Job stress can fray nerves, keep you up at night, and contribute to health problems such as heart disease and depression. “Chronic job strain can put both your physical and emotional health at risk,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, the president of the American Institute of Stress. Finding the source of your stress is the first step to fighting it, but that’s easier said than done. Fortunately, experts have identified specific work situations that are likely to make your blood boil. Which one of these stressed-out workers do you resemble?
The profile: You’re busy from the time you get to work until the time you leave, but you have little freedom while you’re there. You don’t have much say over how you do your job or the types of projects you work on, and you’re always on someone else’s schedule.
The solution: These types of jobs—known as “high-demand, low-control”—tend to cause a great deal of psychological strain, says Peter L. Schnall, MD, an occupational stress expert at the University of California at Irvine. Even if you can’t make your job less demanding, finding ways to get more involved in decision-making will help ease the stress, research suggests.
The profile: You work your tail off, but you feel you don’t receive enough credit—or compensation. With lots of sweat (and maybe a few tears), you’ve made your bosses look good. Still, you haven’t received a raise, a promotion, or sufficient recognition.
The solution: These so-called “effort-reward imbalances” are a recipe for stress, especially among very driven people who are eager for approval. Try discussing your career goals with your boss. You may not get the rewards you want right away, but you could gain some insight about how to improve your situation—and outlook.
The profile: You feel like you’re all alone, and not in a good way. If you require help or guidance, your boss won’t give it to you, and when you need to vent, you don’t have a trusted ally to turn to.
The solution: A good support system at work includes both practical support from your bosses (the resources and help you need to do your job well) and emotional support from colleagues. Too little of either could make you feel stranded on irritation island. Work on communicating your needs, both practical and emotional. If you want your boss’s help, be as specific (and persuasive) as possible, and make connecting with co-workers a priority.
The profile: You deal with demanding and verbally abusive customers, but through it all you’re expected—no, required—to swallow your resentment and maintain a facade of professionalism, calm, and courtesy.
The solution: “When there’s a discrepancy between your internal state and the roles you’re expected to play at work, you experience what researchers call ‘emotional labor,’” says Dr. Schnall. Ask your boss for advice or additional training on how to handle difficult customers without feeling demoralized. Doing your job without taking abuse personally will leave you feeling better about yourself.
The profile: Thanks to the Blackberry, cell phone, and laptop your company so generously provided, your boss can now reach you 24/7. You’re constantly (if virtually) connected to the office, and your work and personal life are indistinguishable.
The solution: “Technostress is an important and growing issue,” says Dr. Rosch, who is also a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College, in Valhalla, N.Y. To protect yourself from mental and physical strain, learn how to unplug (literally). Set aside blocks of time—between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., say—when you turn your electronics off and focus on clearing your head.
The profile: You’re terminally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, to the point where it becomes difficult to function. You feel as if you’re on the verge of a breakdown.
The solution: Although the word “burnout” is used loosely, the technical definition is severe exhaustion stemming from prolonged work-related stress. Burnout occurs most often in very charged, high-stakes work environments (such as ERs). But it can occur in just about any stressful job. If you’re experiencing burnout, discuss it with a supervisor and explore whether you can take time off or even a leave of absence.
The profile: Your boss insults you, gives you impossible deadlines, assigns you busywork just because she can, and dresses you down in front of your colleagues. Or you’ve seen her do those things to others—and you’re worried that you’re next.
The solution: Bullying isn’t restricted to the playground; it appears to be on the rise in offices too. If you feel you’re the victim of a bullying boss, you can try to mollify her. And if your co-workers share in your frustration, you can try confronting your tyrannical boss as a group. (There’s safety in numbers.) If that doesn’t work, document the bullying and raise your concerns with a superior or with HR.
The profile: Work just isn’t fair. Your boss plays favorites, management decisions are mystifying and arbitrary, and employees are treated like children.
The solution: Workplaces that aren’t fair, transparent, and respectful lack what’s known as “organizational justice,” and they’re likely to have stressed-out employees. “Pretty much anytime an individual feels they are being dealt with differently or unfairly, it places potentially harmful stress on them,” says Dr. Schnall. You only have so much control over the atmosphere at work. However, raising your concerns with a trusted superior or HR rep may leave you feeling less burned out—and less stressed.