I couldn’t sleep. So I got out of bed and went into the living room. It was 1 AM on a weeknight. We have a view of the Upper East Side of Manhattan from our living room windows. We can see the FDR expressway and the Queensboro Bridge. Even at 1, they are full of cars racing to somewhere. It’s a stirring scene but one I did not want to see. The City may never sleep, but me, I was craving real rest.
I was thinking about work. Spiraling really. Cash flow was at the top of my list—if I don’t keep certain relationships going (i.e., keep certain players happy), then it could affect revenue. And business finances are directly tied to personal income. With certain lifestyle expectations, two kids in college, and a wedding on the calendar, potential dips in income are a disaster.
I was wide awake. The hormone cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol was preparing me for battle. But the foe was unseen. And to add an extra dose of misery to the mix, now I had a new worry; not getting enough sleep and therefore underperforming tomorrow at work!
I was overcome by work-related stress. And it was pouring over the sea walls in my work-brain like a tsunami, flooding other areas of my mind with work-induced anxiety. I know something about work-related stress: I’m not the only one.
Just the word increases our heart rate.
Stress is synonymous with work. At my organization, we aim to improve the work lives of thousands, so we’ve been asking questions about the challenges of the modern workplace. Stress tops the list. Stress-inducing experiences like meeting increasing and changing demands, dealing with difficult people, struggling to find work-life balance, and the poor performance of one’s leaders round out the top five challenges in the research we are doing at the VOCA Center.
WeWork can shine spotlights on it’s “loving Mondays” murals, websites like the Muse can advocate for finding your dream job, and Christian faith and work thinkers can repeat the word flourishing over and over, but the truth is most of us are trying to survive our jobs. As much as 70% of us report stress and stress-related challenges as a regular part of our work landscape.
This series of posts is devoted to destressing your work-life. As a start, we entertain three questions:
- What is stress?
- Why is stress bad for you?
- How do we cultivate hope in the face of work-life stress?
What is Stress?
Stress is chronically behaving
as if you’re under attack
When a person is in acute stress, they are experiencing prolonged levels of fight-flight-freeze responses to real or imagined threats in their environment. It is customary for each of us to face challenges and stressors in our external world. It is normal to experience feelings of arousal or intensified vigilance to meet these challenges. But when those factors trigger our limbic system all the time, or when we are triggered even when away from the actual stressors, then we are in a state of stress.
While it is possible that we face real threats to our wellbeing in a work environment—what is more likely is this: tension and uncertainty are arousing our self-protective wiring, what neurologists call the limbic or reptilian brain. We are reflexively reacting to survive, which means we fight, we flee, or we freeze.
Most of the time these reflexes fuel exaggeration of the negative, prevent careful listening to others, and feed rash statements and choices. Automatic stress responses hurt our work and hurt us at work.
Stress is Bad For You and Your Work
Stress decreases your work performance.
Stress hurts you physically and emotionally.
Stress hurts work performance. Stress is contagious. The ongoing stress reactions of your colleagues feed your stress reactions, and your stress reactions feed theirs. High levels of stress decrease the ability to problem solve because they increase irritability and decrease our attention spans. High levels of stress intensify procrastination, thus making solutions-focused progress more difficult. Stress is always linked to declines in productivity (which feeds more stress).
Stress at work hurts us. Short term symptoms include headaches, high blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, depression, loss of appetite, overeating, and increased use of alcohol and drugs. Long term, unresolved stress is linked to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders, higher incidents of workplace injury, and increased frequency of suicide, cancer, ulcers, and immune system decline.
Not a pretty picture. So how do we overcome work-life stress?
Finding Hope in the Face of Work-Life Stress
You’ll find plenty of advice on stress management—techniques which help you “care for yourself” and stay out in front of the symptoms of stress. While worthy of attention since our modern rhythm and diet often do more to amplify stress, I’ll be advocating for more than management.
First, in this series, we’ll suggest that there are spiritual roots to our stress. Stress is skyrocketing not because the majority are ignorant of the best techniques. It is rising because of the godless world we imagine ourselves in when we go off to work.
Second, we have to face the workplace amplifiers of the stress response. There are fairly predictable sources of work-related worry. By calling these stressors out, we can explore skills and techniques to neutralize them.
Finally, similar to our “stress-management” advocating colleagues, we will explore how beliefs and habits shape our capacity to metabolize the barrage of stressors we encounter at work each day.
Your work is stressful. At VOCA we see this first hand every day in our clients. We experience it in our work! We realize that the experience of stress, and our responses to it, are complex, and so the cure will be complex as well. A multiple dimension approach, routed in our creaturely reality, is a sure hope to make real progress on this monster robbing many of us focus and joy in our work.
- What are three ways you relate to the reality of stress at work?
- Will you help us customize this series? Please complete this 3-minute questionnaire about work-related stress. It will shape posts 5, 6, and 7. All answers are anonymous.
Take Our Job Stress Poll:
About the Author
Dr. Chip Roper writes Marketplace Faith from New York City, where he is the Founder and President of the VOCA Center. Chip is passionate about making work better by empowering clients with a keen sense of vocational identity. In service of this vision, Dr. Roper provides coaching, training, and consulting to individuals and organizations in NYC and beyond. Download information about his work as an executive coach and VOCA’s Calling Discernment Program, and visit our faith-based website at vocacenter.org and our market-facing menu of services at www.vocacenter.com.