is working it out or leaving the job, then what do you have to lose? Again, you might be surprised by how receptive someone can be when you are confident and assertive about what’s not working, what you need, and what needs to change.

But, the one option you can’t choose is living with the ongoing stress. Create a plan with a steady escalation path of options that you will explore (e.g., talking with your manager, discussing things with coworkers), all the way up to the most radical change (i.e., quitting and finding a better job). I made a massive change in my life and career over three years ago, which reduced my stress by almost 100%. My point with sharing that is to let you know that it is possible, but sometimes it requires the confidence and courage to refuse to settle for anything less.

What I've been reading and writing

  • I published an article this week about why some people always seem to be in demand with offers constantly flowing their way, while others struggle with the traditional job search. “How to Become an Opportunity Magnet - Break free of the traditional job huntNote: If you clap and leave me a comment on that Medium article, I’ll enter you into my contest to win a free week of Career Coaching!

  • Shaunta Grimes wrote a great article about “How to Find a Mentor.” In it, she explains the three levels of mentorship and why all are helpful. She provides some recommendations for how to find and land a mentor at each one.

  • I’m curious about your thoughts on this HBR article: “Can You Be a Great Leader Without Technical Expertise?” I have mixed feelings about it. Leave a comment on this newsletter post to share your opinion. I’d love to hear from some of you!